Problems in Prisons Research Paper

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Most problems in prisons originate outside their walls. The police and courts leave varied groups of offenders at the gate, and prisons must do the best they can to sequester these persons. Prisons function as does one’s stomach, digesting that which is often indigestible. If the police decide to arrest young gang members, the prison to which these young men are committed will experience a gang problem, consisting of drug trafficking, violent warfare, and the intimidation of nonaffiliated prisoners. If mental patients are jailed for disturbing the peace or annoying their neighbors, the prison must deal with serious mental health issues on an increasing scale. Mental health issues are subdivided into component challenges, such as having to arrange for psychiatric services, and having to enforce prison rules on persons whose symptoms include very sloppy housekeeping, sporadic suicide attempts or unprovoked assaults.

In the 1990s, the salient problems posed for prison systems included: (1) the waging of the war on drugs, which created an influx of drugrelated offenders, (2) the advent of sentencing ‘‘reforms,’’ which produced a proliferation of prisoners with long determinate sentences, and (3) the increased use of adult courts for dealing with serious violent delinquents. All three of these developments contribute to the problems of prisons, but do so in different ways.

Prisons and The War on Drugs

The influx of drug-related offenders is a key source of prison overcrowding, and it makes life behind walls difficult for inmates and the staff. Incarceration rates for murderers, robbers, and burglars have remained steady over the years, but the number of drug offenders who have been imprisoned has steadily escalated. At present, six of ten federal prisoners stand convicted of drug possession or drug use, and the federal prison system is operating at 19 percent over its capacity. State prisons are also overcrowded, though the proportion of drug offenders is not quite as high.

Since the early 1980s, prisons have increasingly become repositories of nonviolent felons, many of whom are addicted substance abusers. Such offenders pose limited risk to the community, and arguably are not the type of hard-core criminals for which prisons were invented or designed. Most nonviolent prisoners could benefit from serious supervised treatment programs that address their substance abuse problems. Such treatment is available in many prisons, but it would be much less expensive to treat the addicts without locking them up. Arizona diverts all its addicted offenders from prisons to probation, in line with the results of a referendum provision called the Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act, which Arizona voters approved by a 65 to 35 percent margin. An appeals court judge has pointed out that compared to the typical Arizona offender who now gets probation and treatment, ‘‘the same guy in the Federal system is going to get a mandatory five-year sentence’’ (Wren, 1999). The difference in deprivation is appreciable, as is the burden to the system.

While Arizona is the only state that has implemented a policy of wholesale diversion, other states have experimented with drug courts, which steer addicts into community treatment. Several prison systems are also accelerating the release of their nonviolent offenders. The most popular strategy for early release involves the use of shock incarceration, which provides a short, intensive experience of treatment, education, physical exercise, and military discipline.

The war on drugs has generally contributed to prison congestion across the board, but it has particularly increased the proportion of women and minority offenders who are sent to prison. At the onset of the war on drugs, in the early 1980s, 4 percent of the prison population was female, but the proportion by mid-1998 was 6.4 percent and increasing. Women constitute over 10 percent of the U.S. jail population, and drug addicts make up the majority of the women who are jailed or sentenced to prison.

The proportion of minority prisoners has also escalated sharply as a result of the war on drugs. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has calculated that 82 percent of the prisoner increase in the federal system between 1990 and 1996 involved black offenders sentenced for drug offenses (the same held for 65% of whites). In state prisons, 30 percent of the increase among black prisoners was due to drug sentences, compared to 16 percent among white prisoners. These differences derive from the fact that street enforcement of drug laws has centered on open trafficking in the ghetto, and the majority of those arrested for drug trading are addicts who are supporting their own drug habits.

Differential effects of the war on drugs create differential problems in prisons beyond those that are immediately obvious. In the case of women, one such problem is that of family separation, since 75 percent of female prisoners are mothers. Small children of prisoners who are not cared for by family members frequently end up in foster care; mothers also lose contact with children where distance or other considerations make visitations difficult. Prisons for women try to mitigate such problems, but cannot do much beyond encouraging family visits. A few prisons provide nurseries for pregnant inmates to facilitate bonding of mothers and infants; many prisons offer courses in childcare and parenting, or sponsor support groups for mothers.

