Sociology of Corrections Research Paper

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The component of the criminal justice system that is responsible for carrying out sentences mandated by the court and for carrying out executions of individuals sentenced to the death penalty is corrections. The corrections component also has the responsibility of monitoring the location and behaviors of individuals charged with crimes while these individuals are processed through the system. Jails, prisons, halfway houses, probation, parole, prerelease, and supervised/conditional release are considered corrections.

The Relationship of Sociology and Corrections

A sociological approach to corrections is important for understanding the ways correctional organizations, institutional practices, and employees serve the needs of society as one important component of social control. Additionally, sociological approaches always emphasize understanding the basic culture of groups and organizations and the ways individuals interact with and are influenced by social structures. Exploring correctional institutions from a sociological perspective provides an understanding of what corrections is, how it operates, why it is structured and operated in the way that it is, and to what degree and under what conditions this fundamental component of the American justice system achieves its goals.

A sociological perspective of corrections provides understandings of both the facts of the organizations, structures, tasks, clients, staff, and goals of corrections. This perspective also provides insights about the way that correctional institutions and programs develop and maintain a culture. In turn, analysts of corrections explore the ways that cultural values, beliefs, and norms influence the tasks and outcomes of correctional efforts.

The American public tends to think that corrections should be about punishment and rehabilitation (Cullen, Fisher, and Applegate 2000). But policymakers believe that the public is most interested in punishment, especially strong and harsh punishment (Tonry 2004; Whitman 2003). Whatever its goal, as one of the primary aspects of social control efforts and the final component of the American criminal justice system, corrections depends on the courts for the administrative, structural, and procedural aspects of its work.

Since the advent of the prisoner’s rights movement starting in the 1960s, judicial decisions have played a major role in establishing minimum standards for the physical facilities, social programs and contexts, staffing requirements, and medical and psychological treatment provided in correctional facilities. Corrections includes a wide range of activities and structures, ranging from the operation of jails and prisons, supervision of convicted offenders in the community, to mandatory program participation for individuals convicted of criminal offenses. In many ways, every detail about the design, operations, resources, and activities of a correctional institution or program is guided by judicial decisions.

Detaining persons in a secure facility where they cannot leave and where their activities are monitored and restricted is the centerpiece of corrections. All incarcerated persons, with the exception of some persons in jails, are imprisoned under court order for having been convicted of criminal acts. Execution and incarceration are the punishments that accompany the most serious forms of crime in our society.

Corrections also is charged with the task of providing treatment to individuals under its supervision for purposes of changing their behavior, keeping them healthy, maintaining their mental capacities, and/or providing them with tools and skills to be law-abiding citizens. The treatment components of corrections are interwoven into the incarceration component and are usually seen as a complement to other tasks, not a set of tasks that stand alone (Wright 2003). Inmates should be encouraged to enroll in educational programs, psychological counseling, job training, socialization skills training, and substance abuse counseling. Research has shown that each of these areas hold some promise in reducing recidivism (Cecil et al. 2000; Smith 2003; Wilson, Gallagher, and MacKenzie 2000).

The Goals of Corrections

Four goals guide corrections: (1) rehabilitation, (2) retribution, (3) deterrence, and (4) incapacitation. Rehabilitation is intended to correct criminal offenders. The rehabilitation model is based on the assumption that offenders can be restored to law-abiding ways and that through treatment criminal behavior can be eliminated and the offender transformed into a productive, law-abiding individual.

Rehabilitation was the primary ideological position guiding American correctional efforts during the 1960s and early 1970s. However, in 1974, an influential review of research evaluating the effectiveness of correctional treatment programs proclaimed that “nothing works” (Martinson 1974). This idea was quickly and widely adopted by leading lawmakers, politicians, and correctional administrators to eliminate many rehabilitation programs.

Retribution is based on the idea that criminal offenders should be punished. Rather than working to “fix” something, retribution is to punish offenders even under harsh conditions, deprive them of luxuries, and provide some form of community supervision that is sufficiently negative so that offenders suffer similar to those they victimized.

