Exploring prison issues in the United States

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The United States has the highest rates of confinement of prisoners per 1000,000 population than any other Western country. Analyze this phenomenon and discuss actions that you feel are necessary to combat this problem.

Answer - Prisons in America are overcrowded, understaffed and I believe put very little emphasis on rehabilitation. The American prison system was set up to rehabilitate prisoners so they can meld back into society as productive citizens. Instead, factors as high crime rate and of course, mandatory sentences have caused an increased over-crowding of our jails. This has also caused and increased budget deficit. Where is the rehabilitation that once was used, it has all but disappeared in the prison system today. As late as 2009, in fact, the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the entire world (West, 2010). It is important to note, though, that the United States does report all of its prisoners, and it is likely some countries do not. Still, there is an unbelievably high incarceration rate of 748/100,000 inmates in the U.S., or .75%, causing many global organizations to remark that the United States has 1 percent of its population in jail, and another 3 percent on parole, with another half a percent as juveniles, making it the wealthiest country in the world with 5 percent of its population tied up in the penal system (Total U.S. Correctional Population, 2010).

America's prison system has become extremely overcrowded and managing it has become a job of staggering proportions. In 2001, there were 1.4 million men and women incarcerated in state and federal correctional institutions. This overcrowding has increased the cost to operate prisons at alarming rates. Due to a high recidivism rate, many experts believe that lack of rehabilitation has played a great role in this increase. One of the major reasons that prisons have become overcrowded is that crime control strategies and legislative changes have favored longer sentences. These approaches have taken several forms that, when combined, have incarcerated people for longer periods of time with less possibility for early release. Many factors such as new offenses, mandatory sentences, lengthening terms, and habitual offender laws, have added to prison overcrowding. Overcrowding causes serious depravation in the quality of life for everyone in a correctional institution. Overcrowding may cause a number of problems such as emotional stress, increase in disciplinary infractions, and some physical health problems. Overcrowding also causes litigation forcing the federal and state prisons to build new facilities to relieve overcrowding.

Prisons as a Form of Correction in the United States - Each individual responds to a set of psychological needs in a different manner. Based on numerous studies, one individual may respond to a risk/reward scenario in opposition of another individual. Because of this, it is impossible to accurately determine if the penal system is a valid form of correction. The basic philosophical debate regarding the prison system is structured around the very purpose of the prison.

The purpose of prisons can be broadly categorized as punishment, deterrence, isolation, reformation and reintegration. Though societal ideas regarding punishment have changed over time, and society itself has become more rational and concerned with the rehabilitation of the offender, prisons still act as agents of punishment on behalf of the society. The very existence of prisons prevents the general public from indulging in unlawful activities. This is due to the fact that most people have a fear of being imprisoned, which is considered a social stigma. Also, a convicted prisoner is deterred from taking to crime after his sentence is over. Looking at statistics, out of a hundred prisoners released, seventy do not come back for the second time5. The idea behind isolation of the criminal is to prevent contamination of law-abiding members of society and also to protect them from potential danger to their lives or property. Reformation has received a major emphasis in the recent years with advances in penology. The concept of reformation begins with the fact that deviant human behavior has specific physical, moral, mental, social, vocational or academic causes. Therefore, if the cause for the errant behavior can be ascertained, the offender can be treated by suitable psychological therapy and counseling. Reintegration of the offender is only a more practical and realistic extension of the reformation philosophy. Like the reformative model, it views the offender as needing help and at the same time realizes that errant behavior is often a result of disjunction between the offender and society. Reintegration thus attempts to bring the offender close to the society by exposing him to the positive elements of a free environment (Shichor, 1995 and Hanrahan, 2006).

Society seems continually torn regarding the effectiveness of the penal system regarding correction. There are so many gray areas within the idea of punishment, too. For instance, are all crimes equal - should a one-time embezzler be treated the same way as a multiple murderer? To what extent do we keep criminals away from society? What is the fiscal responsibility for the citizen in supporting a penal system? These, and other perplexing questions continue the debate as to the effectiveness of the penal system since numerous other factors also contribute to the issue: population size, density, interpretation of crime, etc. What is clear, however, is that society does have a responsibility to maintain a system by which deviance (as defined by legal means) is either punished or cured, through incarceration, therapy, or a risk/reward scenario in which that particular behavior is negated. ("Facts About The U.S. Prison System," (2007).

Role of the Prisons- Public versus Private- The role of the prison system in the United States is polarized - public versus private, punishment versus rehabilitation. One of the best ways to examine the issue, however, is to examine the intrinsic roles of private versus public penal care - and the resultant ways that debate flows over into the reality and purpose of prisons in contemporary society.

