In recent decades, it has been widely acknowledged that rates of incarceration in the United States have reached epidemic levels. With only 5% of the world’s population, the US accounts for 25% of its prisoners. Currently, there are roughly 1.5 million people being held in US prisons, with 100,000 in federal custody, 1.1 million in state custody, and 600,000 in local jails (the US inmate population totals in at half a million more than that of Communist China). In the early 20th century, the inmate population stood at a steady 110/100,000 people. Now, however, the figure stands at 445/100,000 (or 1,100/100,000 in adult men), and the inmate population rises by 50,000-80,000 every year. Directly or indirectly, the US penal system has a hold of 1/37 American citizens. Since the numbers began to spike, academics and politicians alike have raced to identify the cause, but so far no general consensus has been reached. For many, the nature of the prison system in the modern day has necessitated a close examination of its successes and failures as an institution.
However, for such an evaluation to be successful, all interlinking facets of the system, from the prisons themselves to their employees to sentencing laws and policing methods, must first be taken into account. At its core, the prison system deals with human lives and, as a result, all of those who are involved with it must work around issues of great complexity. Moreover, though, it is a system which exists for the betterment of society as a whole, consequently, its workings must constantly be under scrutiny. With freedom being traded for stability, the stakes are high on both sides of the bars, so there can be no shying away from the controversial issues that surround America’s prison system or from using such assessments to implement positive change, if need be. The U.S. prison-industrial complex disproportionately detains people of colour and non-violent offenders, it fails to offer the resources necessary for those who want to move away from crime when they leave prison, and actively damages its inmates by keeping them in psychologically harmful and often truly dangerous conditions. More often than not, it does this for monetary profit.
While the underlying purpose of prison systems remains more or less the same all over the world, the United States is a special case. This is because, while 11 countries have privatized their prison systems to some extent, the United States maintains the highest number of privately detained prisoners in the world (130,000 in 2011). Under the general model of privatization, the state enters into an agreement where it provides a set number of prisoners and pays for a set number of places. The intention of privatization is to offset many of the problems, which the state may face in running a nationalized prison system, such as overcrowding, riots, and the challenges of general organization, by transferring these responsibilities in varying degrees to a business. However, according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, since its reincarnation in the 1980s, the privatized prison system in America has come under fire “for providing low-quality services, failing to save taxpayer money, and negatively affecting criminal justice policy.”
It is important to note that many are unable to morally reconcile themselves to the idea of prisons running on a for-profit basis. For example, in a poll by the National Union of Public and General Employees, 70% of respondents agreed that “allowing a few people to profit from services meant for all of us weakens our countries principles and core values of caring and sharing,” while 82% agreed that “when private companies get contracts to provide government programmes, the public loses control over the services people depend on.” Studies have shown that the profit motivations facing prison operators in the US often result in “an emphasis on revenue and cost saving, rather than providing quality service.” Combined with the provision of below-par essential services, such as healthcare, “these factors can lead to more volatile environments that are more prone to abuse, violence, injury and death.” While privatization has many different forms and may occasionally be effective, the United States’ for-profit system has a fatal flaw in that it provides lobbyists with a financial incentive to push for harsher sentencing and further privatization. Many can’t help but see the $80 billion per year industry as a lucrative market to be fully exploited. The for-profit private prison system in America affects every part of the correctional system, from the courtroom to detention facilities themselves. While this system of privatization may have its perceived benefits, it also has the capacity to distort prisons from their intended functionality (and those who share the priorities of the ACA) in favour of monetary gain.
Are these prisons effective? Clearly, they have not reduced the incidence of crime over recent decades. Indeed, at this time roughly 55% of those incarcerated have been charged with non-violent drug offences, many of which are now met with harsh minimum sentences, which are used by politicians to appeal to a middle class that is fearful of crime. Such minimum sentencing laws are preventing judges from exercising personal judgement on a case-by-case basis. For example, five grams of crack cocaine and five hundred grams of powder cocaine invoke the same five-year sentence in a US court of law. This ruling specifically demonstrates a distinct class bias, as crack cocaine is cheaper than its powdered counterpart, which illustrates that the working class are being disproportionately targeted by and given longer sentences under drug laws. Such inflated retributivism in law-making has led to a myriad of distorted sentencing protocol. For instance, selling two ounces of cocaine will incur at least a 15-year sentence, whereas a rape conviction may warrant as few as 5 years. Sentences have also become much longer. For example, the USA currently has 41,000 inmates serving life without parole, compared to 41 such individuals in England. In addition to these factors, more restrictive policies now delay parole and release, with more probations and paroles being revoked altogether (possibly because staff are stretched too thinly to provide adequate supervision or because overcrowding has led to high-risk inmates being granted parole).