The influx of drug offenders has increased the demand for illicit drugs in prison despite the fact that drug use by inmates invites extended periods of solitary confinement. Given the nature of addiction as a compulsive or obsessive psychological disorder, considerable ingenuity is exercised by addicts to smuggle drugs into the prisons. Drugs arrive in prison visiting rooms in the face of systematic searches (including skin and cavity searches), close and continuous surveillance, and mandatory random drug testing. Short of strip-searching all prison visitors and totally prohibiting all contact visitation, there is no way of making a dent in this problem. No strategy can prevent the importation of drugs into settings that are inhabited by addicts who have supportive subcultural peer groups outside the walls.

A different consequence of the proliferation of addicted prisoners is the rate of infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the prisons. As of 1995, 2.4 percent of state prisoners were known to be HIV positive; the proportion reached 13.9 percent in New York state, where the war on drugs has been assiduously waged. The rate for women is higher than that for men, and African American inmates are disproportionately affected. But not all of the HIV infected prisoners are known to authorities, because HIV testing in most prisons is optional and the course of the disease is frequently asymptomatic. Many inmates do not know they are infected, and they can unwittingly infect other inmates—mostly by sharing needles, and sometimes through sexual contacts.

Active AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) cases among prisoners call for expensive medical treatment, the costs of which are transferred from the community to the correctional system while the offenders are in prison. To their credit, prison physicians routinely prescribe costly drug combinations (‘‘cocktails’’) that have sharply reduced fatalities among imprisoned AIDS patients. Between 1995 and 1996, AIDS–related deaths in state prisons decreased by 10 percent (from 1,010 to 907).

Female offenders incarcerated during the war on drugs have been disproportionate clients of medical services. Ross and Lawrence point out, for example, that ‘‘including the unique reproductive health problems of women, 28 percent of women admitted to state prison in New York in 1993 had medical problems requiring immediate and ongoing intervention’’ (p. 177). They noted that the illnesses of substance-abusing women ‘‘most often include asthma; diabetes; HIV/AIDS; tuberculosis; hypertension; unintended, interrupted, or lost pregnancy; dysmenorrhea; chlamydia infection; papillomavirus (HPV) infection; herpes simplex II infection; cystic and myomatic conditions; chronic pelvic inflammatory disease; anxiety neurosis; and depression’’ (p. 181).

Women prisoners need substantial care— including mental health services—but the dispensation of mood-modulating drugs is a controversial problem for women’s prisons. Some critics of the system contend that medication is insufficiently available, while others charge that the inmates are overmedicated to control or restrain their behavior. Among women who live in prison, medical care is a common source of complaints, even where facilities appear to be adequate. One reason for the emphasis on physical complaints may be the monotony and boredom of prison life; another may have to do with addiction to prescription drugs.

The Impact of Draconian Prison Sentences

The war on drugs has led to prison congestion, but escalating sentences for other offenders as well as drug offenders are a clear contributing cause. One clue to this fact is that the number of inmates in prison is increasing more rapidly than the number who are being imprisoned or being released. To understand this difference, one must consider the fact that a prisoner serving a four-year sentence takes the same amount of space as two prisoners serving two-year sentences, because he occupies his cell twice as long. A prisoner serving a very long sentence multiplies the effect: A man serving twenty years eventually comes to occupy the same prison space as do ten two-year prisoners arriving consecutively. One twenty-year prisoner who enters the system today can therefore crowd it as much as do ten two-year prisoners, and ten two-year prisoners will leave the prison before the twenty-year man is discharged.

In the last decade the number of long-term prisoners has been increasing, and the cumulative effects are experienced at an accelerating degree. There are more long-term prisoners in the prison because there are countless sentencing provisions designed to ensure that convicted offenders are incapacitated. Ensuring the incapacitation of offenders has made political sense to legislators whose constituents know that an incarcerated offender can commit no new crimes. A protracted prison stay assures citizens that they will not have to face a particular offender late at night in a dark alley. By definition any recidivist has served a sentence that the public can argue was too short. Since this means that every prison sentence has the makings of being too short, such reasoning concludes that the simplest solution is to confine all offenders for as long as possible.

