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Criminal Punishment, Inmates on Death Row, and Prison Educational Programs


Growing crime around the world inevitably leads to an increase in the number of people in prison. An average offender is getting younger, and the number of female inmates is gradually reaching the level of the population in male correctional institutions. The social and psychological portrait of a prisoner is also changing. If earlier older males who were convicted of violence and bodily harm were the first to enter prisons, now, there are more people among convicts who barely reached adulthood and already broke the law. This paper will review the characteristics of inmates, including those facing death penalties, the gender comparison of criminal offenders, and the benefits of educational programs for prisoners.

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Composition and Characteristics of Death Row Inmates

The death penalty has been abolished in about 70% of the world’s countries. However, not all advanced countries, including the US, have eliminated capital punishment. As of January 2020, the number of inmates facing the death penalty across the nation was 2620 people, with California occupying first place, followed by Florida and Texas (Death Penalty Information Center, 2020a). Twenty-eight states that have legally authorized capital punishment use various methods of execution, such as lethal injection, hanging, firing squad, lethal gas, and electrocution.

The composition of death row inmates differs by such criteria as gender, age, race, marital status, and level of education. According to Schmalleger and Smykla (2017), only 2% of those on a death row as of January 2016 are females (p. 49). The percentage of African American and white death row inmates is quite significant and almost the same – 42 and 43%, respectively. As of January 1, 2020, Latino convicts on death row amount to nearly 353 and constitute about 13% of the total number (Death Penalty Information Center, 2020b). Numerous researches have been conducted to evaluate racial bias when deciding on a sentence. Several reports revealed that there is a prevalent racial prejudice in the application of capital punishment. Walsh and Hatch (2017) note that “since the resumption of execution in 1976, blacks have been overrepresented relative to their proportion of the general population by roughly 3 to 1 in terms of executions” (p. 8). Many argue that such bias is explained by the history of the relationship between white and African American populations in the United States.

Two other characteristics of those under the sentence of death are their marital status and level of education. About 55% of those on death row have never been married, while divorced and married offenders’ ratio is about the same – 20 and 22%, respectively (Schmalleger & Smykla, 2017, p. 49). The level of education is also different, with an overwhelming 42% of death row inmates having a high school diploma or GED, and 9% some kind of college degree (Schmalleger & Smykla, 2017, p. 49). It means that 49% of inmates facing capital punishment have between grade 8 and 11 educational levels.

Educational Programs in Prisons and their Benefits

Prison educational programs are the critical means of rehabilitating and redirecting inmates, both female and male. They are increasingly more crucial since the prison population during recent years has been getting younger. Among the advantages of prison-provided learning are a lower rate of recidivism, an increase in wage earnings post-release, and an opportunity to earn good time credits for early release (Schmalleger & Smykla, 2017, p.177). Obtaining a new, or often the first degree, while serving time, gives inmates improved and increased employment opportunities post-release. Those attending college or other courses in prison will be able to enter the social life outside the prison more smoothly and are less likely to get rearrested.

However, apart from providing benefits to newly released inmates that help them adapt and enter the employment field, education has a considerable impact on life inside the prison. Those involved in learning programs show decreased violent behavior, improved communication skills, fewer infractions, and higher self-esteem. In this sense, education is a tool to enhance inmates’ mental state, including those on death row. Some may see the possibility of getting a degree by a death row inmate as pointless since it is unlikely to be used in the future. However, according to Lyle Clinton May, who serves time for double homicide, his pursuit of a degree is “an irreplaceable guide to navigating life behind bars, and a cornerstone of his advocacy for other prisoners’ access to education” (as cited in Roll, 2017, para. 19). Nevertheless, programs available to inmates on death row should not be different from or especially superior to those offered to lesser criminals.

On the one hand, many argue that education is a privilege and should not be granted to those who commit crimes. On the other hand, the majority of the prison population are people of less fortunate backgrounds, and prison education is possibly the only one they can get. Of course, there are numerous financial roadblocks to providing free education to inmates. Nevertheless, allowing prisoners to receive their degree in prison is possibly the highest level of humanity that governments can extend to those who broke the law.

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Differences Between Female and Male Inmates

The majority of inmates in the US, as well as in most parts of the world, are males. However, recent years show a steady growth of women’s prisons as a result of the increase in women’s criminal activity. Sawyer (2018) mentions that on a nationwide level, “women’s state prison populations grew 834% over nearly 40 years – more than double the pace of the growth among men” (para. 6). The race, age, and ethnic background of female inmates are similar to those of male ones. It means that about the same percentage of women convicts are of white and African-American descent, followed by those of Latino background, and a small part of other ethnicities.

