Evaluation of the American Prison System: Do Incarceration Reduce Crime?

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18th May 2020 Criminology Reference this

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ABSTRACT

          The prison system that we know today is similar in some respects as it tries to reduce crime as an ultimate goal.  The problem of this ultimate goal is that it does not seem to be working.  As far back as 1951 people have been writing this very same sentiment.  One in particular that we will focus on was Austin MacCormick.  Austin MacCormick had pointed out back in 1951 that “when the prison is no longer expected to perform the ignoble task of serving as an instrument of retribution, when it holds offenders in custodial segregation only as a measure of safety, not as

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punishment, when its primary aim is the rehabilitation, reclamation, reform-call it what you will-of those committed to it, and when it makes through research its full contribution to scientific knowledge of crime causation and treatment, then and then only will the prison fulfill its true function, the protection of society.”  (MacCormick, 1951)  That is MacCormick’s insight into why prison are not working and do not reduce crime rates or recidivism.  We tend to view prison as a punishment for a crime committed.  Given crime is what it is, that is an understandable and likely course committing a crime.  However, if there were more focus on redemption via rehabilitation there would be much less repeat offenders and recidivism rate that could be tolerated.  There are those that do not know anything but a life of crime.

     This paper will be discussing the history, pros and cons, reduction in crime and recidivism of the American Prison System.  Within these pages you will discover the truth behind the American Prison System in regards to rehabilitation versus punishment and learn if prisons prevent crime and reduce recidivism and which of these models seems to work and which one do not work.  This paper will also give some insight into the long and troubled history of punishment, crime and prisons systems throughout history.  At the end of the paper you will have a better understanding into the American Prison System and its history along with crime and punishment in general.

HISTORY –

     The history of crime and punishment can be traced back all the way to the early modern period in history.  This was a time where punishment would be carried out as a public spectacle.  Usually the person being punished would be paraded through the town ending up in the town square where the town gather to watch.  Upon arriving at the town square great physical bodily harm would be perpetrated on the criminal.  The level of harm usually depended on the criminal act however, even a small crime might too much for most people to bare watching in today’s society.  In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and punishment; Prison and punishment is identified with the prisoner Damiens, who was charged with attempted murder on the king and was to be drawn and quartered and burned.  Michel Foucault describes Damiens execution in this manner:

“Damiens the regicide was condemned to make the amended honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris’, where he was to be taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax, weighing about two pounds, who would then be taken from the cart to a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breast, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burn with poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, was, and Sulphur melted together and then his body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds (Foucault, 1995).  “The death would have been horrible had it gone as planned.  (Foucault, 1995).  There were complication with the quartering, the process took most of the day and Damiens body was burning well after eleven p.m.  The killing has become infamous because of the infrequency of the sentence; yet is was typical of the horrific manner in which the punishment was enacted on the body of those who violated laws.  While Damiens death was likely more severe than most, the punishments during this period was typical for the time.  Damiens was the last person to be executed by drawing and quartering in France (Foucault, 1995).  Physical punishment was in decline.  What had previously served as a lesson for the public, physical penalties were becoming less and less attractive (Morris & Rothman, 1998).  These community assemblies were making opportunities for uprisings and were no longer serving their preventative purpose.      Throughout time we have become more of a civilized world when it comes to punishment for most countries.  There still a few countries that carry on with brutal public beatings for purpose of sending a message to others, but not many and they are becoming fewer and fewer.  During this time there were no such things as formal prisons, there were jails where criminals were held until they were to be publicly displayed and beaten or killed, depending on the crime.  There were unsanctioned prisons where people where held for royal reasons or reasons of power that was not exactly lawful, such as the Tower of London.  The Tower of London was never a sanctioned prison, though most knew about it, it was never a true sanctioned prison and most would never have it on their vacation agenda as a place they needed to see during that period of time, now it is definitely a tourist destination.  Oh, how the world has changed since then. 

     As time passed, the age of enlightenment was a time where things had changed somewhat.  People where becoming enlightened through philosophy.  This brought up questions about what rights people actually have.  This began a debate in regards to how criminals should be punished in regards to their rights as human beings.  This debate had some philosophers and theorists who had become conscious of all beings, began to question the brutality of the punishment being handed out.  They also knew that they must be some level of punishment handed down in order to maintain a certain level of civility in their society as well.  This thought process of the philosophers changed the manner in which people were punished moving forward and ushered in the period of time where rehabilitation was used as a way to transform a criminal into a law abiding citizen and was carried into the modern era. 