The National Institute of Justice reported in 1997 that:

By 1994 all 50 States had enacted one or more mandatory sentencing laws, and Congress had enacted numerous mandatory sentencing laws for Federal offenders. Furthermore, many State officials have recently considered proposals to enhance sentencing for adults and juveniles convicted of violent crimes, usually by mandating longer prison terms for violent offenders who have a record of serious crimes. Threestrikes laws (and, in some jurisdictions, two-strikes laws) are the most prominent examples of such sentencing enhancements. . . . For example, California’s three-strikes law requires that offenders who are convicted of a violent crime, and who have had two prior convictions, serve a minimum of 25 years; the law also doubles prison terms for offenders convicted of a second violent felony. . . . A second frequently mentioned mandatory sentencing enhancement is ‘‘truth-insentencing,’’ provisions for which are in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. States that wish to qualify for Federal aid under the Act are required to amend their laws so that imprisoned offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. (Parent et al., p. 1)

Other provisions that have been introduced to lengthen periods of confinement involve prison terms—importantly including life prison terms—without possibility of parole. The offenders who are the unhappy recipients of such provisions face natural life sentences or inflexibly long prison careers. Such offenders tend to be classified as high-risk, in part because of their sentences. All of these long-term higher-risk inmates are sent to the traditional walled prison fortresses, which are designed to prevent escapes and control behavior. Such prisons are obviously inordinately expensive to build, and the supply has consequently not kept pace with the accelerating demand. The result has been extensive double or triple celling, program space converted into sleeping accommodations, shrinking program opportunities, and a lower quality of life for both staff and inmates.

The paradox is that long-term prisoners, who face the most painful terms of confinement, are subject to the most inhospitable prison conditions. (The paradox reaches its extreme in death rows, where amenities for condemned prisoners are even more sharply restricted.) Long-term inmates may in many instances be reclassified over time, but many years must pass before their conditions of confinement can improve. And if a long-term prisoner manifests behavior problems in confinement, he can be sent to an even more austere segregation facility where living conditions are often atrocious.

Insofar as prisons have provisions for educational and vocational training, these are apt to be designed for short-term inmates. The programs are delivered in self-sufficient modules over modest periods of time, so that they can be completed before the average prisoner is released. An inmate who serves a two-year sentence can leave prison with a certificate in plumbing or automobile repair, or a high school equivalency degree. He can also leave having attained basic literacy, or graduated from a term in a residential substance-abuse program.

Offenders who arrive in prison with long sentences of the kind that are increasingly prevalent are ill served by modular programming. Such inmates must be engaged in meaningful activities over long periods of time. Serving a long sentence should ideally provide a sense of progression, advancement, and hope, or at least an absence of hopelessness. If short-term program segments are employed, they must build sequentially one on another. For example, a course in automobile repair followed by a remedial literacy course does not qualify as a sequence. Educational experiences that are followed by opportunities for inmates to apply what they have learned, with chances of promotion thereafter, make more sense.

Many inmates who come to prison with mandated long terms are apt to be young violent offenders embittered by their draconian sentences. Others are mid-level narcotics offenders who know that they have been sentenced under provisions that are designed for drug kingpins; others are repeat nonviolent offenders charged arbitrarily as violent recidivists. Since fairness, equity, and justice are salient concerns in prison even in the ordinary course of events, such prisoners are bound to be bitter and resentful when they have finally exhausted their avenues of appeal and come to confront the full magnitude of their impending fate. Prisons are sensitive to this risk and to the fact that the absence of hope can leave some prisoners with ‘‘nothing to lose’’ when they act in anger. There is also concern about a ‘‘new breed of violent inmate’’ who may be serving a long sentence and presumptively poses dangers to other prisoners and to staff.

