Tuesday, 4 February 2014


Prison, institution designed to securely house people who have been convicted of crimes. These individuals, known as prisoners or inmates, are kept in continuous custody on a long-term basis. Individuals who commit the most serious crimes are sent to prison for one or more years; the more serious the offense, the longer the prison term imposed. For certain crimes, such as murder, offenders may be sentenced to prison for the remainder of their lifetime.
When individuals are accused of violating criminal law, they are tried in a court and either convicted (found guilty) or acquitted (found not guilty). A person who is convicted is then sentenced—that is, assigned a specific punishment. The sentence may involve fines, probation (supervised release), or incarceration (confinement). Judges may sentence first-time offenders to probation instead of incarceration. Offenders convicted of more serious crimes and those who have prior criminal records may be sentenced to incarceration in either a jail or a prison, depending on the nature of the crime. See also Criminal Procedure.
Prisons are also called penitentiaries. The word penitentiary was coined in the late 1700s because certain groups believed that through solitary religious study of the Bible, prisoners would become penitent (remorseful) and reform their behavior. The study of theories and practices of punishment is called penology. See also Criminology.
Although prison structures existed in ancient civilizations, the widespread use of long-term confinement as a form of criminal punishment began only in the 15th century. Today every industrialized nation has prisons, and the role of prisons throughout the world is to punish criminals by restricting their freedom. In most countries, governments construct and operate prison systems. However, several countries, including the United States, also authorize private corporations to build and run prisons under contract for the government.
Prisons differ from jails. Jails are facilities operated by local authorities and used to confine adult criminal offenders who receive short-term sentences (in the United States, sentences of less than one year). In addition, jails are used to temporarily house individuals awaiting trial, witnesses in protective custody, offenders charged with crimes in other jurisdictions, probation and parole violators, and juveniles awaiting transfer to juvenile facilities.
Prisons also differ from jails in ways besides the duration of confinement. Prisons have a distinctive inmate culture and jargon, whereas most jail populations constantly change due to turnover among jail inmates. Thus, little opportunity exists for jail inmates to develop a culture that is perpetuated over time. Because prisons house long-term offenders, they frequently offer vocational and educational programs for inmate rehabilitation and self-improvement. Most jails do not have such programs. Jails also lack other inmate amenities that exist in prisons, such as exercise facilities, small stores, and physicians, counselors, and other professionals on staff who treat or assist inmates in diverse ways.
The majority of jails in the United States are small, consisting of a single building with several tiers of cells and cell blocks (horizontal groupings of cells). Prison facilities, by contrast, usually spread out over several acres, with high walls surrounding the perimeter. Prisons are also divided into a complex arrangement of custody levels, where more-dangerous inmates are separated from less dangerous ones. In most prisons, sophisticated equipment is used to track inmate movements and promote compliance with prison rules. Armed guards occupy strategic positions in towers in an overlapping security arrangement to deter prisoners from escape attempts. Prisons and most jails in the United States segregate male and female inmates and juveniles. However, some jails—known as lock-ups—consist of one or two large cells into which all arrested individuals are placed.
Imprisonment serves several universal functions, including the protection of society, the prevention of crime, retribution (revenge) against criminals, and the rehabilitation of inmates. Additional goals of imprisonment may include the assurance of justice based on a philosophy of just deserts (getting what one deserves) and the reintegration of inmates into the community following their sentences. Different countries place greater emphasis on one or more of these goals than others. For example, prisons in the Scandinavian countries stress rehabilitation and offender reintegration. Although prisons in the United States also include rehabilitation and reintegration programs, U.S. penal philosophy emphasizes societal protection, crime deterrence, and just-deserts justice.
Differences among prison policies in various countries depend upon the society’s experience with managing criminals, as well as its experiments with different ways of correcting and improving prisoner behavior. Some countries’ programs foster changes among inmates better than others. Cultural differences also help explain why countries emphasize one imprisonment objective over others. For example, the prison system of Germany emphasizes strict discipline, reflecting a trait commonly ascribed to German culture. The administration of German prisons is military-like and rule-oriented. Consequently, inmates in German prisons experience a more highly regimented routine than inmates in most other prison systems in the world. For instance, until recently German prisons did not permit inmates any visitors.
A Societal Protection and Crime Deterrence
Locking up dangerous criminals or persistent nonviolent offenders means that society will be protected from them for the duration of their sentences. Thus, imprisoning criminals temporarily incapacitates them. Additionally, people expect that prisons will cause inmates to regret their criminal acts, and that when most prisoners are released they will be deterred from committing future crimes. Incarceration of criminals may also deter other individuals from engaging in criminal behavior due to the fear of punishment.
However, it is not possible to lock up all offenders who deserve to be incarcerated. Some criminals are never captured. Due to space and budget constraints, even those who are caught cannot all be imprisoned. Experts disagree about the relationship between the amount of people imprisoned and the amount of crime that occurs. Changes in the number of people imprisoned may reflect actual fluctuations in the amount of crime being committed. However, both figures may also be influenced by independent factors. To some degree, rates of imprisonment indicate how much space is available to accommodate offenders, rather than how much crime is being committed.
The United States has one of the world’s highest crime rates, as well as the world’s highest rate of incarceration. (To obtain current incarceration figures, refer to the table titled “Prison Population in the United States” accompanying this article or go to the Web site of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.) At the present rate of incarceration, more than five times the number of existing prisons (and those currently under construction) would be required to incarcerate all those convicted of crimes in the United States. Under a process known as selective incapacitation, the criminal justice system attempts to decide which offenders are most in need of incarceration. Legal factors—such as prior record, type of crime committed, and whether the crime involved injuries or death to victims—help to determine the appropriate sentence length or other punishment. However, different state and federal laws and practices create sentencing disparities. For example, some nonviolent and unthreatening offenders are incarcerated, whereas some dangerous offenders are placed on probation.
Furthermore, experts disagree about whether imprisoning criminals actually prevents further crime. Some critics charge that American prisons simply warehouse violence—meaning that U.S. prison inmates are confined and incapacitated in large numbers, with little or no effort made to rehabilitate them. Critics have labeled the result of this process turnstile justice, referring to the fact that most inmates are chronic and persistent offenders and return to prison following conviction for new crimes.
B Retribution
Punishing those who violate society’s rules satisfies a desire for vengeance or retribution. Conventional punishment for criminal conduct includes confining inmates in cells, restricting their freedom, and obligating them to follow rigid behavioral codes. People consider imprisonment an appropriate form of punishment for committing crimes, and believe that convicted offenders should receive their just deserts in accordance with societal rules. In the United States, the guarantee of due process requires that governments imprison offenders only in accordance with the rule of law. See Due Process of Law.
