American Prison Systems and Areas of Improvement

Nowadays, it becomes increasingly clearer to more and more people across the US that there are many controversial aspects to the functioning of the penal system in this country. The reason for this is that, as time goes on, the current situation with it appears to raise new concerns of the ethical, legal, socioeconomic and even geopolitical importance. Therefore, it will only be logical to assume that it is indeed thoroughly appropriate assessing this specific topic from an interdisciplinary perspective – the very discursive essence of the would-be analyzed matter calls for it to be the case. After all, the application of the suggested analytical approach to addressing the task would prove fully consistent with the fact that, as it will be revealed later in this paper, the current state of affairs with the functioning of America’s prison system has many multidimensional subtleties to it.

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While conducting research, the author will focus on evaluating this specific issue from the legal, sociological and socioeconomic points of view – hence, ensuring that the would-be obtained analytical insights will deepen one’s dialectical understanding of the concerned issue, as a whole. The main thesis that will be promoted throughout the paper’s entirety is as follows: the current operation of the prison system in America can no longer be deemed effective, in the correctional sense of this word – not the least because it continues to adhere to the principle of retributive justice, which has long ago proven inconsistent with the ideological intricacies of the “post-industrial” public discourse in the US.

Overall Assessment

As of 2017, the number of men and women who serve time in the federal and state correctional institutions accounted for more than 2 million. This means that the US features the largest prison population in the world. If we were to add to this number those who are currently on parole or probation, the situation with respect to the incarceration rate in America would appear even grimmer. As Bichler and Nitzan (2014) noted, “The United States… is the world’s largest penal colony. It holds over seven million adults – roughly 5 % of the labor force – in jail, in prison, on parole and on probation” (p. 251). The rate of criminal recidivism in the US has been estimated to be the world’s highest, as well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, close to 70% of those have served their sentences end up being charged with committing another criminal offense within 3 years after having been released from the prison (Seigafo, 2017).

The foremost discursive implication of this is apparent – the functioning of the correctional system in the US is far from being very effective, to say the least. In fact, there appears to be a good reason to assume that if anything, the manner in which this system addresses the task of curbing the overall crime rate in this country is strongly detrimental to the actual cause. In the same article, Seigafo (2017) stated, “The correctional system’s continuous failure to correct inmates… increases the possibilities that released inmates will return to prison” (p. 184). This justifies even further subjecting the topic to interdisciplinary inquiry. After all, what has been mentioned earlier is suggestive of the fact that a number of different forces must have contributed towards bringing the described situation into being.

Because of the currently enacted system of political governing in the US, the functioning of this country’s penitentiary system is predetermined to feature the lack of central planning/coordination. This simply could not be otherwise, as it is specifically state legislators who continue to play the main role within the context of how penal policies in America are being introduced and implemented. As Zimring (2005) argued, “The bulk of all penal legislation in the United States is contained in state laws… most of the authority to make and enforce the criminal law given to the states and localities” (p. 328). Theoretically speaking, the federal courts are in the position to intervene in the sentencing process on a local level, if there is a good reason to believe that the defender’s constitutional rights are being violated, or if the “due process of law” principle is not being thoroughly observed during the trial. However, as practice indicates, this does not happen very often.

The federal law provides a five-year sentence without the right to parole for storing 1 ounce of crack cocaine, 4 ounces of marijuana or 3.5 ounces of heroin. Such a practice evokes the notion of “cruel and unusual punishment”, especially when compared to how similar offenses are being handled by judges in other Western countries. Moreover, as practice indicates, most inmates with the corresponding sentences end up serving more time in prison that it is being prescribed to them in the court of law – primarily due to having violated prison rules through their stay. Such a situation is best explained with respect to both the quasi-official status of the “war on drugs” policy, enacted in the late eighties and the fact that a penal paradigm in the US continues to remain essentially retributive (Strelan & McKee, 2011).

The earlier mentioned decentralization of America’s prison system causes the jurisdictive powers of the federal and state correctional institutions to overlap, which paves the way for the continual bureaucratization of this system, as a whole. The 1974 establishment of the National Institute of Corrections and the 1980 Congressional passing of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) did very little to address the situation, in this regard (Lacey, 2010). As a result, the bureaucratic apparatus in charge of corrections on both federal and state levels continues to expand – the process best illustrated by the fact that there is a great variance to the currently enacted methodological frameworks for operating a correctional facility. Among the most innovative of the former can be named prison farms, restitution centers, reformatories, and study release centers.