Concerns about potential violence in prisons have increased the managerial emphasis on security and disciplinary sanctions. One tangible manifestation of this emphasis is the proliferation of segregation settings that are earmarked for the ‘‘worst of the worst’’ inmates. Typically, the most brutal of these settings provide for unremitting isolation and a lack of contact with staff. The conditions in some of these segregation settings (called ‘‘maxi-maxi’’ prisons) have been challenged successfully in the courts. Cases have centered on allegations of brutality and the charge that experiences of solitary confinement exacerbate mental health problems.

If the response to the bitterness of alienated prisoners is custodial overkill, escalations of resentment and suppression can occur in the prison in which cycles of protest and punishment reinforce each other, and culminate in reciprocal violence. A sense of injustice among the prisoners combined with preemptive reactions by staff increases tension in prisons, which enhances the potential for confrontations, including prison riots. While no major disturbances have resulted from sentencing reforms, there is urgent need for prison officials to undertake defusing and deescalating moves. This need—which includes the need for expanding program opportunities—is obvious to most prison managers. Unfortunately, this realization coincides with well-publicized public sentiment—especially in the least liberal jurisdictions—that calls for curtailment of activities that can be defined as ‘‘amenities’’ for prisoners.

A desirable strategy for prison management would be to multiply opportunities for the peaceful expression of grievances and expanded avenues of redress where injustices are alleged or perceived. At present, an increased inhospitability of the courts to litigation by prisoners, and a tendency of judges to refrain from interfering with prison management decisions (unless deliberate neglect or brutality can be documented), creates a need for prison systems to multiply internal avenues of appeals, and to strengthen functions such as those of ombudsmen, inspectorates, or commissions charged with reviewing prison operations.

The Old and The Young

Different problems can arise—and have begun to manifest themselves—as long-term prisoners grow older and less resilient. The trend in prisoner age distributions points to a problem with incapacitative strategies, which is that offenders tend to be retained in confinement long after their capacity for offending has dissipated. Prison cells become occupied by ‘‘old cons’’ who spend a great deal of time locked in because they find their younger peers disturbing and irritating. Beyond self-insulation, the prisoners’ contacts with significant others in the outside world becomes tenuous or nonexistent. Over time, the aging prisoners come to be less able to negotiate life if they are ever to be released.

Older prisoners develop multiple health problems, and they can eventually force the prison to set up gerontological units (or specialized institutions) for invalids and disabled senior citizens (Drummond, p. 60).

At the other end of the age spectrum, juveniles sentenced by adult courts have created a ‘‘kiddieland’’ problem. Institutions designed for younger offenders are at least partly equipped to provide for educational needs and to deal with lower-maturity clients, but prison crowding typically leads to ‘‘first come, come served’’ assignments, which has made age segregation (or age grading) less prevalent, leading to an admixture of adults and juveniles in the same settings. Despite the assumption that such admixtures can give rise to ‘‘schools of crime,’’ misbehavior is negatively correlated with age, which means that the younger the inmate, the more troublesome he is likely to be, both for his peers and his custodians.

Young prisoners act out in a variety of ways, from noisy, carefree rambunctiousness to merciless predation. Violent juvenile gang behavior occurs in the prison, as does the bullying typical of reform schools. Young prisoners tend to have histories of negative experiences and resentments relating to authority; they react to imagined slights or indications of perceived disrespect, and lapses of deference. The more immature the delinquent, the more vociferously he may insist on being ‘‘treated like a man,’’ and the more volubly he will resist guidance and instruction. Such behavior attenuates with age, but new generations are adjudicated by the courts as each cohort matures. The problem increases as age limits for transfer are lowered, because early onset of delinquency is related to the obduracy of violent offending. As more precocious offenders are sent to prison, the trouble they cause will become more chronic and persistent.

The juxtaposition of young and old prisoners is especially problematic. The older the inmate, the more susceptible he becomes to feeling invaded; the younger the inmate, the more prone he is to create a turbulent and disruptive environment. Such problems were fewer when age disparities among prisoners were narrower. Less congested prisons also allowed for better classification and sorting of the inmates, so that would-be victims could be separated from potential aggressors, and incompatible groupings could be avoided. Prisons in the past typically included institutions for ‘‘old timers’’ that offered quiescent and structured environments. They also offered educationally rich settings for youthful offenders, with experienced paternalistic staff.