C Rehabilitation and Reintegration
Prisons attempt to rehabilitate inmates so they will avoid future criminal behavior. Most prisons have vocational and educational programs, psychological counselors, and an array of services available to assist inmates to improve their skills, education, and self-concept.
Most prisons provide programs designed to reintegrate the prisoner into the community. In work-release and study-release programs, prisoners may participate in work or educational activities outside of prison. As prisoners near their parole or release dates, some are permitted unescorted leaves or furloughs to visit with their families on weekends. This involvement with the community may help inmates readjust to society after they have been released.
The social structure of prisons and prison practices can actually impede rehabilitation and reintegration. For example, inmates acquire attitudes and knowledge from other inmates that may strengthen their desire to engage in criminal behavior and improve their criminal skills. The isolation of inmates from society also hinders attempts to rehabilitate them. Prison environments are unique and distinct from other populations. American sociologist Erving Goffman has described U.S. prisons as total institutions—that is, self-contained, self-sufficient social systems that are unique and distinct. Isolated within a total institution, inmates are cut off from the rights and responsibilities of society. This lack of connection with societal norms can prevent successful reintegration into society when inmates are released.
Although prisoners must abide by institutional rules, they also establish their own rules for themselves. Thus, a culture within a culture, or prison subculture, exists. This subculture has its own status structure and hierarchy of authority. In many prisons, inmates fear the informal prison subculture and its reprisals for rule violations more than formal administrative rules and punishments. If the prison subculture rejects the goals of the institution (such as rehabilitation), inmates are less likely to accept those goals.
Prisons throughout the world have many similarities. The prison site consists of buildings of various sizes surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire. The buildings are staffed by armed guards or correctional officers who maintain inmates under close supervision and control.
In the United States, prisons are funded and operated through state and federal taxes. The Federal Bureau of Prisons oversees all prisons and other facilities designed to incarcerate individuals convicted of violating federal laws. Some facilities operated by the federal government accommodate prisoners who have physical or mental ailments and are more like hospitals. In 1998 there were 93 federal institutions for the incarceration of criminals. In that same year the 50 U.S. states operated 1,430 state prisons. State prisons house inmates who have been convicted of violating state criminal laws.
Offenders who violate both state and federal laws may be prosecuted by either state or federal officials, or both. There is no special protocol that determines whether the federal or state judicial system will move first to charge and adjudicate the offender. Typically, if one level of government convicts and imprisons an offender, the other level of government will not pursue charges. For example, in 1997 a jury convicted Timothy McVeigh for murder under federal law for 167 deaths resulting from the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Oklahoma could also charge McVeigh for murder under state law. However, unless McVeigh’s federal conviction is overturned, there is no need for a state trial.
In Canada, a federal agency known as the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) oversees about 50 federal correctional facilities and 15 community correctional centers. The provinces and territories operate another 150 correctional facilities. Whereas Canadian federal facilities generally hold criminals sentenced to terms of two or more years, provincial and territorial prisons house inmates serving terms of less than two years.
In the United States and Canada, prisons are divided into tiers or units that house different types of offenders. Prison administrators differentiate offenders according to the degree of risk they pose to other inmates and to prison personnel. Criteria for assigning inmates to different custody levels include the person’s current conviction offense, prior record, history of violence, past institutional behavior, and sentence length. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Prisons uses a multilevel scale to determine an inmate’s custody level. Many state prisons use similar classification schemes. Canadian prisons also utilize a custody rating scale to place inmates in the properly rated prison.
Conventional custody levels include minimum-security, medium-security, and maximum-security, with each higher custody level involving closer supervision, more elaborate security, and more intensive inmate control. About 20 percent of all correctional institutions in the United States are multilevel, including minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security levels of custody within the same facility. Some multilevel facilities also include super-maximum security areas.
Some prisons in Canada and the United States are designed exclusively for women. Special facilities also exist to house juvenile wrongdoers. Other institutions are specifically equipped to provide medical services or psychological counseling and therapy to offenders with physical or mental ailments.
A Minimum-Security Prisons
Minimum-security prisons are designed to house low-risk, first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes. These institutions sometimes function as transitional housing for prisoners from maximum- or medium-security prisons who will soon be paroled. In 1998 minimum-security facilities made up about one-fifth of all U.S. prison space. About one-quarter of federal facilities in Canada are minimum-security.
Housing in minimum-security facilities is often dormitory-like, and the grounds and buildings of a minimum-security facility resemble a university campus. Inmates assigned to such facilities are trusted to comply with prison rules.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates many minimum-security facilities, including the prison at Eglin Air Force Base in Eglin, Florida, and the Federal Detention Center in Oakdale, Louisiana. State minimum-security facilities include a unit of the New Jersey State Prison at Jones Farm in West Trenton, New Jersey, and Walden Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina. Inmates involved in the minimum-security Medfield Massachusetts Prison Project work in hospital wards performing various chores. In Canada, Elbow Lake Institution in Harrison Mills, British Columbia, and Beaver Creek Institution in Gravenhurst, Ontario, are examples of minimum-security institutions.
B Medium-Security Prisons
One-fourth of all state and federal prisons in the United States are medium-security institutions. Government officials classify more than one-third of federal facilities in Canada as medium-security. Medium-security facilities are a catchall, because often both extremely violent and nonviolent offenders are placed in common living areas.
Inmates in medium-security facilities typically occupy cells that accommodate more than one prisoner. At medium-security facilities, freedom of movement, privileges (such as participation in sporting events), and access to various educational, vocational, or therapeutic programs are greatly restricted. Prison officials limit visitation and carefully monitor communication between inmates and visitors. The visiting parties face one another through a glass partition and speak on a telephone. Although medium-security facilities sometimes offer inmates opportunities for work release, furloughs, and other types of transitional programs, only a small percentage of prisoners are allowed to participate in these programs.
Examples of federal medium-security facilities in the United States include the federal correctional institutions in Tucson, Arizona, and Jesup, Georgia. Medium-security state prisons include Kinross Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan, and Noble Correctional Institution in Caldwell, Ohio. In Canada, Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ontario, and Stony Mountain Institution in Winnipeg, Manitoba, are two examples of medium-security prisons.
C Maximum-Security Prisons
Those sentenced to serve time in maximum-security facilities are usually the most dangerous, high-risk offenders. About 15 percent of all U.S. prisons are maximum-security institutions, while one-fifth of all federal facilities in Canada are similarly designated.
Maximum-security prisons have many stringent rules and restrictions. Inmates are isolated from one another in solitary cells for long periods. Maximum-security facilities have few amenities, and the cells are sparsely furnished. Closed-circuit video cameras enable correctional officers to observe prisoners in their cells or in work areas. Many maximum-security institutions confine prisoners to their cells for 23 hours a day, allowing them out for only a short period to shower and exercise.