Deterrence is intended to dissuade future crime by offenders and others. Punishment is to deter an offender from committing more criminal acts; in contrast, general deterrence is intended to dissuade others from engaging in criminal activity. The deterrence goal not only promotes the idea that offenders should be punished but also teaches offenders a lesson. That is, punishment is intended to discourage criminals from committing crime in the future.

Deterrence has many commonsense aspects; the idea is that when a crime is committed, the offender will subsequently be punished. Offenders learn that if they again engage in criminal activity, they will again be punished. To be effective, however, punishments must be swift, certain, and (to a lesser extent) severe. These ideas have long been recognized, having first been proposed by Cesare Beccaria ([1764] 1963). However, contrary to most popular assumptions and ongoing changes to policies, the severity of a punishment is the least important condition for deterrence to be achieved. Based on the utilitarian principle of Jeremy Bentham, punishment must be more severe to outweigh any gains received by engaging in criminal behavior but ideally should only minimally outweigh any gains realized from the offense (Burns and Hart 1996).

Research has not confirmed the commonly held belief that imprisonment or lengthy sentences have a deterrent effect on crime (e.g., Lippke 2002). In fact, harsh and undesirable prisons may have the exact opposite effect. Indeed, some researchers report sanctions based on the premise that prison deters people from committing crimes in the future may be misguided. McGuire (2002), for example, has shown that specific deterrence does not work if all that is done is place an offender in prison. To simply lock someone up does not lead to a reduction in their subsequent criminal behavior.

Similarly, the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect on homicide. While the specific offender who is executed will not commit further criminal acts, one of the primary arguments regarding capital punishment is that it will deter others (e.g., Cameron 1994; Erlich 1975, 1977). Some research, however, has not only failed to support the thesis that executions lead to lower homicide rates but, in fact, may have the exact opposite effect. Referred to as the “brutalization thesis,” when the government condemns people to death, citizens view life as less valuable and violence as socially acceptable. Support for the brutalization effect is found in research that shows that in the aftermath of an execution, homicide rates actually increase (Cochran, Chamlin, and Seth 1994; Stack 1994). A pattern of racial discrimination in determining who will receive a sentence of death was reported by Baldus, Woodworth, and Pulaski (1990), and this research was critical in the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Furman v. Georgia, a landmark case that served as the basis for reevaluating as unconstitutional the death penalty laws across the United States.

The fourth purpose of American corrections is incapacitation. Incapacitation through incarceration is intended to remove offenders from society so that they do not have opportunities to commit criminal offenses. Taking incapacitation one step further is the idea of selective incapacitation where imprisonment is used for repetitive or violent offenders (Allen, Simonsen, and Latessa 2004). Selective incapacitation is the doctrine used for mandatory sentencing laws.

Goals have changed over time and vary across jurisdictions. At various times in history, corrections has been considered a primary means for rehabilitating criminal offenders; at other times, the emphasis has been on showing offenders that crime “does not pay.” Most recently, the focal concern of corrections has been punishment and incapacitation of inmates. While most correctional workers believe that all the ideologies have importance, when reporting what they believe to be the primary goal of corrections, clear patterns emerge (Tewksbury and Mustaine 2005). Custodial, programming, and support staff believe that public safety through incapacitation is the primary goal of corrections. Administrators, however, strongly support the rehabilitation model. And, when examining what the general public believes the goals of corrections should be, rehabilitation is ranked at or near the top in public opinion polls (Cullen et al. 2000), especially among women (Applegate, Cullen, and Fisher 2002). When juveniles are considered, rehabilitation is clearly identified as the most important goal (Moon, Cullen, and Wright 2003).

Historical Background and the Changing Panorama of Corrections

As the colonists settled in America during the 1600s, the punishments administered for individuals who committed both minor and serious crimes included public humiliation through the use of stocks, whipping, mutilation, branding, and hanging (for a more complete discussion of the historical development of American corrections, see Morris and Rothman 1995). The gallows were used for several offenses, not just murder. Slaves suffered even more severe punishments in the colonies in the South.

The severity of the punishments in colonial America emanated from the criminal code of England sometimes referred to as the “bloody code” of England. Appalled by the inhumane and often unjust punishments, the Quakers, particularly those in the province of Pennsylvania under the leadership of William Penn, advocated the use of incarceration as an alternative punishment. In 1682, William Penn wrote the “Great Law” or Quaker code that advocated a more humane treatment for criminal offenders. The Quaker code was in force until 1718 when it was repealed and replaced by the harsh codes of England originally adopted in this country.