There are a certain number of similarities and differences between female and male inmates in terms of their criminal background, family history, and type of offenses. Women’s prisons are generally less violent since there are fewer violent offenders. Females are more likely to be serving time for drug-related crimes, often being accomplices to male criminals. On the other hand, men are generally incarcerated for more violent crimes, such as manslaughter, rape, assault, and murder. There are also many male and female offenders incarcerated for repeated criminal behavior. However, men are more prone to recidivism and serving their second or third prison sentence. Male inmates serve longer sentences than females due to the severity of their crimes.

Because of the rapid growth of women’s incarceration, some researches have been conducted to analyze female offenders’ family histories and psychological and sociological patterns of their criminal behavior. A significant number of women enter prison with a prior history of trauma, mental issues, or abuse. It may be assumed that these problems directly affect the number of women’s crimes. People’s perception of women’s fragile psyche and a long history of domestic emotional and sexual abuse often leads to fewer women receiving capital punishment and getting executed. Women also show higher rates of substance abuse; therefore, the level of psychological distress and, consequently, suicide is much higher in female prisons than in men’s. Physiologically, women inmates also have much different health needs than men. Many pregnant females enter prison; therefore, reproductive healthcare and special nutrition should be provided by correctional facilities. Since health systems in prisons are historically designed for men, female inmates frequently fail to receive adequate care.

Many women serving sentences are mothers of minor children and their primary caretakers. Considering that the number of women’s correctional facilities is small, women are more likely to be serving time far away from home. Another aspect is that if children are placed in foster care while the mother is serving her time, “her prison sentence can sever family ties permanently” (Sawyer, 2018, para. 17). Apart from a usually distant location, women’s prisons have a lower security level than men’s. Thus, the type and number of protective measures are quite different: women’s prisons mostly do not have wired fences or high stoned walls with guards. They even may look like a college campus or a camp where inmates occupy dormitories rather than cell blocks.

Since females serve time for less violent crimes, the number of aggressive interactions between inmates themselves and inmates and guards is smaller. Female convicts have more freedom in terms of attending classes or educational programs, walking to a dining hall, exercising, or attending chapel services. The social relationship structure in female and male prisons is different and continues to follow varying development directions. Both male and female inmates are deprived of family and friends’ support while incarcerated, thus resulting in creating different substitute social roles in a prison environment. Male social relation structure is more complex and includes various inmate types, such as “the mean dude,” “the agitator,” “the legalist,” the bully” to name but a few. (Schmalleger & Smykla, 2017, p. 274). However, the most significant difference between female and male prisons’ social structure is the existence of pseudo families. No such notion exists in men’s correctional facilities, while women tend to place great emphasis on it. Females tend to prioritize sexual relationships in prison, thus adapting to prison life. There is little actual homosexual interaction to be found among male inmates, and sexual behavior is mostly used to victimize targets.

Despite the differences between men’s and women’s prisons, several programs can have a beneficial impact not only on life in prison but also outside it. The introduction of different vocational training courses and the involvement of prisoners to participate in them will likely facilitate their integration into society after leaving the prison, as it will increase the chances of employment and, thus, will boost their morale. Education and acquired work skills should be the bridge to a law-abiding way of life for those behind bars.


The penal population in the US has been growing for the last four decades. Even though there has been an increase in female incarceration in recent years, inmates, for the most part, are men under forty, poorly educated, and often with a history of drug or alcohol abuse. In the US, death row inmates carry similar characteristics, and only a small percentage of women face capital punishment. As incarceration numbers grow and the composition of inmates shifts to a younger group, learning programs in prisons should be changing as well. Apart from improving inmates’ mental state while serving time, and especially those on death row, education can be a building brick to achieve social and economic stability after leaving the prison walls.

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Death Penalty Information Center. (2020a). Death row USA.

Death Penalty Information Center. (2020b). Racial demographics.

Roll, N. (2017). The education of Lyle Clinton May. Inside Higher Ed.

Sawyer, W. (2018). The gender divide: Tracking women’s state prison. Prison Policy Initiative.

Schmalleger, F., & Smykla, J. O. (2017). Corrections in the 21th century (8th ed). McGraw-Hill Education.

Walsh, A., & Hatch, V. (2017). Ideology, race, and the death penalty: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” in advocacy research. Journal of Ideology, 37(2), 1-34. Web.

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