The U.S. penitentiaries in Leavenworth, Kansas, and Terre Haute, Indiana, are examples of federal maximum-security facilities. Maximum-security state facilities include Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, and the Joliet Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois. In Canada, maximum-security prisons include Atlantic Institution in Renous, New Brunswick, and Edmonton Institution in Edmonton, Alberta.
D Super-Max or Maxi-Maxi Prisons
In the United States, the highest security-level facilities are super-max or maxi-maxi prisons. Also called “control units,” these prisons or areas within prisons have extraordinarily severe restrictions. Human contact is minimal. Inmates are kept in solitary confinement in small (typically six feet by eight feet) cells for long periods each day. They eat alone in their cells. No opportunities for work or socialization exist. Outdoor recreation is permitted only once a week. Restraints such as leg irons are used whenever inmates leave their cells.
The United States Federal Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, constructed in 1963, was the first designated super-maximum facility. Those sentenced to Marion include the most violence-prone and dangerous prisoners and those most inclined to escape. Many of the inmates in Marion have been transferred there after committing murder while in other prisons.
In October 1983, prisoners at Marion killed two correctional officers. Authorities then imposed a “lockdown” at the prison. Under the lockdown, which was still in effect in early 1999, inmates remain in solitary confinement 23.5 hours a day. In 1985 a group of citizens formed an organization to protest conditions at Marion. The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown works to end restrictive prison conditions in Marion and other super-max prisons, as well as to eliminate perceived racism in U.S. prison policy.
Maxi-maxi or super-max prisons account for less than 5 percent of all U.S. penitentiaries. Canada does not have a comparable type of prison facility.
E Prisons for Women
The vast majority of female prisoners in the United States are held in women-only facilities. About one-fifth of all female inmates are housed in co-ed facilities—that is, prisons that accommodate both male and female offenders. Interaction between male and female inmates at coed prisons is minimal and men and women share only certain vocational, technical, or educational resources and recreational facilities. Female inmates are housed in units that are entirely separate from units for male inmates during evening hours.
The first U.S. prison exclusively for women, known as the Mount Pleasant Female Prison, was established in 1837 in Ossining, New York. Because there were few female criminals and housing them in predominantly male facilities cost less than building prisons exclusively for women, subsequent construction of women’s prisons proceeded slowly; only 17 were constructed between 1873 and 1940. Roughly 20 more were built between 1940 and 1979. During the 1980s and 1990s, more than 75 women's prisons—representing more than two-thirds of the total number of such institutions—have been constructed in the United States. United States facilities exclusively for female inmates include the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington, and the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, Minnesota.
Some experts refer to female prisoners as the “forgotten offenders” because correctional institutions and state and federal lawmakers have primarily focused on the male inmate population. Governments have provided few facilities and minimal services for female inmates. For instance, women have not had access to various rehabilitation programs that have been available to male offenders, such as job training and psychological counseling. However, in recent years, favorable court rulings and general policy changes in state and federal corrections in the United States have improved conditions for women inmates somewhat. The number of women-only prisons and the types of rehabilitation programs have expanded greatly. Despite these achievements, most prisons in the United States remain dominated by policies and services targeted to male offenders. The American Correctional Association, a national organization of criminal justice professionals, recommends that prisons establish a parity of services for male and female offenders. Recommended programs for female inmates include child and family services, support for pregnant women, career counseling, vocational training for jobs not traditionally held by women, and a full range of probation and parole programs.
In 1999 Amnesty International, a private human rights organization, issued a report expressing concerns about the treatment of female inmates in U.S. prisons. The organization reported widespread complaints of sexual abuse and rape and criticized the practice of allowing male officers to supervise female inmates. Amnesty International also concluded that female inmates in the United States do not receive adequate health care.
In 1998 Canada operated seven federal prisons exclusively for women, five of which had been constructed since 1995. The oldest federal facility, built in 1934, is the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario. Provincial and territorial facilities for women include Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portage Correctional Institute for Women in Portage, Manitoba.
Canadian prison programs for female inmates include counseling on abuse, general education and employment training, substance abuse education and counseling, literacy programs, and parenting classes. Some programs target aboriginal women and their special needs.
F Juvenile Correctional Institutions
In the United States and Canada, minors (individuals who have not reached the legal age of adulthood) are not sent to prisons with adults. Instead, they are housed in facilities known as juvenile correctional institutions. Most individuals incarcerated in such facilities are minors who have committed acts that would also be crimes if adults committed them—for example, theft, robbery, rape, and murder. These individuals are known as juvenile delinquents. Some institutions also house status offenders—that is, minors who have committed acts that would not be crimes if adults committed them, but which are prohibited to minors. Examples of such acts include running away from home, violating a curfew, and truancy (missing school).
In the United States, the federal government has no correctional institutions or judicial means for prosecuting and confining juveniles. However, juvenile correctional institutions exist in every U.S. state, and various local family and juvenile courts adjudicate juvenile offenses. Some states operate industrial schools or reform-oriented institutions that are designed to accommodate minors.
Similarly, Canada has no federal facilities for juveniles. Canadian juvenile offenders are maintained in territorial and provincial community facilities. Canadian provinces have Young Offender Centres, where staff members supervise youths between the ages of 12 and 17 in a variety of community-based programs.
Typically, judges avoid the option of incarceration as much as possible in cases involving juveniles, using it only after repeated offenses or in the case of serious and violent delinquents. Decisions by judges are highly individualized and depend upon each set of circumstances. Judges determine length of incarceration based on various factors, including the nature of the offense and the offender’s prior record. However, compared with adult offenders, juveniles spend shorter periods of time incarcerated. In most jurisdictions, juveniles must be released from confinement after they reach adulthood unless their delinquent offenses are accompanied by special circumstances, such as death or serious injury to victims.
Correctional institutions for juveniles may be secure or nonsecure. Secure institutions for juveniles are similar to prisons for adults. However, most juvenile institutions have dormitory-like atmospheres and individual rooms similar to those on college campuses. Officials lock juveniles up at night and require them to participate in various programs during daytime hours. These programs may include basic education, vocational and technical training, and counseling on an individual or group basis. Nonsecure settings may be camps or ranches where youths participate in supervised outdoor activities and learn various skills. See also Juvenile Crime.
G Medical Facilities
In the United States, institutions known as Federal Medical Centers house inmates at all security levels from any institution in the federal prison system who require medical, surgical, or psychiatric care. Some states have special medical prisons that resemble hospitals, complete with medical staffs and other appropriate amenities. These facilities serve inmates with communicable diseases that require their separation and segregation from the general inmate population. Elderly and infirm inmates may also be housed in special state prisons where they may obtain special treatments and physical therapy. Finally, state psychiatric prisons house offenders with various forms of mental illness.