      The modern era for the purpose of this paper will start with the Colonial Period.  In the Colonial Period, there were two versions of rehabilitation.  The jail which closely resembling today’s prisons and the other being the workhouse.  Jails were primarily used to hold political offenders, debtors and religious offenders until their trail.  The workhouses were used to solely repress vagrants and paupers and were not open to the reception of felons (Barnes, 1921).   It was the idea of the Pennsylvania Dutch that developed part of the modem penology to have produced the two-fold achievement of substituting imprisonment for corporal punishment in the treatment of criminals and of combining the prison and the workhouse. In other words, they originated both the idea of imprisonment as the typical mode of punishing crime, and the doctrine that this imprisonment should not be in idleness but at hard labor. Of the priority of ‘their accomplishment in this regard there can be no doubt. A century later they added the principle that imprisonment at hard labor should be in cellular separation, and thus created a modern prison system in its entirety (Barnes, 1921). 

The Modern Prison System

     English prison reformer John Howard traveled to Europe.  During he visited several European prison to inspect.  While during his inspections he noted that all of the institutions he visited were very well constructed and had administrations that ran like clockwork.  Upon returning to his home in Philadelphia, he wrote about his inspections and the well-built and controlled prison he saw in Europe.  Through his writing on this subject people began to embrace these new prison ideas.  Along with Howards work and writings of the European prisons, Jeremy Benthams’s Panopticon book also had an effect upon prison reform within the US, specifically in Pennsylvania.  The most popular prison ideas put to use during this time was the Aubrun Plan and the Pennsylvania Plan.  The Auburn Plan gave prisoners separate sleeping cells along with a common dining room and common workspaces.  The prisoners could talk to each other and had an everyday routine to go by.  The Pennsylvania Plan was much different from the Auburn Plan mostly due to the fact that the prisoners were secluded to separate prison cells for the complete length of their term.  America had decided that these prison systems had both done well serving to rehabilitate criminals and decided that this form of punishment was something far better than previous forms of punishment applied to criminals.  While having pointed out the generous inputs from Howard and Bentham we must also equally certain that the reform of the criminal code of the state was based upon a sympathetic reception of the juristic principles of Beccaria and Montesquieu. Writing in 1793 William Bradford, the author of the improved Pennsylvania codes from 1790-1794, indicates the indebtedness of himself and his associates to these European reformers (Barnes, 1921) The Pennsylvania Penal System was the seed that was planted from all other state penal system were modeled and therefore can be heralded as the father of the modern day prison system.  However, if the father were to see his offspring today, there wouldn’t be much to recognize as the system has gone through some changes, yet there is still enough resemblance see that there is enough to compare the two as from one another.  Barnes explains it in this manner, “Pennsylvania, the precursor of all her sister states in the present system of prison discipline, has justified its wisdom before the world in the practical results of its successful administration in this institution.” (Barnes, 1921) We have been on this very same road since that time, with state and federal changes made to update to what is considered as keeping up with the times. 

     The prison system that we know today is similar in some respects as it tries to reduce crime as an ultimate goal.  The problem of this ultimate goal is that it does not seem to be working.  As far back as 1951 people have been writing this very same sentiment.  One in particular that we will focus on was Austin MacCormick.  Austin MacCormick had pointed out back in 1951 that “when the prison is no longer expected to perform the ignoble task of serving as an instrument of retribution, when it holds offenders in custodial segregation only as a measure of safety, not as