Despite the fact that the earlier Quaker effort was repealed, they continued to work for humane treatment and abolishment of harsh punishment for criminal offenders and formed the first true penitentiary in 1790, the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. As a new idea, the penitentiary was designed as an alternative to corporal punishment. An effort to improve conditions at the Walnut Street Jail spawned the creation of the Eastern State Penitentiary (also in Philadelphia), which was finished in 1829. This larger-scaled prison, which represented a model of punishment that came to be known as the Pennsylvania system, used a system of solitary confinement without work. Other states also began development of their own prisons, but the New York State Prison at Auburn (which began the system known as the Auburn system), which opened in 1819, became the prototype for other states. The Auburn system ended up being more popular than the Pennsylvania system, primarily because it was more economic. In the Auburn system, inmates worked and produced a variety of types of goods, which were then sold.

The 1800s saw not only the development of several state prison systems but also the concept of probation and parole. John Augustus, known as the father of probation, worked voluntarily with the courts in Boston requesting temporary suspension of sentences of offenders who he would then provide supervision of. In 1878, Massachusetts passed the first probation statute paving the way for widespread use of probation for adults and juveniles. Parole, however, grew from the efforts of England’s Captain Alexander Maconochie and Ireland’s Sir Walter Crofton. The concept of indeterminate sentencing with the possibility of parole was implemented in the United States in 1876 and is still used in several states today, although at the end of the twentieth century, many states began to abolish parole and returned to determinate sentencing.

While a great deal of reform was occurring in corrections during the 1800s, the end of the Civil War brought about a dark time in corrections in the southern states. With most southern prisons destroyed or severely damaged due to the war, southern states were forced to use a system known as convict leasing. This was a practice whereby prisoners were turned over to private entrepreneurs for both safekeeping and work. Leased prisoners were commonly subjected to brutality and harsh conditions that brought about sickness, corruption, and frequently death for leased convicts. The use of convict labor was finally declared illegal in the early 1900s.

The 1900s saw the development of a changing set of guiding philosophies for corrections. The move was from one of punishment and reformation to one of rehabilitation. As a result of this philosophical shift, treatment and education programs were developed and administered inside prisons. Additionally, alternatives to incarceration (such as halfway houses) and more common use of probation and parole came to characterize American correctional efforts. A federal correctional system also emerged with the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1930. State prison industry programs were developed and became a driving force in corrections around this time as well. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court handed down numerous key decisions protecting the rights of offenders and prisoners.

In the 1970s, rehabilitation efforts once again gave way to increasingly harsher sentences and prisons operating with fewer programs. By the 1990s, many prisons and jails were struggling to keep inmate programs in place and faced severe budget cuts for these programs. Lawmakers believed (despite a large body of research to the contrary) that the public wanted harsher punishments and fewer amenities for inmates. Now in the early 2000s, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the Western, developed world, and prisons and jails continue to experience cutbacks in programming and treatment for offenders.

Contemporary Corrections

Contemporary corrections are based on two approac hes—namely, institutional corrections and community corrections. Institutional corrections include any instance of incarceration, usually in a prison or jail. Community corrections, which are larger in terms of the number of criminal offenders served, involve wide-ranging programs and activities for criminal offenders who live and are supervised in the community. The most common forms of community corrections are probation and parole. Community corrections also include programs, usually referred to as “intermediate sanctions,” that lie between incarceration and probation in their degree of restrictions and supervision.

Institutional Corrections

Institutional corrections refer to all units in which criminal offenders are incarcerated in a secure facility and where their activities are restricted and subject to continuous monitoring. These primary places of incarceration are prisons and jails. Prisons house same-sex individuals convicted of felonies and sentenced by a court of law to a period of confinement. Jails house men and women in separate spaces and include individuals who have been convicted of criminal offenses, individuals yet to be convicted, and civil commitments. Other types of correctional institutions include detention centers for juvenile offenders, temporary holding facilities operated by law enforcement agencies, detention facilities for immigration and customs violators, and some government-operated psychiatric and medical hospitals.