In general, Private Prisons seem to be more effective in most States, especially when one looks at the idea of using the prison system not just to house, but to help protect society and create an environment in which the resident can overcome their issues and reintegrate back into society far more effectively. This could be due to their unencumberance of regulation and bureaucracy - they are tasked to do a particular job with particular guidelines, and as long as those guidelines are followed, they are left to manage in the best way. Typically, these corporations are well-funded and have well-trained personnel and operate at the peak of technological efficiency, therefore, at first blush, they appear to be more effective. However, one should remember that this type of Prison has not been in place for the time the Public Prison has, and therefore does not have the track record. Additionally, when there is a test in a given market between Private and Public Prisons, there is an inherent level of competition that may skew the short term results (Harding, 1997).

In terms of cost control, again, the Private Prison typically outperforms the Public because they are able to bid, outsource, and find the best prices on many goods and services, especially perishable goods that Public Prisons often have to bid out or use governmentally approved resources (Archambeault, 1997/98). So, too, is the issue of safety variable, both internal and external. The data is not large enough to indicate a definitive answer, but still points to the Private Prison being able to handle the issues of safety without the amount of paperwork, congressional oversight, and local interference (Shichor, 1995).

As a model, then, it appears that the general direction is to move towards the privatization of America's Penal System. Critics say that if the system is completely privatized, then those looking for profit will attempt to enact legislation to incarcerate more people, thus more profit (Smith, 1993). Proponents point to a century of mismanagement, outrageous cost-overruns, and tax dollars ill spent. Preliminary data shows that the private corporation can utilize the mistakes of the past, find more cost-effective solutions to a number of the problems that exist within the penal system, are less concerned about rehabilitation and the public good, however, and more concerned simply to manage the "convict" as a number, how many, how much they eat, how to prevent their escape, violence, medical issues, etc. Clearly, the private corporation is not a part of the social system with compassion - it is coldly efficient, and coldly capitalistic (Blakely, 2005). In fact, as one scholar commented: "Private prisons are a symptom, a response by private capital to the "opportunities" created by society's temper tantrum approach to the problem of criminality" (Smith).

The results of overcrowding are serious deprivation in the quality of life for everyone in a correctional institution. Even though we have built hundreds of new prisons and expanded facilities in the last ten years, the average amount of space per inmate has decreased over 10 percent. Stretching resources beyond their capacity is something the courts watch carefully when monitoring prison conditions. Overcrowding may be measured in shortages of basic necessities, such as space, sheets, hot water, clothing and food. Vocational, educational, and recreational programs may become seriously overloaded. Medical services and supplies may be insufficient, thereby posing health risks. Throughout the total system, high inmate to staff ratios lead to poor supervision and scheduling difficulties, which result in less inmate activity and greater safety risks for both the employee and the prisoner.

The nature of a crowded environment itself may have serious effect on the health and well-being of inmates. Noise and the lack of privacy associated with crowding may contribute to emotional stress and the development of mental health problems. Studies have shown that crowding may increase the number of disciplinary infractions per inmate. Inmates in densely populated units may suffer from higher blood pressure. It has also been concluded that, as density of the population increases, so does the rate of mortality in inmates over the age of forty-five. Common conditions such as the spreading of colds, sexually transmitted diseases, and other infectious diseases are increased in overcrowded areas. Many studies have claimed the rate of psychiatric commitments and suicides reveal increases for inmate in crowded living areas. Research has also linked higher subsequent rates of criminal behavior to inmates from institutions that were overcrowded. Increases in violence, particularly staff and inmate assaults, are associated with overcrowded conditions as well. It is argued that living too close together heightens tempers and aggression, leading most likely to confrontations within the prison system itself (Oliver, 1997).

In prison most common program formats are group therapy, self-help, and drug education programs. Education programs can be offered in short segments, and reach large audiences for a lower cost. But these programs have been criticized for using scare tactics or for not acknowledging the realities that make drug use attractive to those with troubled lives. Drug education is most effective on a very young population who has not yet used drugs, and this profile does not describe most incarcerated offenders. One of the biggest criticisms of prison treatment programs is that they offer fewer services for shorter periods of time than those of outside programs. Outside programs are more likely to involve family and to provide follow up referral as well as components for instance as job counseling, education, and vocational training (Davis, 2006)