H Boot Camps
Since the mid-1980s many jurisdictions have implemented highly regimented, short-term correctional programs resembling some aspects of military basic training. These programs, known as boot camps or shock incarceration, serve as an alternative to long-term traditional incarceration. Typically, boot camps target younger offenders who resist authority and refuse to listen or learn in traditional classroom or treatment environments. At boot camps, offenders are subjected to strict discipline, physical training, and hard labor. Most boot camps exclude offenders with violent crime convictions or who have previously been incarcerated. Offenders typically volunteer to participate in boot camps to avoid other types of incarceration. The usual length of incarceration in boot camps ranges from three to six months.
The Georgia Department of Corrections officially established the first boot camp in 1983. By 1999 correctional agencies in 32 U.S. states operated 56 boot camps. A few boot camps also exist in Canada.
Like other institutions, prisons contain a leadership and authority structure responsible for governing and operating the prison. At the top of this hierarchy is the warden, also known as the superintendent or chief administrator. Deputy wardens typically assist in administrative duties. Correctional officers manage and control the inmates.
Stress is pervasive among prison personnel. Stress is a nonspecific physical and emotional response to perceived threats to one’s well-being. For correctional officers, stress stems from several sources, including job dissatisfaction, officer-inmate interactions, paperwork and performance pressures, low self-esteem and public image, and job risks and liabilities. In the United States, violence by inmates against staff is relatively high. For example, in 1997 officials recorded more than 14,000 assaults by inmates in U.S. prisons. In Canada, one assault by an inmate on a staff member was reported in 1997.
Stress may cause burnout, a syndrome of emotional exhaustion and detachment from one’s work. Stress and burnout are especially likely to occur during the first year of a correctional officer's job. Symptoms of burnout may include poorer job performance. Burnout among officers may also result in increased turnover of personnel. Annual turnover rates of prison personnel in the United States range as high as 38 percent, with an average across all prison systems of 14 percent. Canadian correctional officer turnover rates average less than 10 percent annually.
A Administrators
The responsibilities of prison wardens include hiring and firing personnel, implementing new correctional policies, insuring the safety of prisoners and staff, and establishing regulations to deal effectively with rule infractions by staff or inmates. However, no single administrative style characterizes the typical prison warden or superintendent. No uniformity exists among the states about how each prison should be managed and what rules should govern the behavior of correctional officers. In general, fixed and limited correctional budgets impose serious constraints that prevent administrators from being fully effective in the performance of their tasks.
Prison administrators come from diverse backgrounds. Often, former correctional personnel are appointed to warden positions after many years of service in other correctional capacities. Wardens, superintendents, and other prison managers are typically hired or appointed by governors.
The vast majority of prison administrators in the United States are men. Women make up only 20 percent of all administrative prison staff. In a private study of more than 1,500 wardens in the United States, researchers determined that wardens serve an average of about three years. Those with the longest tenure served an average of 13 years. According to this study, about 82 percent of wardens have completed some college and 15 percent possess advanced degrees. Most wardens are between the ages of 39 and 45.
B Correctional Officers
Prisons in the United States employ approximately 190,000 correctional officers. About two-thirds of all correctional officers are white and about one-fifth are female. Although only one-third of all correctional officers are nonwhite, more than two-thirds of all inmates are racial or ethnic minorities.
Most correctional officer applicants receive several weeks of training. Prisons administer preemployment screenings to detect illegal drug use or prior criminal records of applicants. A significant proportion of prison systems subject applicants to psychological testing.
For inmates, one of the fundamental consequences of their imprisonment is the lack of control over decisions about their activities. This lack of autonomy is evident in nearly all aspects of prison life.
Prisoners have virtually no privacy and are observable at all times by different forms of surveillance. In medium-security and maximum-security prisons, correctional officers constantly regulate and monitor inmates with state-of-the-art equipment, including video cameras and sound-detection mechanisms. This loss of liberty and privacy represents an extreme change from life in the community.
A Rules and Regulations
A set of rigid rules and regulations governs all inmate activity, including recreation and meals. Many of these rules attempt to prevent or reduce violence. Because of the diversity of races, ethnicities, and ages of prison inmates, as well as chronic overcrowding, officials expect inmate violence. Nevertheless, prison violence in the United States rose dramatically in the 1990s. Correction officials recorded nearly 30,000 inmate assaults on other inmates in 1997. Some state prisons, such as those in South Carolina, have successfully mitigated violence by segregating weaker prisoners from more violent and sexually aggressive inmates during evening hours.
Violence among prisoners also declines when prisoner participation in special services—such as prison jobs and self-help programs—is high. Prison officials also manipulate prisoners and control their violent conduct through staff reports and recommendations. These reports directly influence an inmate's good-time credit—that is, the amount of time officials deduct from a prisoner’s sentence in exchange for cooperative behavior. Inmates who violate prison rules receive write-ups or misconduct slips that become a part of their permanent institutional record.
Accumulating write-ups can adversely affect a prisoner’s parole chances. On the other hand, inmates who obey the prison rules earn good-time credits. Good-time credits are awarded at the rate of 15 or 30 days off of one's maximum sentence for every 30 days served. Thus, with good behavior, inmates may facilitate their early release. Some analysts criticize sentencing guidelines that provide mandatory minimum sentences or require inmates to serve a percentage of the sentence regardless of their behavior while in prison. These guidelines, adopted by many states since the 1970s, eliminate the use of good-time credit as an incentive for cooperation.
Inmate disciplinary councils provide another method of inmate control. These councils exist apart from the official prison sanctioning mechanisms (such as write-ups) and are found in all state and federal prisons in the United States. The councils consist of a number of inmates and one or two prison correctional officers. Inmate disciplinary councils serve as an impartial third-party arbiter to settle inmate grievances.
Inmate compliance or noncompliance with prison rules and regulations also depends on the development of an inmate code of conduct. Inmates form their own codes of conduct independent of prison regulations. These codes are typically established and enforced by dominant inmates. In his 1940 book The Prison Community, former correctional officer Donald Clemmer describes the process of inmate socialization he terms prisonization. When new inmates—or 'fish'—arrive, other more seasoned inmates take them aside and acquaint them with the do's and don'ts of life in prison.
In 1970 American sociologists Gresham Sykes and Sheldon Messinger described the basic tenets of an inmate code of conduct based on their observations of prison life. Other research confirms these maxims as enduring and widespread. The maxims include: (1) Do not rat or squeal on other inmates; (2) do not interfere with the interests of other inmates; (3) do not steal from, exploit, or cheat other inmates; (4) do not be a “sucker” or make a fool of yourself by supporting prison policies; (5) do not lose your cool; and (6) be a man, be tough, and don't weaken. Inmates who violate these codes will be scorned or harmed by other inmates.