Prisons exist in a wide range of degrees of security and restrictions on inmates. Prison “levels” include maximumsecurity facilities where inmates are housed behind walls or multiple layers of special fences and have their every activity closely supervised and restricted. Medium- and minimum-security facilities have decreasing levels of supervision and micro-activity-level restrictions. Other, more open institutions include prison camps, ranches, or medical facilities. Prisons also vary in their architectural design, their purpose, their size, and their culture. Most prisons operating in the early twenty-first century hold between 500 and 2,000 inmates, but some large facilities house 5,000 or more inmates.

Most prisons offer a number of treatment and education programs. The most common programs include substance abuse treatment, sex offender therapy, violence prevention, cognitive skills training, career planning, employment preparation, victim awareness, reentry and prerelease planning, and a variety of education and vocational training programs. These programs are designed to change offender behavior with the expectation of reducing recidivism and increasing employment opportunities after release from prison.


In contrast to prisons, jails hold those who are sentenced to one year or less as well as individuals charged with a criminal offense but not yet tried in a court of law (Stephan 2001). Many jails also hold “overflow” inmates from other state facilities as well as prison inmates returning to the local community for court appearances. In some cases, jails house people who are there for civil commitments such as contempt of court for not paying child support. Because jails house inmates of all security levels, it is more difficult to classify or separate inmates as rigorously as prisons. However, some jails separate inmates based on whether they are convicted or not.

Jails also differ from prisons in that they have very rapid and frequent turnover in their inmate population. More than 13 million people pass through American jails in a year, yet only 1.4 million of these individuals are imprisoned (Harrison and Beck 2005). Most jail inmates are incarcerated for one week or less, meaning that the culture, relationships between inmates or between inmates and staff, and dynamics of daily life change constantly. Two of the important consequences of this rapid turnover are that efforts to involve inmates in treatment efforts or any type of ongoing programs are difficult, and because the inmate population changes so quickly, there is little opportunity for an institutional culture to develop. Rather, jail inmates typically have very unstructured days in which their idleness leads to the possibility of misconduct and violence. However, some jails include educational, social, recreational, mental health, substance abuse treatment, and other forms of programming for inmates as do prisons. Perhaps the most important services provided are educational programs; numerous studies have shown that jail-based education programs produce lower rates of recidivism for inmate participants (Smith and Silverman 1994; Tewksbury 1994). Jail administrators believe that when programming is offered, facilities operate more smoothly with less violence.

Community Corrections

Community corrections involve the supervision of offenders while they are in the community. The most common form of community corrections, and in fact the most common form of criminal sentence in the United States, is probation. Other forms of community corrections include parole, home incarceration, halfway houses, day reporting centers, and work release centers. While the type and degree of supervision of offenders varies across each of these sanctions, what they all have in common is that offenders live in the community while having restrictions placed on their movements.

Probation is a sentence imposed by a court for which an offender has a sentence of incarceration suspended. While on probation, a probation officer monitors their activities, meets the offender periodically, and may administer drug or alcohol tests or impose other monitoring requirements on the offender. An offender who violates the conditions of probation receives a technical violation. If a probationer is found to be in violation, a judge will decide to either reinstate probation with additional restrictions or revoke the probation status and incarcerate the offender. If found to have committed another crime, the offender’s probation is generally revoked.

Parole is the supervision of an offender in the community following early release from incarceration. Parolees are also subject to conditions that restrict their activities and are subject to both technical and new crime violations, both of which could result in reincarceration for the remaining time on the original prison sentence.

Home incarceration (also known as house arrest), as the name suggests, is essentially imprisonment in one’s home. Typically, an offender sentenced to home incarceration is allowed to leave his or her home for only a limited list of reasons, including work, attending school and church, doctor’s appointments, and limited shopping. Most home incarceration programs monitor offenders through electronic monitoring or the placement of an ankle bracelet that connects to a receiver in the offender’s home. If the offender wanders too far from the receiver, the signal connection is broken and an alarm is activated in the monitoring office. A violation of the conditions of home incarceration subjects the offender to possible revocation and incarceration.