Enhanced heterogeneity of prison populations has gone hand-in-hand with a decreased capacity for accommodating diverging requirements. The more complex the mix of prisoners, the less able prisons have become to sort and separate different groups of inmates.

The Availability of Employment in The Prison

The most persistent management problem for prisons has been to find work for prisoners to do to occupy their time and prepare for release. A historical essay published in 1910 complained about outside opposition to prisoner industry and employment. The author Frederick Wines wrote:

The reasons assigned in support of the contention that an end should be put to the competition of convict labor with ‘‘free labor outside’’ are more specious than convincing. Prisoners cannot be allowed to rot in idleness. Apart from the demoralizing influence of idleness, its tendency is to mental deterioration, insanity and death. No form of labor can be devised, other than trade education, which does not result in competition. . . . Besides, the unconvicted man has a right, and it is his duty, to support himself; how does this change of status relieve him of that duty or deprive him of that right? (pp. 22–23)

Wines, a prominent turn-of-the-century prison reformer, asserts that ‘‘the opposition to constructive labor in prisons is irrational, cruel and wicked’’ (p. 22). He declared himself unsympathetic to the argument that cheap prison labor could cut into business and profits. ‘‘Even if it were proved,’’ he writes, ‘‘that the supplies from prison labor tend to lower prices, that can hardly be deemed a calamity’’ (p. 23). His concerns, however, proved to be a minority view. As early as 1866, a bill was introduced in New York restricting prisoner competition with free-world manufacture. The following year, a declaration was promulgated that ‘‘no trades must be taught to convicts in prison.’’

The controversy has continued unabated to the present, with correctional officials chafing under restrictions that confine prison products to ‘‘state use’’ commodities, such as license plates, office furnishings, and clothing for in-house prison consumption. A perennial complaint of prison managers has been that there are not enough jobs for prisoners, and that an indecently high proportion of prison populations live in enforced idleness or are underemployed. Idleness creates disciplinary problems, and riots are said to have been instigated by a lack of jobs for prisoners who want to work.

Vocational training in prison has been similarly limited, and offenders who leave prison are said to be unemployable because they lack requisite skills, work habits, and motivation to work. Enforced leisure is also said to contribute to a propensity for crime, leaving time for offenders to compare notes about their offending attainments and the technology and available opportunities for committing antisocial activities. Moreover, the public is affronted by the notion of inmates spending their time playing checkers or watching television while law-abiding citizens engage in back-breaking disciplined labor.

Much ingenuity has been exercised by prison staff over the years to find productive work for prisoners that does not compete with work in the free world. The options, however, are limited, and the number of inmates who can be deployed in off-beat activities such as taming mustangs, manning switchboards, or caring for retired horses is infinitesimally small.

Restorative Justice in Corrections

A notion that is tied up with the issue of prison work is the presumption of profitability. It stands to reason that no outsider could object to prisoner contributions of a charitable nature. If the products of prison labor were items lovingly donated to the needy and disabled, no claim of unfair competition could easily arise. More importantly, such labor could humanize the inmates in the public’s eyes, and raise prisons in the citizens’ esteem, since prisons would be sponsors of the beneficent contributions of inmates.

Moneymaking in prisons has a disreputable history. Before the prison was invented, jailors turned a profit by running extortion rackets, charging detainees for room, board, leg irons, and custody services. In many early American prisons, inmates were routinely rented out as cheap labor. The prisoners became convenient and timely substitutes for slaves working in Southern plantations when slavery was abolished (Christianson). Contract labor therefore survived for many decades in the Deep South and dovetailed with prison-operated plantation systems.

The industrial revolution gave birth to the notion of the industrial prison, the concept of a factory behind walls that could be run at no public expense. This idea has been repeatedly revived in more recent debates, with the proviso that prisoners should be paid a free-world wage. At this juncture in the evolution of the world economy, the last suggestion smacks of particular irony, given the export of jobs to third-world countries in which labor costs compare unfavorably to American prison wages.

