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Understanding the U.S. Prison System


Due to the high crime rate, overcrowded prisons, and the problem of repeat offenders many are questioning the effectiveness of incarceration and what the Federal Bureau of Prison is doing to improve the operation of many U.S. prison facilities. As a result, many are also suggesting that it is time to significantly reduce the number of prisoners by applying alternative means of rehabilitating criminals such as the use of home confinement. Some believe that dangerous people repeat offenders, specially hardened criminals must be behind bars. Others are saying that prison facilities are ineffective and therefore it is time to look for alternative means to deal with crime. This study will look at the various issues surrounding the punishment and rehabilitative aspects of U.S. prisons and determine what must be done to improve the system.

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The Problem with Incarceration

The purpose of a prison facility is easy to understand. It is supposed to house criminals who are deemed to be destructive members of society and since they had demonstrated their ability to kill, steal, and destroy it is just right for them to be imprisoned so that law-abiding citizens can continue to live life without fear.

The second major purpose of any prison facility is to change the behavior of the criminals so that when they had already completed their sentence they can be re-integrated into the community. This is why prison systems are also called correctional facilities. However, it is hard to deny the fact that first-time offenders who spent a considerable amount of time behind bars and were released afterward do not show signs of rehabilitation. On the contrary first-time offenders, juvenile delinquents graduate from petty crimes and become hardened criminals.

The failure of correctional facilities in general and U.S. prisons, in particular, can be understood by analyzing the impact of the prison culture on inmates and prison officials as well as the challenges that they encounter daily when it comes to prison overcrowding.

According to Adler, Mueler, and Laufer, there is a way to grasp prison culture and it is by looking at it through the Deprivation Model developed by Donald Clemmer (2009, p. 374). According to this model, the inmate experiences a sudden reduction of status from civilian to an anonymous figure known only by his bright-colored prison uniform and a serial number (Adler, Mueler, & Laufer, p. 374). This will cause a deep psychological impact on the prisoner. If this is not enough the inmate will then experience the pains of imprisonment and these are 1) deprivation of liberty and being cut off from family and friends; 2) deprivation of goods and services; and 3) deprivation of heterosexual relations (Adler, Mueler, & Laufer, p. 374). It is now much clearer why prison facilities fail to rehabilitate inmates.

In recent years the debate has intensified and many are calling for significant changes to occur because it has become obvious that jails must rehabilitate offenders and not just function as a place to lock them up. This problem cannot be easily diagnosed if one will ignore the history behind U.S. prisons such as the tendency to view correctional facilities as a part punitive process rather than a system that can help transform the character and disposition of criminals.

The current situation can be traced to the philosophy that guided the construction and management of U.S. prison facilities. According to one study, it is the result of a change of priorities: “This current crisis emerged in the 1970s when the ideological commitment to rehabilitation declined sharply, along with our nation’s optimism about alleviating poverty and a host of other social ills” (Colvin, 1992, p. 1). This simply means that money was channeled to what was deemed to be more important endeavors.

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The second reason why the current system cannot help improve the lives of inmates can be traced to the philosophy that U.S. prisons are built upon. Unfortunately, U.S. officials are so accustomed to the old way of doing things that it required the help of outsiders to point out the problem to them, for instance: “European administrators see their American counterparts as too little concerned with the reintegration of convicts into the community and overly concerned with security” (Adler, Mueler, & Laufer, 2009, p.371). If this is the way prison administrators view incarcerated criminals then they will always treat them not as human beings but caged animals.

These problems are compounded by a not so recent phenomenon called prison overcrowding. This is the result of tougher laws against crime, a high crime rate, and the inability of the Federal government to build and sustain enough facilities to hold convicted criminals.

After studying the impact of overcrowded prisons, authors Clear, Cole, and Reisig found out that, “In 2003, 22 states and the federal prison system reported operating at or above capacity. The federal system was estimated to be operating at 39 percent, and overall the state systems were operating at 14 percent above capacity” (2005, p. 467). This is supported by another study that states, “Thirty state prison systems exceeded 100 hundred percent of their intended capacity in 2005. California, with a notoriously troubled corrections system … operated at almost double its design capacity (Adler, Mueler, & Laufer, 2009, p. 348). It will not require a psychologist and health expert to understand the kind of strain overcrowding creates within a prison system.