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Sociological Insights

As it is being revealed in many of the reviewed articles, the qualitative aspects of one’s long-term incarceration in just about any American prison cannot be discussed outside of what accounts for the influence of gang-subculture on defining the actual realities of imprisonment. In this regard, we can mention the fact that it is specifically the convicted members of different ethnic gangs that contribute the most to the formation of social climate in every particular jail. In fact, it now became a common practice among the personnel to cooperate with convicted gang leaders, as the most effective instrument of keeping the rest of inmates under control. The reason for this is that, as Skarbek (2016) pointed out, “Gang leaders exert tremendous pressure (on the inmates)… they communicate with gang members in other prisons to identify which inmates are in good standing” (p. 854). As a result, there is a strong informal quality to how correctional officers go about addressing their professional responsibilities.

Given the demographic data, concerning the population of African-Americans in the US, Black people appear to be overrepresented within the populace of convicted criminals in this country. According to Garrison (2011), “The conviction rate for murder and manslaughter was 26 per 100,000 for African-Americans while it was only 4 per 100,000 for Whites and the conviction rate for possession or sale of drugs was 1,450 per 100,000 for African-Americans while only 379 per 100,000 for Whites” (p. 88). This raises a certain concern about whether the legacy of institutionalized racism continues to affect the functioning of the penitentiary system in the US. In light of what has triggered the outbreak of the most recent racial riots in Fergusson and other American cities, there can be very little doubt about the full legitimacy of such a concern.

A common theme found in the discursively relevant articles that were published after 2008 is the overcrowding of American jails – the problem that seems to affect just about every correctional institution in the US to an ever greater extent as time goes on (Palermo, 2011). The authors tend to argue that it was namely the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008, followed by the economic recession, that provided an exponential momentum to the process of American prisons becoming increasingly overpopulated. The reason for this is apparent – the concerned development resulted in the correctional budget having been significantly reduced on both all-national and local levels.

What also contributed to the process is that the economic downturn in question naturally resulted in prompting more and more people in America to consider committing crimes, as the way of being able to meet ends. As McFarlane (2012) noted, “The recession (in the US) has certainly created more poverty on a greater and wider scale, and this increased difficulty for basic necessities invariably leads to people engaging in prohibited activities and behaviors to meet their needs” (p. 544). Consequently, this makes it much harder for the correctional officers to address the task of helping convicts to be put on the path of social rehabilitation.

Economic Insights

As of today, it became a widespread practice in 37 states to delegate the operation of correctional facilities to private contractors. The federal government has been growing increasingly enthusiastic about the idea, as well. The technical aspect of the initiative’s practical implementation is easy to grasp, “Private operation of prisons (or other correctional facilities) occurs a contractual arrangement in which a private firm takes over full operational responsibility for a correctional facility, in exchange, is paid by the government” (Burkhardt, 2014, p. 279).

As a result, the number of inmates held in the privately owned penitentiaries continues to rise rather dramatically. In the year 2012, it has reached a staggering 129.000 (Ramirez, 2015). The main driving force behind the trend is assumed to be reflective of the fact that it is much more cost-effective keeping convicted criminals under the supervision of such contractors. Nevertheless, as time goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that the ongoing privatization of the prison system in America allows the involved stakeholders to generate a substantial monetary profit, as something that has the value of a “thing-in-itself”.

The most obvious justifying consideration, behind this suggestion, has to do with the very workings of a free-market economy in the US, in general, and the outsourcing of America’s industrial capacities to the Second and Third world countries, in particular. By the early nineties, the cost of labor in America has grown much too high for most of the US-based manufacturing companies – hence, their decision to move their production lines out of this country (outsourcing). However, there is also another way to address the situation, by mean of increasing the population of convicts in the privately owned jails and legitimizing “slave labor” in those facilities. As Bichler and Nitzan (2014) observed, “When labor is scarce… the penal system shifts toward reform and exploitation. The goal now is not to prevent the hungry from criminal acts, but to convince unwilling criminals that they need to be working” (p. 257).