Nonprofit work by inmates, however, has acquired new stature, because it can be subsumed under the principle of restorative justice. Though this concept is abstract and somewhat vague, it has attracted some prison administrators because it has sounded like a goal with potential public appeal. Definitions of restorative justice vary, but they include the notion of a ‘‘process of reparation and rehabilitation,’’ of ‘‘‘a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance’’’ (Van Ness and Strong, p. 24). In the pursuit of reconciliation and restoration, ‘‘the offender is held accountable and [is] required to make reparation’’ (p. 25).

According to a study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, one of the key principles of restorative justice is that ‘‘accountability for the. . .offender means accepting responsibility and acting to repair the harm done. . .repairing the harm and rebuilding relationships in the community—is the primary goal of restorative justice. . . . Results are measured by how much repair is done rather than by how much punishment is inflicted’’ (p. 5). In other words, the offender has to substantially contribute to the public good to compensate for the public harm that he has caused.

The concept of restoration applies individually to encounters of contrite offenders and forgiving victims. It applies collectively to organized activities that benefit the community at large, paying the public back for harm that has been done, and generating goodwill and forgiveness. This objective is one that in practice applies to prisons because it can justify and undergird the voluntary contributions of prison inmates to communities and individuals within communities that adjoin prisons.

News releases by prison systems frequently detail extensive public service efforts of prisoners, especially those that benefit needy citizens and the disadvantaged. Descriptions in the news items also focus on assistance that has been rendered by inmate crews when emergencies and catastrophes occur in areas where prisons are located.

Corrections Today (the official journal of the American Correctional Association) has a section that describes community service activities by prison inmates. One issue in 1999 listed programs that focused on animals, senior citizens, and combinations of the two. Female offenders in a prison in Pennsylvania were described as having ‘‘contributed nearly 2,900 hours to the construction of a bird rehabilitation building, in which birds can learn to fly in a safe, controlled environment’’ (Tischler, 1999, p. 88). A more consequential construction project (in South Dakota) was described as supplying elderly citizens with ‘‘affordable, low-maintenance, energy efficient, homes in their hometowns where they have friends and family ties.’’ The homes in question were all constructed in the prison, and transported to small rural communities (Harry, 1999, p. 89). In Oklahoma inmates rescued dogs from animal shelters, trained them, and donated them as pets to the elderly. According to the program’s director, ‘‘most of the recipients are alone. The pets help put meaning back into their lives.’’ The official also testified that ‘‘I’ve been in corrections since 1976 and this is one of the only truly productive programs that I’ve seen’’ (Clayton, p. 87). From a camp infelicitously called the Deadwood Corrections Camp, prison crews debarked to fight California forest fires. The correctional lieutenant running this program explained that ‘‘the inmates get a feeling of self-worth and a feeling of accomplishment,’’ and ‘‘society is repaid.’’ Some members of local society (a county board of supervisors) presented the inmate firefighters with a formal certificate of appreciation (Tischler, 1999, p. 84).

The June 1998 issue of Corrections Today described a Wisconsin program in which prisoners refurbished donated wheelchairs, ‘‘to supply mobility with dignity to those individuals who have no insurance or no financial means to acquire medical equipment’’ (Harry, 1998, p. 92). In a second Wisconsin program, inmates constructed birdhouses for endangered birds and ‘‘rocking horses and toys for Head Start and other community agencies.’’ The warden of this institution explained:

We need to do what we can to give back to the community and offenders need to be a part of that, to provide some kind of restitution. The inmates feel good about doing this, and maybe for the first time in their lives they’ve gotten some positive feedback from. . .their communities. (Tischler, 1998, p. 84)

A prisoner-participant alluded to feedback as the ‘‘warmth in the smile of an elder and the spark of happiness in a child’s eye over receiving something we’ve learned to take pride in’’ (p. 84). Similar sentiments were expressed in a program in Arizona in which prisoners transcribed children’s books into Braille. According to the officer running this program, ‘‘the inmates receive satisfaction from their roles in shedding some light into the dark world of blind kids’’ (Harry, 1998, p. 93). A program in Iowa produced innumerable book-to-tape transcriptions for the disabled and educational institutions. In one instance, ‘‘a tutorial manual of Microsoft systems for Iowa’s Commission for the Blind that was so well-received, the tape was posted on the Internet and has received inquiries from as far away as Japan and Ireland’’ (Harry, 1998, p. 86).