In addition to this, people of colour, the disabled, and members of the working class are disproportionately targeted by this system. Several factors disproportionately indicate an individual’s probability of serving time, such as being African American or Hispanic, being poor, and low educational attainment. This becomes clear with the consideration of simple statistics, such as the fact that 70% of inmates in the USA are illiterate and 200,000 suffer from serious mental illness. The number of African-American men convicted of drug-related crimes in the past 20 years has tripled and although drug use among white men is roughly the same, their African American counterparts are five times more likely to face prosecution. Data released by the FBI shows that in 2012, 67% of offenders were white and 31.2% were African American, which is far above the proportion this group represents in society. 50% of inmates in US prisons are African American (while the same demographic makes up only 16% of the general population) and, with one in fourteen African American men in jail, one in every four is likely to face jail time during his life – this figure jumps to more than half among those without a diploma.
Contrary to popular opinion, inmates have little chance to change their lives for the better either in prison or once they are released. There is a strong link between high rates of recidivism in the USA and its strained rehabilitation facilities. In many cases, tough-on-crime political rhetoric means that people want prisoners to face punishment, but care less about treatment and rehabilitation programs. As a result, when money is tight, these schemes are often the first to be cut. Outstandingly high recidivism rates surely must point to failures in the penal system itself, as over 50% of prisoners in the US are back in jail within three years of their release. In many ways, the high recidivism rates in the US are tied to the fact that its penal system is focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Inmates leaving prison with no new skills or resources may feel that a return to crime is inevitable, but these are not the only factors working against the newly-released. Many are prevented from voting and legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives, thereby making regaining a normal life (by finding a job, etc) very difficult. Having once been to prison, one is ineligible by law for certain university grants, to receive certain health care benefits, and to live in certain neighbourhoods or public housing, even if one’s family already resides there. This scenario is detrimental both to the individual and to society as a whole, which must cover the cost of repeated sentences (average $31,286 per year, per prisoner).
Beyond these structural challenges, in many ways, the prison environment itself is not compatible with the personal safety and growth of those who inhabit it. Within the prisons themselves gangs are often dominant, weapons available, and the drugs trade is lucrative. Underfunded medical resources and overcrowded conditions contribute to the spread of disease, while inmate-on-inmate crime is endemic. For many Americans though, such things are considered an acceptable facet of the prison system, and perhaps one which helps to exact the retribution that is perceived appropriate. Official estimates indicate that 290,000 male prisoners are subjected to sexual assault every year and 20% of 1,800 individuals surveyed in a Midwestern state prison claimed to have been the object of sexual aggression during their time in prison (50% of these cases were rapes). In addition, the problem of brutality aimed at inmates by prison staff has never been solved, despite repeated court cases (such as in 1998, when 14 prisoners won a $283,000 settlement after a prison commissioner allegedly watched and condoned the beating of handcuffed inmates in 1996). In short, it seems impossible to expect any inmate to leave prison as a totally functional member of society, that is if they leave at all.
Any solution to this problem would have to be multi-dimensional. Removing the for-profit element of the prison system, re-introducing effective rehabilitation schemes in order to reduce rates of recidivism, and shifting away from retributive rhetoric would be an important start. Ending America’s propensity for for-profit prisons would remove the influence of lobbyists who benefit from unduly high incarceration rates, which often result in the unnecessary detainment of people who are not a threat to society and who would benefit more from different social schemes. Hopefully, a shift away from retributive logic – in favour of recognizing that an emphasis on rehabilitation is better, both for the individual and for society, would de-crowd the prisons, free up state funding, and cease to condemn those who have committed non-violent crimes to entire lives of incarceration and social incapacitation. A fairer system could produce more citizens who are able to move on from their pasts in order to contribute positively to American society and live happy lives. Ultimately, America must realize that the lives of its citizens, no matter what their background or their crime, should not be for sale.