In various prisons, the presence of racially or ethnically dominant groups of inmates influences the enforcement of these codes. In 1974 American sociologist Leo Carroll noted the gradual influence of race and ethnicity on inmate cohesiveness and power during his observation of a small state prison in a highly urban and industrial Eastern state. Carroll found that prisoners formed cohesive associations among themselves primarily along racial lines.
B Meals
Approximately 40 percent of all U.S. prisons contract with food service providers. The others operate their own food services. Prisons provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner for inmates. These meals consist of standard foods such as eggs, bacon, toast, sandwiches, coffee, milk, vegetables, meat, chicken, or fish. Meals are served at specific times and food is not available between meals.
Prisons design meals for inmates to be nutritious and balanced. While all meals include some variety and prisoners can select from limited choices, generally prisoners must eat whatever prisons serve. Prison staff make exceptions in food choices for some prisoners, depending upon the inmates’ religious beliefs and ethnic customs. However, prison administration and operation require close regulation of all inmate services, including meals. Consequently, a prisoner's meal choices are limited to established meal plans.
C Privileges and Recreation
Almost every prison has a library and exercise yard. Other amenities vary, and may include basketball and handball courts, baseball fields, tracks, and weightlifting rooms. Some prisons offer stores where inmates may purchase toiletries and other items.
Inmate access to these different facilities and privileges depends on the inmates’ level of custody. Inmates in maximum-security institutions have the fewest liberties and privileges, while inmates in minimum-security facilities have the greatest range of privileges. Inmates under a general lockdown are only permitted one half-hour per day for limited solitary exercise and showers. Under less stringent conditions, inmates may utilize privileges at particular times and for specified periods during daytime hours.
Some people criticize the policy of permitting prisoners access to recreational activities. They fear that inmates will return to society stronger and more dangerous than when originally incarcerated. In response, some prisons have eliminated inmate access to such recreational activities as weight training, boxing, and other sports that can enhance physical strength.
D Social Interaction
Social interaction for prisoners occurs under different conditions depending on an inmate’s security level. Many prisoners are maintained in maximum-security cells, isolated from all other inmates. Inmates in the general population may participate in competitive sports such as football and baseball, and intramural sporting events are scheduled regularly. Inmates also socialize in the general exercise yard. Inmates and prison staff rarely interact directly, since it is the function of correctional officers to maintain order, supervise, and regulate inmate behavior.
Almost every inmate is permitted visits from family members at different intervals. Conjugal visits—that is, visits where sexual intercourse between inmates and their spouses may occur—are customary throughout the world, particularly in the Scandinavian countries and South America. In Canada, most prisoners are permitted private family visits once every two months for periods of up to 72 hours. Prisons in the United States do not generally permit conjugal visits. In 1998 only six states—California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, and Washington—allowed inmates conjugal visits with their spouses. In these jurisdictions, prison administrators consider conjugal visits a special privilege earned through good conduct. In most U.S. states, prison officials are reluctant to permit conjugal visits because these visits may permit exchanges of contraband and illegal drugs. Officials must weigh the security risks of conjugal visits against the benefit of allowing prisoners to engage in heterosexual activity. Many believe that the lack of heterosexual activity in prisons contributes to increased homosexual activity among inmates.
Gangs exist in every U.S. prison, and they tend to form along racial or ethnic lines. The influence of prison gangs formed according to racial, ethnic, or even religious affiliation has become increasingly important as a means of perpetuating and preserving inmate subculture. Inmate subcultures and gangs are also pervasive in prisons internationally, existing in countries such as Poland, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Japan.
Many of these prison gangs have evolved elaborate social organizations and hierarchies of authority. In many respects, these gangs have taken the control of prisoners away from prison administrators. Gangs create a network of members able to harm those who violate their code or who resist them. The penalties the formal prison system can inflict often pose less of a threat to individual prisoners than the dangers posed by gangs.
E Health Care
All inmates of U.S. and Canadian prisons or jails are entitled to necessary health care and medical attention. Prisons in the United States and Canada provide a wide array of medical services for inmates. Medical staffs include physicians, nurses, psychiatrists, dentists, pharmacists, and others who are available on-call to treat inmate injuries or illnesses. Inmates in need of intricate surgical procedures are transported to local hospitals. Furthermore, if prisons do not have adequate medical centers, nearby clinics and hospitals in communities and cities may be used as needed.
In the United States, about half of all states pay inmate health care costs through state taxes. The remainder of the states charge inmates for their own health care. Inmates pay for their health care from modest earnings from prison labor.
Since the 1980s the average age of inmates in U.S. prisons has gradually increased. As a result, larger numbers of offenders now need special medical treatments and prescriptions. The demand for medical and psychiatric services has increased correspondingly. Prison administrators also face the growing problem of the rapid spread of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV is often transmitted sexually, and crowded prisons provide prime settings for AIDS epidemics.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 1995 more than 24,000 prisoners (2.3 percent of all state and federal inmates) tested positive for HIV. The overall rate of confirmed AIDS cases among the American inmate population in 1995 was more than six times the rate in the general U.S. population. Although testing procedures vary among state and federal prisons, all facilities conduct some level of testing for HIV or AIDS. Most jurisdictions test inmates who have symptoms of HIV infection or who request a test. However, about one-third of the states test all new inmates entering their facilities and several states have tested all the inmates currently in custody.
Prisons in the United States have addressed the issue of AIDS in a variety of ways. Responses include physically isolating prisoners who test positive for HIV, distributing condoms to prisoners who wish to engage in sexual relations with other inmates, and hospitalizing HIV-positive inmates. Despite the preventive measures taken by prisons to isolate and eliminate transmission of the AIDS virus, the number of HIV-infected prisoners continued to grow during the 1990s.
F Prison Labor
In the United States all federal prisoners must work if they are able, and they are paid a small wage for their labor. Each state has its own policy concerning prison labor. Some critics view prison labor as exploitation of inmates, while others view it as beneficial because it significantly reduces inmate idleness.
Some inmates who are capable of working are employed within the institution, performing such tasks as food preparation and building maintenance. A small proportion of prisoners participate in prison industries—for-profit enterprises that produce a wide range of goods and services. In most jurisdictions, being assigned to work in prison industries constitutes a privilege. In 1998 nearly 80,000 state and federal inmates participated in for-profit prison industries. These industries manufactured a variety of goods, including agricultural products, garments and textiles, wood products, and furniture.
Through prison labor programs, some inmates learn skills that may help them find jobs in the private sector. Prison officials often assist inmates in job placements following release. Prison work teaches assorted skills, such as carpentry, computer programming, drafting, and electronics. Not all inmate labor is performed behind prison walls. In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the Howard Johnson Company has established a reservations center for its hotels and motels. Several inmates from the nearby Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, a multiple-security-level facility for women, work as receptionists in this center.