In some accounts, the accomplishments of the inmates and of prisons are meticulously quantified. The New York State prison system, for example, has reported that during a twoweek ice storm ‘‘952 (prison) employees and 8,893 inmates worked for more than 68,000 hours clearing trees and other debris from roads. [One New York State prison] filled more than 21,100 sandbags. . .. By the end of the storm, [the prisons] had served 392,000 meals to shelters in neighboring towns’’ (Tischler, 1998, p. 87).

Projects such as these reflect correctional policies that may easily be in tune with public sentiments. The Vermont State Department of Corrections conducted consumers’ surveys and reported the results of the study under the subheading ‘‘Market Research Finds Support for Restorative Justice’’ (Gorczyk and Perry). According to the authors—the Commissioner of the Department and the Director of Planning—‘‘the public wants the process [of corrections] to be positive—one that adds value, not simply one that adds cost’’ (p. 79). The authors concluded that ‘‘the people want justice that is restorative rather than retributive. . .. They want us to provide offenders with the opportunities to improve the quality of life, not spend a small fortune to inflict pain on the offender’’ (p. 83).

Officials in Vermont claimed that ‘‘these findings have driven our policy and planning’’ (p. 83). If other states follow Vermont’s lead, this development could significantly affect the prospects of constructive change in corrections.

The Prospects for Ameliorating Prison Problems

There are a number of reasons why the resolution (or nonresolution) of prison problems is hard to predict. The most important reason is that we cannot know whether prisons will become more or less crowded over time. In the past, the task of predicting prison populations appeared easy. The assumption was that as crime increases, more offenders would get arrested. As more offenders were arrested, more of them would be convicted and imprisoned. The extent of prison congestion could therefore be extrapolated from increases in the crime rate. The competing assumption was equally easy to advance. It was that as imprisonment rates go up, the definition of crime would get less stringent, and if prison cells were emptied, offense definitions would be relaxed. One would therefore predict that imprisonment rates would remain constant over time.

Prison populations in fact had been steady over a period of several decades. Then crime rates and prison populations escalated substantially. The standard prediction (crime drives prisons) therefore looked plausible, until crime rates began to decrease while prison populations continued to increase. One could, of course, then assume that crime rates had decreased because more offenders had been incapacitated, but the relationship (increasing imprisonment, decreasing crime) had not been in evidence on other historical occasions.

When prisons are very crowded some observers conclude that there are too many people in prisons, and others infer that the number of prisons is inadequate. The latter argument, however, becomes difficult to apply in practice because the cost of prisons begins to compete with the price of schooling and other valued services. We now know that sentencing policies do matter. But the question then becomes, What is it that drives sentencing policies? It has been fashionable to blame public opinion (according to polls, the public wants offenders imprisoned) but retributive public sentiments have been voiced in earlier periods of time. Zimring and Hawkins note that ‘‘if negative public views caused increases in prison population, the population would be ceaselessly spiraling upward’’ (p. 129).

Moreover, public opinion does not endorse specific restrictive sentencing provisions. Zimring and Hawkins wrote:

The most significant element of public attitudes toward crime and criminals may operate principally at the symbolic level, so that what the public wants from participants in political debate is symbolic denunciations of criminals rather than concrete plans for action in the criminal justice system. If disapproval is the principal currency in the politics of crime and punishment, it need not have any fixed rate of exchange with factors like prison population. (p. 126)

Public opinion favors revised sentencing policies when ‘‘reform’’ advocates entice public opinion to support their cause. This has been the case most dramatically in gubernatorial campaigns, which have uniformly exploited the fear of crime (Davey). In 1994, the New York Times pointed out that ‘‘the governors were so united in seizing on crime that some tossed off the same applause lines.’’ The governor of Mississippi, for example, said that ‘‘I will fight with every breath in my body to see that the criminals we take off the streets serve their time. And if that means that we have to build a bigger jail house, then hand me a shovel, stand back, and we’ll get it built’’ (1994). Some governors advocated the return of chain gangs, which for a time made the United States a laughing stock abroad, and caused howls of outrage in the corrections profession.