Without a doubt, overcrowding reduces the efficacy of whatever rehabilitative impact prison can offer. This was highlighted by Clear, Cole, and Reisig when they asserted that, “Prison overcrowding directly affects the ability of correctional officials to do their work, because it decreases the proportion of offenders in programs, increases the potential for violence, and greatly strains staff morale” (2005, p. 469). It is time to consider alternative solutions.

The need to rehabilitate

The existence of government-funded facilities is to provide quality service and in this case, prison facilities must produce rehabilitated ex-convicts. To have a clear understanding of what is the main goal of incarceration one has to know what it means to be rehabilitated. Thomas Matiesen, after his in-depth study of penology, has come up with the following definition:

Rehabilitation is a combined French and Latin word, coming from the French re, which means ‘return’ or ‘repetition’, and the Latin habilis, which means ‘competent’. Originally, the world thus denoted ‘return to competence’… restoration, reinstatement to former dignity or privilege, reparation of honor (2006, p. 27).

If the above-mentioned definition should be considered the gold standard for U.S. penal systems then there is a great deal of work that needs to be done before the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prison can say that it has succeeded in helping to eradicate crime by rehabilitating a significant number of inmates. But as of the present, there are two realities: recidivism and graduation from petty crimes to more serious offenses.

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Criminals must serve time there is no other way around it for justice to be served. However, the inability to rehabilitate prisoners can add to the problem. This can simply mean that adding one prisoner to an already overcrowded system will produce two hardened criminals. This multiplication of criminal activity is unacceptable and this will simply create a cycle of defeat impossible to overcome.

The solution calls for a more effective penal system and this can begin by addressing first the overcrowding issue. In this regard, incarceration must not be the only solution to dealing with crime. For example, prison systems must be reserved for those serving long-term jail sentences and extremely dangerous members of society. But for petty crimes and other misdemeanors, there is no need to spend months or even years behind bars. There can be other means to make the person pay for the crime he or she has committed (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 1995, p. 1).

Those who are guilty of non-heinous crimes can still feel the full brunt of the law with home confinement and the use of modern technology to minimize their movement and make them feel that they are carefully watched but they do not have to deal with overcrowded prisons and the other social forces that come along with it. Ankle bracelets can be used and they are not only confined in the safety and comfort of their home but this can also mean significantly reduced expenditure for the government and society in general.

For those who are not comfortable with the idea of releasing prisoners, there is another possible solution that has been on the discussion table for a long time now. It is none other than the privatization of prisons. The logic for this alternative is easy to understand. Based on the problems relating to overcrowded prisons and poor facilities the first thing that comes to mind is the lack of funds and the absence of competent management. With privatization, these two issues can be addressed simultaneously. Instead of turning the facilities over to employees whose motivation for taking the job is not so clear private firms have a clear understanding of what has to be done and it is to provide high-quality service and they get make money doing so. Therefore, there is a significant level of accountability that may have been absent in the past.

According to Adler, Mueler, and Laufer, there are tangible benefits when a prison system goes private and they listed a few such as the reduction of idleness because prison administration has access to private-sector economic expertise and therefore can broaden their range of activities; prison environment is improved; prisoners now can earn wages as well as obtain vocational training that can be useful after their release; and taxpayers are happy because the wages can offset the cost of running the facility (Adler, Mueler, and Laufer, 2009, p. 363). Privatization will not only help improve U.S. prison facilities it can also help improve the rehabilitation of inmates.


The crisis that is at hand cannot be solved by simply moving from one extreme to the next. It is impossible to eradicate prison facilities and go with community supervision. On the other hand, the government cannot overly rely on overcrowded jail cells. To hit two birds with one stone so to speak, one of the best ways to address this problem is through privatization. Private firms can build better facilities that can reduce overcrowding without having to overburden state coffers. Another solution is to use technology and home confinement techniques that will allow non-heinous crimes offenders to serve time in their community so that it is easier for them to be rehabilitated and not be exposed to a prison culture that can easily turn a first time offender into a hardened criminal.


Clear, T., G. Cole, & Reisig, M. (2005). American Corrections. Belmont CA: Thomson Higher Education.

Colvin, M. (1992). The Penitentiary in Crisis: From Accommodation to Riot in New Mexico.

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New York: State University of New York Press.

Federal Bureau of Prisons. (1995). “Home Confinement.” Web.

Mathiesen, T. (2006). Prison On Trial. London: Waterside Press.

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