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This is exactly what has been happening to the correctional system in the US during the last few decades. As of today, prisoners assemble 36% of all electronic products manufactured in the country and 21% of all office furniture. Among the companies that have signed convict-lease contracts with the privately owned prisons can be named Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Starbucks, IBM, Boeing, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, etc. The largest private prison-contractors in America are the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Geo Group, Inc. – they control 75% of the market. CCA pays convicts about 50 cents per hour on average while requiring them to work for no less than 6 hours a day. However, it is not uncommon for prisoners in certain privatized facilities to be paid as little as 17 cents per hour (Burkhardt, 2014). As one can infer from what has been said earlier, the ongoing corporatization of the penal system in America is best seen as having been objectively (economically) predetermined. This, however, does not make the process less controversial, in the ethical sense of this word, especially given the disproportionate representation of African-Americans in America’s jails and the legacy of Black slavery in this country.


As it was implied in the introduction, there is a good rationale to think of the current state of affairs with the functioning of American penitentiaries in terms of an interdisciplinary issue. After all, as it was shown earlier, there are a number of different legal, sociological, ethical, and economic implications to it. Overall, the obtained insights appear to correlate well with the paper’s initial thesis. The reason for this is apparent – conducted research points to the fact that, just as it was hypothesized originally, the currently deployed correctional paradigm exhibits ever more signs of becoming quite indifferent to the cause of helping the convicted individuals to reintegrate back into the society after they serve their sentences.

Instead, the societal practice of sentencing criminals to spend time in jail is now being increasingly perceived as such that serves only two utilitarian purposes – to keep “criminally-minded” citizens off the street, on the one hand, and supply the US-based manufacturing companies with “slave labor”, on the other. Because of it, the population of imprisoned people in America will continue to grow – the country’s economy will definitely benefit from the trend. However, the trend’s social effects can hardly be deemed beneficial, especially if assessed from an ethical standpoint. After all, the obtained insights into the subject matter invariably imply that correctional institutions in the US have effectively ceased addressing the task of correcting criminals per se. The worst thing about the described problem is that there can hardly be any effective strategies for resolving it unless the whole system of political governance in this country is being overhauled.


The collected interdisciplinary data of relevance, with respect to the functioning of the penitentiary system in America, appears to correlate well with the initially articulated suggestion that, as time passes by, the process becomes ever more illegitimate, in the discursive sense of this word. This helps to explain the reason why most correctional officers in the privately owned jails find it ever harder imposing their authority on the inmates – the latter are naturally appalled by the neoliberal notion that justice is not an abstract idea but yet another paid service. If the situation continues to be left unattended, it will be only a matter of time before we end up hearing about the violent riots taking place in American prisons on a monthly, if not weekly or even daily basis. To change the situation for better, in this regard, America’s high-ranking governmental officials must be willing to act on behalf of ordinary people, as opposed to acting on behalf of the rich and powerful representatives of the country’s prison-industrial complex. Such a hypothetical development, however, is highly unlikely, especially given the ongoing geopolitical decline of the US due to decadence.


Bichler, S., & Nitzan, J. (2014). No way out: Crime, punishment and the capitalization of power. Crime, Law and Social Change, 61(3), 251-271.

Burkhardt, B. (2014). Private prisons in public discourse: Measuring moral legitimacy. Sociological Focus, 47(4), 279-298.

Garrison, A. H. (2011). Disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans: What history and the first decade of twenty-first century have brought. Journal of the Institute of Justice and International Studies, 4(11), 87-98.

Lacey, N. (2010). American imprisonment in comparative perspective. Daedalus, 139(3), 102-114.

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McFarlane, D. (2012). The impact of the global economic recession on the American criminal justice system. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 7(2), 539-549.

Palermo, G. (2011). Jail and prison overcrowding and rehabilitative justice programs. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 55(6), 843-845.

Ramirez, M. (2015). African-Americans’ principled opposition to prison privatization. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 13(3), 217-236.

Seigafo, S. (2017). Inmate’s right to rehabilitation during incarceration: A critical analysis of the united states correctional system. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 12(2), 183-195.

Skarbek, D. (2016). Covenants without the sword? Comparing prison self-governance globally. The American Political Science Review, 110(4), 845-862.

Strelan, P., & McKee, I. (2011). Retributive and inclusive justice goals and forgiveness: The influence of motivational values. Social Justice Research, 24(2), 126-142.

Zimring, F. (2005). Penal policy and penal legislation in recent American experience. Stanford Law Review, 58(1), 323-338.

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