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punishment, when its primary aim is the rehabilitation, reclamation, reform-call it what you will-of those committed to it, and when it makes through research its full contribution to scientific knowledge of crime causation and treatment, then and then only will the prison fulfill its true function, the protection of society.”  (MacCormick, 1951)  That is MacCormick’s insight into why prison are not working and do not reduce crime rates or recidivism.  We tend to view prison as a punishment for a crime committed.  Given crime is what it is, that is an understandable and likely course committing a crime.  However, if there were more focus on redemption via rehabilitation there would be much less repeat offenders and recidivism rate that could be tolerated.  There are those that do not know anything but a life of crime.  There are also those that learn and train to become better criminals through the prison system.  If rehabilitation were a major focus of prison systems to include drug rehabilitation, training to teach individuals to be productive members of society and job outreach programs to help prisoners set themselves of for success when they are release, there would be much fewer criminals returning to prison.  This program must also be taken to at risk areas in cities to help change the direction of an individual before they make the decision that a life of crime is what they want to do.  The prisoner reentry industry (PRI) emerged as a by-product of mass incarceration, with the stated purpose of helping the formerly incarcerated reenter society and achieve a new “law-abiding” status. (Ortiz & Jackey, 2019)  If you can change and help guide people before they turn, you can change their life for the positive.  Albert Einstein once wrote, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything”.  In regards to prison, we are doing nothing.  We are doing nothing as we allow the Prison Industrial Complex to fleece America one state at a time.  We are allowing them to follow prescribed programs that have never worked to reduce crime rates or stopped recidivism.  This is where the buck needs to stop.  The Prison Industrial Complex will never allow a program within their prison that reduces its population, it would be bad for business.  We can continue to blame the criminals for crime or we can adjust our way of thinking and encourage a new view on how to not create criminals from the start and eventually watch crime rates and recidivism get smaller and smaller.  Here is an example of how rehabilitation can work as proven by the numbers.  In New York, reports showed that about 65 percent of those paroled five years before had maintained clear records, that about half the remainder had been returned to institutions for technical violations of their parole conditions, and that the remainder, about 17 percent, had been convicted of new offenses, of which only half were felonies. During the non-typical war years the percentage of successes rose even higher. The report at the end of 1946 on the “Class of 1942” showed that, five years after release on parole, 73.2 percent had maintained clear records, 14.8 percent had been returned to institutions for technical violations, and 12 percent had been convicted of new offenses: 6.2 percent of felonies and 5.8 percent of misdemeanors.  It is probable that deterrence has also played a part in the success record achieved by the “graduates” of New York institutions and those of the federal prison system and a number of progressive state systems, which also show a high percentage of successes. But the fact remains that the administrators of these institutions stress rehabilitation and place their major emphasis on efforts to achieve it. They consider deterrence as only a by-product of institutional operation. (MacCormick, 1951)  The Bureau of Justice Statistics, (Yes, that a real thing) have posted some results in reference to recidivism that back up the notion that a better rehabilitation system within prison could help with reoffending rates.  The bureau of Justice Statistics tracked the reoffending of prisoners released from prison during a nine year period with the following results:

  • The 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005 had 1,994,000 arrests during the 9-year period, an average of 5 arrests per released prisoner. Sixty percent of these arrests occurred during years 4 through 9.
  • An estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years.
  • Eighty-two percent of prisoners arrested during the 9-year period were arrested within the first 3 years.
  • Almost half (47%) of prisoners who did not have an arrest within 3 years of release were arrested during years 4 through 9.
  • Forty-four percent of released prisoners were arrested during the first year following release, while 24% were arrested during year-9.  (“Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) – Prison population counts,” n.d.)

     This is a direct reflection of what the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) has done, or not done.  In the eyes of the PIC, the whole point of prison, like any other business, is to have your customers come back.  Having said that, it would be actual business suicide if the PIC did not make an attempt to lure there customers back and or keep them.  This is done by lack of rehabilitation or training or education.  If these programs are available, they don’t necessarily do a good enough job of the rehabilitation part or do not have all of the proper tools to help prisoners turn their life around.  The PIC wants the prisoners coming back and it benefits the PIC that there are urban areas where kids learn to be gang members and don’t consider education as a way out of the ghetto.  Rehabilitation is the enemy of the PIC. 

(“Confronting the Prison-Industrial Complex,” 2019)

The PIC has been accused of having a hand in adding to the abusive and dangerous environments in correctional facilities, fleecing prisoners with exorbitant prices for phone calls and internet.  Some companies have also been found to provide backroom support for state and federal bills and policies that increase mass incarceration and even have increased immigration detention rates as well.  The United States have turned the criminal justice system into a multi-billion dollar industry, with $80 billion in government spending on incarceration in 2013 alone. A network of thousands of companies profits from mass incarceration, ranging from the companies that operate private prisons to the subcontractors that provide prisons with telecommunications, transportation, food vending, and many other goods and services.  (“Confronting the Prison-Industrial Complex,” 2019)

