More people are currently incarcerated than at any other time.
In fact, prisons are so over crowded that it is now common practice for judges to simply use deferred sentences and probation as a means of sentencing. Further, the costs of housing so many criminals is one that many states simply cannot afford. As a result, much of the prison industry is being outsourced to private corporations.
The net effect of the incarceration boom is two fold. First, there's the lack of meaningful punishment, or justice, due to the fact that there is not enough room in the jails and not enough money in the budgets to build more space. The result: criminals are given less severe sentences and, in many cases, remain a threat to the public. Further, there is no deterrence factor when one knows that the worse they will get for a relatively small crime is a fine and probation.
Second, with the resulting privatization of the prison systems, there is a subsequent placement of profit over justice. Like any corporation, the private prison industry is in the business for one reason only: to make a profit. The way these corporations make their money is by having prisoners. Clearly, the more prisoners they have the more money they can make. The result is that there is an incentive for the prisons to keep prisoners incarcerated for longer than need be. Further, they have an incentive to cut costs by such means as overcrowding, which can violate prisoner's rights.
The purpose of the national and state prison systems is to carry out the justice of our judicial system. This should be its only purpose. Once other interests get involved, such as the need to make a profit, the foundation of justice is quickly eroded by these competing interests.
Prisoners and the Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights contains specific constitutional protections that every citizen is given. However, when one is a prisoner, whether one still has a right to these protections becomes debatable. For example, many states do not allow prisoner's to vote. However, the right to vote is not a specifically protected right under the Bill of Rights and, therefore, an argument can be made that it can be taken away (although a free speech argument could be made).
One specific right that all people, including prisoners, are protected by is the right against inhumane punishment. According to this right, no human, regardless of guilt, can be punished in any manner that is considered unjust. Of course, what is or is not just is highly debatable. As of today, the United States Supreme Court holds that the death penalty is not a form of inhumane punishment and is thus constitutional.
At the same time, this debate can go the other way in terms of what is too humane to be considered punishment. For example, many question prisoners who enjoy such liberties as exercise fields, television and libraries, often arguing that many non-prisoners don't enjoy these rights. Hence, the question of whether our collective definition has been taken to liberally.
Another area of contention is the application of the Bill of Right's first amendment as applied to prisoners. The First Amendment protects such freedoms as the freedom of speech, expression, the press and the expression and practice of religion. Some question whether religious practices should be allowed in prison. The first amendment, which states:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
According to a strict interpretation of this amendment, there can be no laws that prohibit the practice or expression of religion. There are no asterisks or exceptions for prisoners. Everyone has these right and no laws can prohibit it. Therefore, religious practices must be allowed in prisons.
Bohm, Robert M., Keith N. Haley. Introduction to Criminal Justice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Origins of the Federal Judiciary. Maeva Marcus (editor). New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Turrow, Scott. Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflection on Dealing with the Death Penalty. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2004.