It is clear that some important decisions are necessary regarding our prison system. It is clear that America can no longer sit back and continue to let our prisons mainly be "warehouses" for keeping those individuals whose problems we choose not to recognize or treat. The reduction in the recidivism rate by twenty percent when effective programs are used is reason enough for the American public to demand that rehabilitation become more of a focused priority to prison officials as well as politicians and also a priority with the politicians. We are incarcerating large numbers of people who actually have a disease, since most experts consider substance abuse a disease and not criminal behavior. Until we concentrate on curing the problems of society that cause most of these criminals to adopt behavior that they are being punished for, we will continue to see a rise in the numbers incarcerated. I believe rehabilitation can lower the number of repeat offenders if we are willing to redirect the focus of our prisons. It will not be easy and it will not be cheap; but it will be worth it for the good of society as a whole. Rehabilitation of criminals can be greatly improved, and the successful measurement documented by implementing a very old but successful scientific theory of "cause and effect."

Conclusions- It is no secret that the prison system in America is overcrowded, understaffed and puts very little emphasis on rehabilitation. The American prison system was set up to rehabilitate prisoners so they can meld back into society as productive citizens. Instead, factors as high crime rate and of course, mandatory sentences have caused an increased over-crowding of our jails. This has also caused and increased budget deficit. Where is the rehabilitation that once was used, it has all but disappeared in the prison system today. The system has become extremely overcrowded and managing it has become a job of staggering proportions. This overcrowding has increased the cost to operate prisons at alarming rates. . Due to a high recidivism rate, many experts believe that lack of rehabilitation has played a great role in this increase (American Prison Population Surpasses 2 Million, 2003). Solutions for the problem of incarceration certainly vary - privatization may "fix" some of the economic issues, but not the very heart of the criminological and sociological issues surrounding why people are in prison in the first place. For instance, one can use the debate on capital punishment as an overall rubric for the tone and timbre of what the prison system is designed for.

Arguments in favor of capital punishment fall into seven major areas. 1) Prison is designed for criminals who will eventually be released into society and are primarily to keep offenders away from the general population. If an offense is so grievous, it is unlikely that individual will be rehabilitated or set free; therefore capital punishment is a more effective way of removing this threat than prison. 2) The cost of keeping an offender in prison is far higher than executing that person. Should society actually have the burden of keeping someone alive who has no chance of ever being reintroduced into society? 3) The greater good of society requires that criminals of a certain type be kept away from people for a reason of safety. Taken with #2 above, executing the offender is a more logical way to keep the public safe. 4) Many believe capital punishment deters certain crimes, although there is no factual proof that this is true in countries that practice it. However, if a criminal knows that if a certain crime is committed, the State has the right to execute, will that criminal think twice about the crime? 5) Legal scholars, for centuries, have argued the biblical "eye for an eye" punishment - severe crime requires severe punishment. What is the most severe punishment if not execution? 6) Along with #5, isn't capital punishment logical for someone who is a mass murderer themselves? 7) As illogical as it may seem, crimes such as the Manson murders, Jeffrey Dahlmer, etc. are so horrible that many in society believe revenge is the only way to justify the legal punishment of that person (Bedau and Cassell, 2005; Sharp, 2010).

Some of the same reasons above can also be construed as arguments against capital punishment. 1) Prison may be a viable option, after all, isn't it just punishment to lock someone away from society for their entire life? 2) Humane punishment - the execution of a person is not humane, regardless of the behavior of that individual. The humanity of execution is dependent upon societal mores and individual views; some cultures view killing in different manners. 3) If killing is wrong, how can killing for punishment be right? Two wrongs do not make a right. 4) Pain - Different cultures execute in different manners, and the concept of pain is different with each method. Certainly, death on the guillotine is different than death by lethal injection. 5) Capital Punishment violates a basic right to life - and can be seen as cruel and unusual, something banned by the Constitution. 6) What if, in the most extreme cases, a person is wrongly convicted and then executed? 7) Does society have the right to cause death? 8) Religiously, if a criminal is executed, then that individual has not religious way to find salvation and forgiveness. 8) Is there a place in society for forgiveness? 9) Can a criminal make amends or repair damage? If the State executes, this negates any damage repair, and possibly provides only some sort of revenge psychology ("Campaign to End," 2010; Hanks, 1997).

This entire debate then, forms the crux of the issue of whether prisons are punishment or rehabilitative, or both. It also speaks to the notion of whether society is willing to invest in preventative measures at an earlier age in order to try to prevent the very sociological reasons for criminal activity. History has shown us that there is almost always a certain portion of the population that is aberrant, and that there will likely always be some crime in society. However, it also means that 21st century society MUST decide, and fund accordingly, how it wants to adapt to potentially preventable abberance.