Some home incarceration programs have gone a step further with monitoring an offender’s whereabouts through the addition of global positioning satellite monitoring of offenders (Johnson 2002). This technology allows officials to monitor the exact location of an offender at all times. This type of monitoring is considered most useful with offenders whose contact with specified individuals is prohibited.

Some forms of community corrections also involve temporary or periodic placement of offenders in institutions. Halfway houses, day reporting centers, and work release centers all require offenders to spend time in a residential setting while also interacting through work and school in the community. Halfway houses are residential institutions for offenders who are released from prison, probationers or parolees who violate the conditions of their supervision and are provided a second chance prior to being revoked (Munden, Tewksbury, and Grossi 1998), or for some offenders involved in intensive substance abuse treatment programs. Day reporting center programs require offenders to report to the treatment programs during the day and then return to their own residences. Work release centers are residential facilities that house offenders who are allowed to leave to go to jobs or school.

Prison and Jail Milieu and Subcultures

The prison environment and the demographics of both inmates and staff create a setting that is conducive to the development of subcultures. These subcultures represent a way of coping with confinement and the deprivation of liberty with rules that don’t normally exist in mainstream society.

Prison and Jail Milieu

Prison inmates represent all segments of society although, as a whole, inmates are disproportionately people of color, poor, undereducated, and likely to be substance users and abusers (Harrison and Beck 2005; Mumola 1999). These common social demographics of prison inmates point to some important facts about crime, justice, and corrections in the United States. The economically, socially, and educationally disadvantaged are more likely to be identified as criminal offenders, processed through the criminal justice system, and sentenced to a period of incarceration. As a result, most correctional facilities currently hold a majority of inmates who are African American and Latino (Harrison and Beck 2005).

Many prisons are considered by interested observers to be intense and ripe for violence. One common explanation for this is that a prison is a closed environment devoid of individual privacy where prisoners are forced to interact with other inmates from a wide range of cultural, economic, and experiential backgrounds. This is the perfect setting for cultural clashes and violence among inmates and between inmates and staff workers. Although it is commonly believed that violence among inmates is based on issues of race (Carroll 1974), more recent research disputes this belief. For example, Trulson and Marquart (2002) demonstrate that when inmates are segregated by race, there is actually a higher level of violence than when inmates are integrated.

The milieu in jails is generally quite different from that found in prisons. Because they have recently entered from the streets, jail detainees are more likely than prison inmates to have more frequent and more serious health, behavioral, and mental health problems, and less controlled behavior. In this regard, jails are generally more chaotic and present serious short-term challenges for correctional officers. Jail inmates are also more likely than prison inmates to attempt suicide (Stephan 2001; Stephan and Karberg 2003) and to engage in violence. The risk of suicide in jail is especially acute during the first 72 hours of incarceration (Tahir 2003) and declines sharply after one week (Mumola 2005). The risk of suicide is also highest for novice inmates who have not been in jail previously. This is usually explained as a reaction to the shock of being incarcerated. This fact also contributes to the research finding showing that the suicide rate in small (i.e., 50 or fewer beds) jails is five times higher than in larger jails (Mumola 2005). For individuals in smaller communities, being arrested and jailed may be a more “public” event, lead to greater embarrassment and stigma, and lead inmates to see their situation as more desperate than for persons in larger cities. Jail inmates who attempt/commit suicide are typically middle-class individuals who find being in jail as stigmatizing, shocking to their sense of self, and they are often persons who are jailed while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. While suicide is more common in jail than prison—in fact, it is the second leading cause of deaths among jail inmates—it is still not a “common” event. Approximately 320 jail inmates commit suicide annually (Stephan 2001).

Prison and Jail Subcultures

One of the interesting sociological insights about prisons is that there is a prison subculture, including norms, values, beliefs, and predictable patterns of behaviors. This subculture has been recognized by scholars since the early days of American corrections, but it is only in recent decades that it has also become widely acknowledged that there is no singular “prison culture” or experience. Rather, sometimes wide variations in norms, values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior may exist across prisons, and cultural components change over time (Hensley, Wright, and Tewksbury 2003; Hunt et al. 1993; Terry 2003). Therefore, it is important to consider the number, types, and relationships among inmates in a prison, as well as outside cultural issues that may be brought into prison, when considering how an institution operates and is experienced.