G Rehabilitative Programs
Almost every U.S. and Canadian prison operates programs that are considered a part of inmate rehabilitation. Most prisons offer counseling and educational programs designed to help inmates with drug or alcohol dependencies or mental health problems. However, a study by the U.S. Department of Justice reports that while the proportion of inmates who had used drugs prior to arrest increased somewhat during the 1990s, the proportion of inmates receiving drug abuse treatment substantially declined. Similarly, although experts estimate that prisoners with mental health problems make up more than half of the U.S. inmate population, only 5 percent of all prison inmates participate in mental health programs. About 2 percent of all prison inmates participate in sex offender programs and receive individual or group counseling and other forms of professional assistance.
Many inmates lack basic employment skills when they enter prison. The majority of prisons offer inmates a variety of educational and vocational-technical services. Under most conditions, inmates may voluntarily participate in these programs for purposes of self-improvement. About one-fifth of all U.S. state prison inmates participate in some form of educational or vocational-technical program. In federal prisons in the United States, one-fourth of all prisoners are involved in similar programs. Participation in rehabilitative programs varies considerably among state prisons. In Arizona, for instance, 70 percent of all inmates participate in rehabilitative programs. In contrast, less than 5 percent of all inmates in Nebraska and Florida participate in such programs.
Critics contend that prisons generally fail to rehabilitate a majority of inmates. On the average, two-thirds of all inmates who are incarcerated in prisons commit new crimes when they are released. Furthermore, some inmates exploit the vocational and educational programs offered to them. Some prisoners participate simply to impress parole board members, who often look favorably on an inmate's involvement in these programs.
Historians note the existence of prisons in ancient Greece and Rome. For example, the Mamertine Prison, constructed in Rome in the 7th century bc, consisted of a vast network of dungeons under the city’s main sewer. These subterranean cells held political dissidents and criminals for short periods of time in cramped, miserable conditions. However, the practice of confining wrongdoers for long periods as a form of punishment was not widespread until after the 15th century.
Until the late Middle Ages (5th to 15th century), wrongs committed against the state and citizens were frequently handled privately under the principle of lex talionis, the law of retaliation. Revenge often involved physical torture and maiming. Governments and religious authorities also used corporal punishment (the infliction of physical pain) on wrongdoers. For many years the most serious criminals were sentenced to death. The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, was also common for many trivial offenses.
Colonists in North America patterned their forms of punishment on those used in Europe. They used the death penalty freely, executing numerous criminals for a wide spectrum of offenses. The colonists also utilized a variety of corporal punishments, such as branding and whipping. In 1632 the Massachusetts Bay Colony constructed the colony’s first jail, a simple wooden building designed to house small numbers of criminals.
A Confinement as Punishment
During the 15th century, particularly in Scotland and England, the first prisons that housed large numbers of offenders for long periods began to appear. Local governments established numerous debtors' prisons to confine individuals who could not pay their bills. These prisons also housed social misfits and criminals and kept them isolated from society. Early institutions were principally custodial, serving merely to house and guard prisoners. Conditions were miserable since officials considered it wasteful to feed and clothe outlaws who would either die a natural death or be executed anyway.
Influential mercantile interests soon transformed Scottish and English debtors’ prisons into profitable enterprises. These so-called houses of correction, or workhouses, functioned as slave labor camps, where unpaid prisoners produced marketable goods cheaply. The Bridewell workhouse, established in the mid-1500s to house London's undesirables, is a notorious example of such institutions. In theory, Bridewell and other workhouses like it were established to help prisoners acquire special skills through their labor as craftspeople. In reality, these workhouses represented private profiteering where workhouse officials and mercantile interests benefited greatly from the unpaid labor of the prisoners. The workhouse concept continued well into the 1700s.
B Prison Reform
In the 1770s British social reformer John Howard criticized prison conditions and the exploitation of prisoners in England. Howard visited several countries to inspect their prison systems and reported his experiences and observations to politicians in England. His work helped influence the British Parliament to pass penal reform legislation. Under the Penitentiary Act of 1779, the British government established new facilities to house prisoners in individual, sanitary cells and provide them adequate food and clothing. Lawmakers believed that through hard labor and productive work prisoners could be made to realize the seriousness and consequences of their actions.
British penal methods influenced the development and growth of prisons in the United States. Historians consider the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to be the first U.S. prison that attempted to rehabilitate offenders, rather than simply punish them. The Walnut Street Jail was built in 1790 on a site previously occupied by the High Street Jail. Conditions at the High Street Jail typified prisoner treatment in the United States at that time. Officials routinely combined men and women into one overcrowded locked area, with straw strewn on the floor for sleeping. Inmates lived in deplorable conditions, since there was no systematic way of ridding cells of human waste. Prison administrators made no attempt to protect prisoners from one another. Sexual exploitation, rape, and other forms of aggression were commonplace.
In contrast, administrators operated the Walnut Street Jail according to rehabilitative principles. Prison officials separated men from women and children during evening hours in reasonably clean, solitary cells and encouraged humane treatment of inmates. In 1787 a group of Christians known as the Society of Friends (or Quakers) established the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. The Quakers, who considered the main objective of jails and prisons to be reformation, significantly influenced the philosophy and operation of Walnut Street Jail. Key elements of the Quaker jail plan included basic education and religious instruction in the Quaker faith.
Administrators of the Walnut Street Jail also incorporated some of the ideas of American statesman and physician Benjamin Rush. Rush believed that punishment had three legitimate purposes: to reform offenders, to prevent them from committing future crimes, and to remove them from society temporarily until they developed a repentant attitude. The pattern of discipline and offender treatment practiced at the Walnut Street Jail became known as the Pennsylvania System. Hallmarks of this system included the use of solitary confinement, periods of silence for meditation, religious study, promoting repentance as a goal, and rehabilitative work. The Pennsylvania System was incorporated into the Western Penitentiary (built in Pittsburgh in 1818) and the Eastern Penitentiary (built in Philadelphia in 1929).
In 1816 New York constructed the Auburn State Penitentiary, which contained tiers where inmates were housed on several different levels according to their age and the seriousness of their offense. The Auburn State Penitentiary used some features of the Walnut Street Jail, such as housing inmates in individual cells at night. However, cells were poorly lit and unsanitary. Guards strictly enforced silence among inmates and implemented harsh physical punishment to ensure compliance with prison rules.
In an innovation known as the congregate system, officials at Auburn permitted inmates to work and eat their meals together during daylight hours. Dining rooms were patterned after large military mess halls, and large work areas accommodated several hundred inmates. Prisoners wore different uniforms to set them apart from one another. The stereotypical striped uniform of prison inmates began as a novelty at Auburn, which was widely copied as well. More than half of all state prisons patterned their structures after the Auburn System during the next half century, including the style of prison dress and manner of separating offenders according to the seriousness of their crimes.