     Using an evidence-based approach, we conclude that there is little evidence that prisons reduce recidivism and at least some evidence to suggest that they have a criminogenic effect. The policy implications of this finding are significant, for it means that beyond crime saved through incapacitation, the use of custodial sanctions may have the unanticipated consequence of making society less safe. (Cullen, Jonson, & Nagin, 2011)   Incarceration rates have skyrocketed in the past 20 years or so.  With over 65 million people in America that have arrest records, (Johnson & Raphael, 2014) it begins to be concerning as to what is actually going on.  How many of these people with arrest records actually should have been arrested to begin with?  What exactly are we doing to have this large amount of our population that have an arrest record?  How many of the many of these people that have arrest records are actually good people that may have made a mistake?  This is a travesty of our society that we turn a blind eye to feeling as though there is nothing that we can do to prevent this sort of thing from happening.  We can do something about it by supporting those that rally for change within the system and total and overall reform from the ground up.  This does not mean just the prison systems, but the laws themselves that actually govern how police do their jobs to the judges and lawyers that prosecute individuals by those very same laws.  We can also consider those people that might not have even been arrested, how many of those individuals actually spent time in jail or prison?  How many of those individuals that did spent time in prison or jail actually should have been convicted of a crime at all?  One last consideration, what is the cost on the public to house those individuals that never should have been put in prison or jail to begin with?  Is it worth it to the public to house in prison or jail these marginal criminals?  These are questions that should be asked and considered by our politicians, if they do not ask these questions, maybe we should vote new politicians in that will ask these types of questions.  Between 1980 and 2008, the number of inmates in U.S. state and federal prisons increased from approximately 320,000 to more than 1.6 million. This corresponds to a change in the incarceration rate from 139 to 505 prisoners per 100,000 residents. It is not surprising that expenditures on corrections increased in tandem as states built new prisons, expanded corrections employment, and incurred the additional costs of housing and supervising greater numbers of inmates.  This rapid increase in incarceration rates and corrections expenditures has led many to ask whether, on the margin, the benefits of incarceration exceed the costs.  (Johnson & Raphael, 2014) 

     Since about the 1970s there has been a “war on crime” or a get tough on crime policy within the US.  At the time these policies seemed like a good idea.  However, now that times have changed and nearly forty years have passed, it seem as though the “good idea fairy” has saddled us with a system that has led the US to mass incarcerations.  Mass incarcerations are exactly when PIC wants.  This mass incarceration continues to keep its prisons full to overflowing, which in turn keep their money tree blooming year round.  The PIC uses its influence to prevent laws from changing that would reduce prison population and also uses its influence to help create more laws that will continue the flow of prisoners into the prison systems that they rely on so heavily.  Prison and law reform are some of the ways that we can reduce this mass incarceration epidemic that has taken over the country.  The financial costs of large-scale incarceration are immense. Housing an inmate for a year costs anywhere from $10,000 for a low-security inmate in a state where corrections officers are paid modestly to more than $100,000 for maximum-security inmates in states with high prison-guard salaries. Nationwide, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated total spending on prisons and jails in 2010 to be nearly $50 billion, or nearly $500 a year for every American household.  (Lehrer, 2013) 

     Reforming prisons is quite a process that needs to take place.  First there needs to be a baseline for what is actually considered a crime and what might be considered chemical abuse issues or what might be considered as mentally health issues.  If a person commits a crime because of an addiction be it alcohol or drugs, than a major part of that particular person’s punishment should be to enter a rehabilitation facility with options to train as a counselor or have some other form of training to try and help this person return to society as a productive member.  If someone is arrested and seems to have mental health issues, than appropriate action must take place to help this individual manage their mental health issues by either medication or a facility where they can be monitored given that this person may not have the capacity or skills to operate in today’s society.  If this person has the opportunity to get better through training or education, depending on the type of sickness or mental health issue, than this is what should occur.  Putting a mentally deficient person in jail or prison helps absolutely no one.  This adds to the overall overcrowded prison population as well as hurts the individual with mental issues, no one wins.  Finally Lehrer points out, Locking up enormous numbers of Americans has made the country safer and largely removed crime from our political debates. But the benefits of incarceration have also come with enormous costs to the country’s finances and to our tradition of individual liberty. (Lehrer, 2013)

     In conclusion, The American Prison System is complicated at best.  There are ways to reform and streamline the prison system as well as reduce crime, recidivism as well as overcrowding of the population.  Given that these issues are achievable, it makes one wonder why none of these ideas or issues have been properly approached by political individuals of power.  The reason these people of power do not approach these hard issues is simple that the influence from the PIC is just too great for them to overlook.  There are some philanthropists that have started grass roots foundation to try and correct the problems within the prison system, however without support of the general public these grass roots organization can only do so much to effect the system.  It is up to the individual generalized public to take a stand and support these organization to help influence change regarding these issues.  Remember that a journey of ten thousand miles begins with one step.  

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