There are two basic approaches to understanding how a culture is established in prison. First is the idea that what is found inside a prison is a direct reflection of what inmates knew and experienced on the outside; this is the idea of importation of culture (Irwin and Cressey 1963). Such culture and behaviors represent aspects of “street culture,” including norms, values, and beliefs that focus on violence and drug use and abuse. In short, what is imported is based on opposition to authority and represents criminal thinking and behavior. This, in turn, establishes the culture of the institution and creates an environment in which violence and resistance to authority are likely to be primary.

An alternative view suggests that prison culture develops in response to the loss of freedom, the lack of autonomy, broken relationships, and sense of insecurity (Clemmer 1940; Sykes 1958). Because incarceration represents denial of individual rights, inmates initially experience an anomic environment. When the behaviors, values, norms, and beliefs that inmates have known in the community do not apply to life on the inside, they must adjust to this reconstructed social world. As a result, new norms, values, beliefs, and behaviors are internalized in response to the loss and denial experienced during incarceration. Whereas importation theory suggests that prisons reflect the world as it was known by the inmates on the outside (see, e.g., John Irwin’s Prisons in Turmoil), in this view, a new culture develops inside the prison.

Moreover, prison employees are primarily white, and many come from rural backgrounds since most prisons are located in rural rather than urban areas. Inmates, however, are not only likely to be persons of color, but they are also primarily from urban settings (Steurer, Smith, and Tracy 2001). Racial and ethnic minorities and urban poor inmates have little social capital and find the power of correctional staff to be oppressive. Because of their varied cultural backgrounds, inmates bring life experiences that are quite different from prison staff. As a result, the subcultural differences between the prison staff and the inmates can be quite distinct.

Jails, on the other hand, largely preclude the development of a stable culture and social structure because of the constant flow of people. As a result, jails are less organized than prisons, have fewer informal social controls to guide the activities and behaviors of inmates, and consequently are more volatile, more dangerous, and more chaotic environments than prisons. Jails also include individuals who have been in and out of jail many times and many firsttime inmates, all of whom approach their incarceration in very different ways. As Garofalo and Clark (1985) have shown, experienced inmates know what to expect, how to best manage their stay, and how to make their time in confinement as comfortable as possible; newcomers, however, are highly unlikely to “learn” a jail culture. And when newly arriving jail inmates are mentally ill, injured, physically ill, or going through withdrawal from addiction, the likelihood of a culture developing—including norms, shared values, common attitudes, and recognized, known roles for those involved—is unlikely to occur.

Correctional Jurisdictions

U.S. correctional institutions and community corrections are administered at three levels of government—the federal, state, and community levels. Definitions of criminal behavior are determined by all three levels of government, and just as law enforcement and judicial systems operate at these levels of government so too must the punishment/ enforcement activities operate. When convicted of violating a criminal statute, as defined by a particular level of government, that government entity is responsible for overseeing the sentence imposed on the offender.


The federal government, through the Bureau of Prisons and United States Probation office, oversees individuals who are charged with the violation of federal statutes. The federal government has not always operated prisons or other correctional programs, however. The first federal prison in the United States began operation in 1895 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but a centralized administration overseeing federal prisons or prisoners was not created until creation of the Bureau of Prisons in 1930. The federal government is also involved in correctional activities through Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which operates detention facilities for illegal immigrants and others who violate customs laws, and most Native American tribes rely on the federal correctional system although some Native American tribes have functional criminal justice systems on their reservations, including correctional institutions. In addition, the U.S. military operates a correctional system.


All 50 states have an operating correctional system generally called the Department or Division of Corrections (in Ohio, it is called the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction). This system may have a secretary or director who is a member of the governor’s cabinet, or it may be a subsystem under Public Safety. States operate both prisons and probation services for persons convicted of violating state felony criminal statutes. In those states where indeterminate sentencing is operating, states also administer parole. State correctional jurisdictions may be large as in Texas where at year-end in 2004, 168,105 offenders were in prison and more than 500,000 offenders were on probation or parole, or small as in New Hampshire where at year-end in 2004, 2,448 offenders were incarcerated and a little more than 5,000 offenders were on probation or parole (Glaze and Palla 2004). It should be noted that persons charged with crimes at the state level and who await their judicial processing while incarcerated will almost always be found in local jails.