Politicians have consistently undersold the fact—which has been repeatedly documented by studies of opinion in depth—that citizens approve of rehabilitation and have faith in its effectiveness (Toch). This public opinion is primarily targeted at the nonviolent offenders whose influx has been responsible for prison congestion. The diversion of such offenders from prison and the expansion of substance abuse programs and of educational offerings have thus been congruent with public opinion.

The moderate stance of the public has contributed to the proliferation of proposals for attenuating ‘‘get tough’’ provisions that are now on the books. But since there is also a fear among politicians of being cast as ‘‘soft on crime,’’ it is impossible to predict how many ameliorative counterreforms will end up being enacted. And if one cannot predict the reform of sentencing reforms, one cannot extrapolate the effects of legislation on the prison population, and on programming in prisons.

The sentence-expanding trend may not have run its course, and ‘‘get tough’’ provisions can conflict with rehabilitative goals. In New York, for example, parole officers are now charged with case-managing substance abusers, while legislation is simultaneously pending to abolish parole for felons. The outcome of political battles that are still in progress will determine the probable future of prison systems.

Society has not resolved the question of the proper use of the criminal justice system, including prisons, in dealing with drug offenders. While decriminalization is not a likely option in the United States, a de-escalation of the war on drugs could occur, with greater emphasis on prevention programs. General Barry McCaffrey, who directed President Clinton’s drug control policy, made this very point in a speech about sentencing policies—policies that he said ‘‘have caused thousands of low-level and first-time offenders to be incarcerated at high cost for long sentences that are disproportionate to their crimes.’’ The general concluded:

It is clear that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem of chronic drug abuse and drug-driven crime. We cannot continue to apply policies and programs that do not deal with the root causes of substance abuse and attendant crime. What is needed is smart drug policy linked to a flexible and rational criminal justice system. What matters is whether our system works to end the cycle of drug abuse and crime. (Wren, 29 June 1999)

General McCaffrey’s conclusion could head a roster of viable prospects for the amelioration of prison problems, which might include the following propositions:

  1. Imprisonment could be reserved for drug offenders who require treatment in structured, institutional environments. Other substance abusers could be assigned to therapeutic settings in the community, under criminal justice auspices.
  2. Special programming strategies could be developed for inmates who are long-term residents in the prison. Such strategies could involve sentence planning, sequences of progressive experiences or career steps, discriminable stages or phases of prison adjustment, and periodic reevaluations.
  3. Provision could be made for the early release of long-term prisoners who no longer pose a danger to the community. Such provisions have to include combinations of risk assessment and inventories of coping capabilities, with bridging experiences to the challenges of community life preceding release.
  4. Special settings in prison could be multiplied for prisoners with special needs. Such settings would have to include age-graded institutions and units for those prisoners who have limited coping competence. New settings would have to be established for inmates who are disruptive and emotionally disturbed and do not belong in conventional segregation settings.
  5. It is essential for all prisoners to be meaningfully occupied. Meaningfulness of activities can be enhanced by multiplying opportunities for offenders to contribute to the community at large, such as by rendering services to the disabled and disadvantaged.

Finally, correctional facilities would have to live up to their name: prisons can be managed to be effective without being inhumane or gratuitously punitive. It has been an elementary assumption in corrections that offenders are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment. Imprisonment must of necessity be uncomfortable, but this does not mean that it needs to be stultifying or destructive. The challenge for prisons is to find ways to ensure that inmates use the time they must spend in confinement to improve their chances of becoming law-abiding, well adjusted, and contributing members of society after serving their sentences.


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