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Prisons: Americas Criminal Warehouses

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Away from the mainstream concerns of the American people, an ignored issue is draining billions of dollars the United States’ yearly budget. Prisons across the country act as warehouses for millions of the nation’s criminals, more than half of which will be returning to prison after three years of being released. Recent budget crises and the rapid increase of incarceration rates are forcing states to re-examine the effectiveness and efficiency of their jail systems.

It is clear that it is time to move away from a model of massive, remotely-located prisoner warehouses, which only breed more crime, to facilities with improved rehabilitation and community reentry programs designed to reduce crime and enhance public safety. In his influential and radical book, Howard Zinn wrote, “The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless “reforms” that changed little” (Zinn 515).

History shows the tendency of the United States to disregard the correctional system, while abusing and neglecting its prisoners. The Progressive Era in the early 1900s welcomed a new perspective on the purpose of prisons (Dougan). Rehabilitation was now considered the primary goal of the prison system. The nation sought to rehabilitate prisoners and to prepare them for re-entry into society as productive citizens. Work programs were established that kept prisoners busy and productive. During the years immediately following World War II, the medical model of prison gained force.

The Federal Prisoner Rehabilitation Act provided a variety programs designed to help inmates reintegrate into society, such as diagnostic programs, counseling, halfway house and work release opportunities. Rehabilitation efforts were the highest during the 1960s as part of the “Medical Model” theory, which states that criminal tendencies can be diagnosed and treated (Treatment of Prisoners Timeline). Public opinion and some legislatures of state and federal governments not only encouraged correctional professionals but forced them to adopt this model (Carlson 11).

The three components of the model were diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment. In most state systems and within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, newly designed diagnostic centers were built to help inmates and spread the medical model of prison. Many leaders welcomed the new philosophy on prisons and its inmates, but others did not believed in the medical model, nor did they accept the idea of “gentle” incarceration. Many wardens and superintendants had a hard time tolerating the changes because of their loss of power and authority.

In spite of the deterioration of their power in the postwar period, wardens had to become accustomed, or they would face the rage of higher authorities trying to gain a grip in the new correctional management hierarchy. Prison Reform made many victories in the U. S. Supreme Court during the 1960s. In 1960, the total number of prisoners in the U. S. reached 200,000 (Treatment of Prisoners Timeline). In 1964, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Cooper v. Pate that state prison inmates have the right to sue prison officials who deprive them of their constitutional rights.

This case marked the end of the courts’ hands-off policy regarding the administration of prisons. A couple years later, the decision of the U. S. Supreme Court in Johnson v. Avery gave prisoners the right to use jailhouse lawyers if they do not have adequate legal representation. In 1970, the testing of pharmaceutical products on prison inmates in the U. S. diminished sharply after revelations of the abuse were made. Some of the worst abuse took place at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia where inmates were paid to test items and were exposed to radioactive, hallucinogenic and carcinogenic chemicals.

Before this time, approximately 90 percent of all pharmaceutical products were tested on prison inmates (Treatment of Prisoners Timeline). Prison reform was a prevalent issue, and when prisoners did not think enough changes had been made to the incarceration system in the United States, they took it into their own hands. On September 9th 1971, inmates at the Attica State Prison near Buffalo, New York, seized control of part of the facility, held guards and employees hostage and presented a list of demands for improving prison conditions.

On the fifth day, hundreds of guards and riot police stormed the prison, killing 29 inmates and 10 hostages. More than 80 inmates were injured. The Attica incident raised public awareness and support for prison reform measures. However, it also made some of the public desire a tougher correctional system. In 2000, the prisoners finally won an $8 million settlement in a class action lawsuit for the suffering they endured during the raid and in the weeks following it (Attica Prison Riot).

As time passed and the ideas of the 1960s began to have a positive effect on corrections, the medical model came under serious scrutiny. Numerous of young adults were sentenced to prison and the conservative public, less sympathetic to “un-American” activities, though the prison system should be harder and tougher to discourage any more crime. In Prison and Jail Administration: Practice and Theory, the authors wrote, “The media, politicians, and the general public began to use words like “mollycoddling” and “country club prisons” to describe some approaches and facilities of prisons” (Carlson and Garrett 14).

The prison system became caught up in the debates surrounding society’s ability to punish as it had for so many years. The correctional system started to move away from the medical model and towards emphasizing punishment as the purpose of incarceration. By the late 1970s, the medical model had been eliminated from the correctional systems in the United States. A major blow to the medical model was a rather infamous report produced in the early 1970s by a researcher studying rehabilitation programs across the country.

Robert Martinson’s report was called the “nothing works” syndrome (Carlson and Garrett 16). This report attempted to show that there was no significant difference in recidivism rates for those in rehabilitation programs and those who were, assuming a lower recidivism rate to be the result of the rehabilitation programs. Rehabilitation programs were too gentle on crime, and it became difficult to sell these ideas to a society that was increasingly focused on punishment. Eager to please their constituencies, politicians began a “get tough on crime” campaign.

Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established minimum ranges for sentences federal judges were to follow in order to correct past patterns of “undue leniency. “Across American, prisons became overcrowded with inmates with longer sentences and those not eligible for parole. There was less public support for positive programming inside these institutions. A new era began in prison systems as public desire for more punishment increased. Today’s 2. 2 million prison and jail population represents a 700 percent increase since 1970 (Katel). America has more people in prisons and jails than any other country in the world.

Jam 4,000 men into an aging prison designed for fewer than half that number. Then leave them with too much time on their hands, what with education and job training programs all but shut down and the outcome is more tension and conflict. The lack of rehabilitation programs in prisons, along with the worsening living conditions, has created tense environments in prisons, prone to violence and high recidivism rates. Along with the dramatic rise in the prisoner population, there has been decreasing support from lawmakers for improving the education and skills of people in prison. Criminals are leaving prison just as they went in.

Many believe prisons exist in order to protect the public from criminals and to punish those who have broken the law. However, it is also possible that poor prison conditions will lead to more crime rather than less. In an article called “Prison Conditions, Capital Punishment and Deterrence”, it was written that, “Thomas Murton and William Selke, for instance, argue that poor prison conditions have a dehumanizing effect on inmates, arousing greater bitterness and hostility towards society, which manifest themselves as increased rates or severity of deviant behavior upon release from prison” (Katz, Levitt, and Shustorovich).

Poor conditions may also increase the level of violence in prisons, which would place both inmates and guards in danger and slow down the reassimilation of released prisoners into general society. Regardless if punishment is the goal of the correctional system, the basic human rights of inmates are still protected under the constitution, and it is the responsibility of the people to ensure that everyone, including criminals, is treated in a humane way and under civilized conditions.

In an article, Davis talk about, “Things such as clean drinking water should be available for prisoners, but that was not the case in Kern Valley State Prison, where the water contains twice the federally accepted level of arsenic, a known carcinogen. But the 5,000 men imprisoned at the “state-of-the-art” Central California facility have no choice: they have to drink it” (Davis). Just as clean water is something that should be inevitably available for inmates, so should health care. However, most prison health systems are underfunded and understaffed.

Maria Clemitt wrote about a particular incident, “When Fogell’s water broke, a nurse told her that she’d simply urinated in her clothes. After nine hours in the prison infirmary, Fogell was finally taken to a hospital. She gave birth the next day, but her baby, Anna Lee, lived only a few hours” (Clemitt). Other issues such as sexual abuse continue to affect inmates in the American prisons. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 60,500 inmates were victims of sexual violence this year while in state and federal prison (Treatment of Prisoners Timeline).

However many inmates are reluctant to report such incident to the correctional authorities. A prison sentence in the United States should not include rape as added punishment. The spread of HIV within prisons is also an issue that has been ignored the government and the general public. “Rep. Barbara Lee introduced a bill in Congress in 2007 that would allow condom access in federal prisons” (Treatment of Prisoners Timeline). The bill was not very successful even with the fact that prisons have a rate of HIV infection almost five times larger than the nation’s rate.

The overcrowding of prisons often leads to many other problems such as: less staff morale; control and safety difficulties; staff and inmate health problems; higher levels of conflict and violence; and failure of rehabilitation resulting in increased re-offending. California has more prisoners than any other state – 173,000 – living in prisons designed for about 83,000 inmates. “We have the highest recidivism rate in the country because there is no room for rehabilitation,” Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in February, while announcing an order to move 5,000 to 7,000 prisoners to other states with more room for the convicts (Kapel).

With 727 prisoners per 100,000 Americans, the U. S. incarceration rate is way higher than the rest of the world. Russia, number two on the list, imprisons 607 per 100,000. Most of the people that will be incarcerated would have committed non-violent crimes, so not all criminals present a threat to society and should be incarcerated to an extended amount of time. With about 50 billion dollars being spent a year on prisons, their effectiveness is too be expected. However, more than half of inmates return to prison after being released and the crime rates have not shown any significant and positive change.

The current correctional systems in the United States are, on average, the third-largest state expenditure, yet America has not gotten any safer. The number of prison inmates is projected to grow three times faster than the national population and the United States is not prepared to handle such a rapid increase in imprisonment, especially in the current economic crisis. According a research and advocacy organization in New York by the name of Vera Institute of Justice, “From 1985 to 2010, spending on prisons grew 674 percent, to $52. 95 billion, according” (Katel).

Prisons, jails, and other correctional environments have gone through many changes, as has American society. As the American public remodels the world outside, correctional facilities adopt new attitudes and philosophies. The changing and evolving society in America calls for a new evaluation of this nation’s prisons. It is time the ineffectiveness of the current correctional system is recognized, in order to propose solutions to the worsening conditions in prisons. As Dostoevski once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. “

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