Jails function at the community level and are generally under the jurisdiction of the local sheriff, although some jails operate independently from law enforcement and answer directly to a local body of government such as a county commission. As mentioned previously, jails house both sentenced and unsentenced offenders and those who have been committed under civil statutes. Probation and even parole may be administered at the community level in the same manner as it is administered at the state level although for much shorter periods of supervision.


While governments have legal responsibilities for identifying, arresting, prosecuting, and imposing sentences/ sanctions on criminal offenders, in some instances governments contract the management of correctional institutions and programs to private companies. The U.S. privatization movement, which began during the 1980s, has seen numerous correctional systems at all levels of government turn over all or some aspects of supervising criminal offenders to privately operated companies. Some of these private groups function as nonprofit groups, such as the Salvation Army or Volunteers of America, while others are for-profit corporations.

Private corrections provide all levels of governments with solutions to overcrowding of institutions often at lower costs. When an offender is incarcerated or supervised by a private entity, they are responsible for all aspects of security, custody, programming, care, and supervision. The privatization of corrections is heralded by advocates as less expensive to operate (Moore 1998) and delivering high-quality service compared with government-operated institutions. Critics, however, question both the cost savings argument (Perrone and Pratt 2003; Pratt and Maahs 1999) and the contention that private corrections actually provide an equal quality of facility, programs, and staff (Camp, Gaes, and Saylor 2000).

The privatization of prisons issue introduces some interesting sociological questions about power and structures of social institutions. If private corporations operate prisons, jails, and community corrections programs, who, then, is actually in charge of restricting the activities, legal rights, and freedoms of criminal offenders? For many observers, the following questions arise: Who owns these private companies? Is it correct and proper for one group of private individuals, who have not been elected or otherwise selected “by the people,” to control another group? Answers to these questions are interwoven with issues of economics and the effort of all levels of government to reduce the costs of incarceration.

Current Correctional Populations

The current correctional populations say a great deal about American society in terms of where we stand on issues of punishment. According to Mauer (2003:2), the United States leads the world in the use of imprisonment. At mid-year 2004, the estimated correctional population was approximately 7 million with a total of 1,410,404 persons in state and federal prisons, 713,990 persons in local jails, more than 4.1 million persons on probation, and more than 775,000 persons on parole in the United States (Glaze and Palla 2004; Harrison and Beck 2005; Pastore and Maguire 2005). With more than 7 million American adults under some form of correctional supervision, and the U.S. Bureau of the Census reporting that in 2004, the United States had a population of approximately 223 million adults, about one in every 32 American adults was under some form of correctional supervision (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2006).

The demographics of the U.S. prison population as noted earlier in this research paper emphasizes the sociological impact of incarceration and harsh punishments on people of color, the undereducated, and those with low socioeconomic status (Harrison and Beck 2005; Mauer 2003). The current U.S. incarceration rate is also affecting communities, especially African American communities, and has long-term effects on such factors as neighborhood order, family structure, and child development. If the current incarceration trend continues, money for important social services will be diverted to house prisoners and will continue to tax budgets at all levels of government. Clearly, it is time to examine U.S. policies regarding crime and imprisonment to determine if the social and economic costs are justified to maintain current practices.

Sociology and Corrections in the 21st Century

Although sociology may have given way to analysts interested primarily in criminal justice programming, the sociological approach to corrections continues to represent the study and understanding of American society in a controlled and bounded milieu that serves as a microcosm of the larger American society. Indeed, the sociological perspective is important to understanding the system of corrections. Central to its operation are issues relating to culture and society, relationships between individuals and organizations, and the social structures of communities. All these directly affect corrections. During the twentyfirst century, a sociological perspective on American corrections must be broad in focus and should take into consideration the diverse and wide-ranging social influences at both the micro and macro levels that create and sustain the culture. Research on organization, purpose, and functioning of what have become an important and ever growing institution, and the application of sociological concepts in the corrections milieu should continue to offer information that will prove useful to policymakers. Indeed, the American corrections system provides many diverse opportunities to see sociology in action through the continued use of the discipline’s theories and insightful concepts.


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