Auburn prisoners helped to defray a portion of their housing and food costs through their labor. Prison officials contracted with various manufacturers and retailers who purchased prison goods. Thus, prison industry was a mutually beneficial enterprise—prison officials considered prisoner labor as worthwhile and rehabilitative, and the prisons also profited from prisoner-made goods.
C Growth of the U.S. Prison System
Between 1816 and 1900, states established many new prisons. Ohio opened the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus in 1834. In 1839 Michigan established the largest state prison of that time in Jackson. Many of the early state penitentiaries were built in areas with large populations. For example, California established the San Quentin prison near San Francisco in 1852. The Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet (near Chicago) was built in 1860. The Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater (near Boston) was constructed in 1855, and the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City (near South Bend) was built in 1860.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) indirectly changed the structure and purpose of prisons, particularly in the South. Following the war, the abolition of slavery and the drastic depletion of cheap labor adversely affected the Southern economy. Many Southern states established prisons that exploited inmate labor through various leasing arrangements with private businesses and governments. Inmates in Southern prisons worked in cotton fields, repaired state roads, and engaged in other constructive work. Outside the South many people, including some prison authorities, became increasingly critical of such practices, which they considered exploitation. Although Southern prisons gradually changed their operations to emulate those of other regions of the country, especially during the 1940s, modern prison industry retains an element of prisoner exploitation. However, today prison inmates who engage in manual labor are paid wages.
D Reformatories and Rehabilitation
A new era of correctional reform began with the establishment of the Elmira State Reformatory in Elmira, New York, in 1876. The Elmira Reformatory experimented with new rehabilitative philosophies. Because it incorporated the latest, state-of-the-art scientific advancements in correctional methods, criminologists considered Elmira “the new penology.” For example, officials directed prisoners into productive activities—including educational and vocational-technical programs—where their good behavior and productivity could earn them time off of their sentence. To instill discipline in inmates and help reform them, Elmira officials implemented a military model. Prisoners were trained in close-order drill, wore military uniforms, and marched about with wooden rifles.
At Elmira, officials attempted to address the needs of individual prisoners, rather than merely warehouse large groups of offenders. Another innovation at Elmira was the large-scale use of indeterminate sentencing. A prisoner who receives an indeterminate sentence is confined to prison for a range of years. The actual amount of time served is determined by a parole board, based on the inmate’s behavior while in prison.
The reformatory concept, however, did not reform significant numbers of inmates and slowly died out during the early 1900s. States built vast new prisons to replace reformatories. Increasing numbers of prisons were built with prison labor in mind. States constructed prison factories in new prisons and established prison industries. In rural areas, prison farms flourished. Inmates worked in fields and assisted with the harvesting of crops.
Despite the demise of the reformatory, the goal of rehabilitation became an accepted tenet of penal philosophy. From 1900 to 1970 rehabilitation-oriented prisons provided psychological services, counseling, vocational and technical training, education, and other services aimed at improving inmate self-esteem. Experts generally agree that little rehabilitation among inmates actually occurred. Since the 1970s, U.S. prisons have reduced the scope and availability of rehabilitative programs.
Prisons today face difficult problems of operation and management. At the heart of many problems is prison overcrowding. Overcrowded conditions lead to many secondary problems, including increased litigation by prisoners and their advocates. Faced with rapidly expanding prison populations, some governments, seeking to shrink their expenditures, have attempted to involve the private sector in prison operation. This privatization of prisons, in turn, poses new challenges.
A Overcrowding
Overcrowded conditions exist in every U.S. prison system. Officials determine whether a prison is overcrowded by comparing the inmate population to various criteria that indicate the capacity of the institution. Rated capacity refers to the number of beds or inmates assigned by a rating official to an institution. Operational capacity is the total number of inmates that can be accommodated based on the size of a facility's staff, programs, and other services. Design capacity is the optimum number of inmates that architects originally intended to be housed or accommodated by the facility. Prison overcrowding occurs whenever the inmate population exceeds either the rated capacity, operational capacity, or design capacity.
In 1998 U.S. prisons operated at an average of 15 percent over their rated capacities. Some prison systems experienced much greater overcrowding than others. In 1998 prisons in Nebraska operated at 58 percent over capacity. In Massachusetts, state prisons operated at 54 percent over capacity. In Missouri, the prison system was only 7 percent over capacity.
Overcrowding in prisons is associated with violent deaths, suicides, mental illness, and disciplinary infractions. Overcrowding also contributes to increased litigation by inmates and dissatisfaction among correctional officers. Finally, overcrowding increases likelihood of the spread of AIDS. Although most U.S. states have ongoing new prison construction to accommodate growing numbers of convicts, the overcrowding crisis is pervasive and unlikely to be resolved in the immediate future. Prisons in the United States fill as soon as they are constructed.
A1 Reasons for Overcrowding
Prisons in the United States are crowded because a greater proportion of the American population is being sent to prison and because inmates remain in prison longer. Mandatory sentencing policies, which eliminate the possibility of probation or other alternatives to incarceration, contribute to this growing offender population. For example, California and other states have a so-called three-strikes-and-you're-out sentencing policy. Under this policy offenders convicted of their third violent felony (the third strike) receive a mandatory life sentence without any possibility of parole. Mandatory sentences also apply to those convicted of using a dangerous weapon when committing a felony. Other laws also impose life sentences on nonviolent habitual offenders. Additionally, legislators have passed laws to guarantee that convicted drug offenders will receive longer sentences.
Policies that keep offenders in prison longer also contribute to prison overcrowding. Most states and the federal government have adopted sentencing practices that extend the average length of confinement for most inmates. Various states have changed their sentencing policies in order to obtain federal funding for their correctional and law enforcement services. In exchange for federal funds, states are obligated to make inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole. Numerous states have eliminated parole. Maine was the first state to abolish parole in 1976. Since parole no longer exists as a method by which inmates can receive early release, the inmate populations in these states have escalated. All of these changes in how offenders are punished have generally extended prison terms and increased prison overcrowding.
A2 Responses to Overcrowding
Governments have devised several strategies to lessen or minimize prison overcrowding. Some of these methods are front-door solutions, meaning they pertain to policies and practices by criminal justice officials who deal with offenders before and during sentencing. Other responses are back-door solutions, involving strategies to reduce inmate populations through early release.
One example of a front-door solution is greater use of diversion. In diversion programs, prosecutors temporarily suspend prosecution of a case for a period of time in which the offender must meet certain conditions, such as remaining employed or drug-free. If the conditions are met, the case may be dropped or the charge may be reduced. Supporters of front-door solutions advocate greater use of probation by judges and more recommendations by prosecutors for leniency. Advocates of front-door solutions also suggest that courts emphasize restitution, community service, victim compensation (payments to the victim for losses resulting from the crime), and fines as the primary punishments, rather than incarceration. Other front-door solutions include greater use of plea bargaining; limiting incarceration to only those offenders deemed most dangerous; assigning judges a fixed number of prison spaces so that they might rearrange their sentencing priorities and incarcerate only the most serious offenders; and decriminalizing certain offenses to narrow the range of crimes for which offenders can be incarcerated.
An increasingly popular back-door solution to prison overcrowding has been to use local jails in selected jurisdictions as accommodations for prison inmate overflow. Various state prisons and the Federal Bureau of Prisons contract with large local jails to house some of their inmate overflow for a specific per-prisoner/per-day fee. Due to prison overcrowding, local jails house about 3 percent of all individuals sentenced to prison in the United States. Other back-door proposals include easing the eligibility criteria for early release or parole; changing the criteria for revoking parole in order to encourage fewer parole violations; allowing the governor or other officials to shorten the sentences of selected offenders; and expanding the number of community programs, including the use of intensively supervised parole for more serious offenders.
A3 Legal Challenges to Overcrowding
Inmates who have brought lawsuits alleging that overcrowding violates various provisions of the Constitution of the United States have achieved little success. In 1979 the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Bell v. Wolfish, which involved overcrowding in a federal institution in New York. Although the facility was designed to house persons awaiting trial in individual cells, overcrowding soon caused officials to place two or more inmates in each cell. Inmates alleged that this double-bunking constituted punishment rather than mere confinement for the sake of ensuring their presence at trial. They argued that such punishment was impermissible prior to a determination of their guilt because it deprived them of their liberty without due process of law. The Court held that because of the short-term nature of the confinement at the facility, such double-bunking was not punitive and did not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Two years later, state prison inmates in Ohio sued the Ohio Department of Corrections, alleging that double-bunking was unconstitutional because of the long-term nature of their imprisonment. The federal district court ruled in favor of the prisoners. The court concluded that by operating the prison at 38 percent over its design capacity the state was inflicting cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled that decision, determining that the overcrowding did not involve the “wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain” that characterizes unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. Although these lawsuits were unsuccessful, such litigation has sensitized prison officials to inmate concerns about overcrowding and prisoner safety.
B Advocacy of Prisoners’ Rights
As a result of their imprisonment, inmates in the United States lose certain rights and freedoms possessed by ordinary citizens. In the 1871 decision of Ruffin v. Commonwealth, a Virginia judge declared that a prisoner has no constitutional rights and is “the slave of the state” while incarcerated. This position toward inmates was widely accepted in most other jurisdictions for the next 70 years. Furthermore, the courts practiced a “hands-off” doctrine, refusing to make decisions about or interfere with prison or jail administrators and their operations.
In the 1941 decision of Ex parte Hull, the U.S. Supreme Court significantly eroded the hands-off doctrine by ruling that no state or its officers may abridge or impair a prisoner's right to have access to federal courts. In more recent decisions the Supreme Court has indicated that although prisons may restrict certain constitutional rights of prisoners, inmates are not wholly stripped of constitutional protections as a result of their incarceration. However, the Court has repeatedly approved of judicial deference to the judgments of prison administrators when courts review complaints about prison practices. For example, although inmates are entitled to the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, prison officials may limit this right if the restriction is “reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest.” Under this policy, the Court has approved certain rules for censoring mail that are designed to enhance prison security.
The Court’s decisions have also buttressed the rights of prisoners to have access to the courts, as well as to law libraries and to individuals trained in the law. Today inmates may petition either state or federal courts through several avenues. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1976, inmates may allege intentional torts, such as assault, as well as negligence by the prison administration. Examples of negligence include deliberate indifference to the medical or health needs of inmates or improper training of jail or prison personnel. The most frequent avenue for inmate lawsuits is habeas corpus actions. Writs of habeas corpus may challenge three things: (1) the fact of confinement; (2) the length of confinement; and (3) the nature and conditions of confinement, including overcrowding. Under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, inmates may challenge the conditions of their imprisonment based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 5th and 14th amendments. Civil-rights lawsuits charge prison officials with discrimination against certain classes of prisoners. For instance, in 1998 the Supreme Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to state prisons. Therefore, these institutions must make reasonable modifications to accommodate prisoners with disabilities.
As the prison population has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, the United States has experienced an inmate litigation explosion. In 1962 state and federal prisoners filed 8,500 lawsuits alleging various complaints against prison administrators and staff. By 1998 the annual number of state and federal prisoner filings had increased to over 120,000. Most of these lawsuits have been filed by jailhouse lawyers—inmates who have acquired some degree of legal expertise. Although there are many suits filed annually by inmates, courts dismiss most of these suits without trial or extensive review of the facts. However, some lawsuits have been instrumental in reforming jails and prisons in recent decades.
C Privatization
Typically, prisons in the United States are operated and funded through taxes either by the states or the federal government. However, chronic prison and jail overcrowding has prompted the growth of prisons-for-profit, privately owned and run prison and jail operations. In 1998 there were 50 privately operated prisons in 15 states. At least 21 states have either established privately operated prisons or have considered legislation permitting their creation. Private prisons are financed and operated just as other for-profit businesses. Governments seeking to house inmates in a private prison typically pay a set amount per day, per prisoner to the company. However, private prisons derive their authority over prisoners from the government and are subject to greater governmental control than many other private corporations.
Privatization of prison services is not new. Private business enterprises have been contracting with prisons and jails for many years to provide goods, services, and prison work programs. Private-enterprise operations in corrections have been particularly noticeable in the juvenile justice system, where minimum-security detention facilities are often privately organized and managed. In recent years, the increase in for-profit prisons, accompanied by the spiraling incarceration rate, has brought more attention to prison privatization.
Opponents of prison privatization raise legal, moral, and ethical objections to for-profit prisons. Some question whether private enterprise can legitimately possess the authority to sanction offenders. Opponents to privatization maintain that only the state has authority to punish criminals, and that the imprisonment of criminals is inherently and exclusively a governmental function. Critics also maintain that private-enterprise officials are not sufficiently accountable for conduct relating to prisoner management and discipline. They fear that profit motives will cause prison administrators to overlook or fail to properly address possible violations of inmates’ rights by private prison staff. Opponents of private prisons also express concern that private interests will exploit prison labor. Finally, critics note that private prison operators have an incentive to increase the number of people imprisoned and to keep inmates in prison longer in order to increase profits.
Supporters of privatization argue that private enterprise can run prison operations more smoothly and effectively than government agencies and at a lower cost. They maintain that government agencies sacrifice efficiency by relying on the sluggish actions of legislatures and other political bodies for appropriations and approval before implementing new policies or engaging in new prison or jail construction. Supporters also claim that the private sector can more effectively negotiate with other private enterprises in the community to furnish necessary goods, services, and programs for offenders.

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