Prison System Ineffectiveness Term Paper

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Overhaul of Our Prison System Needed

Most people credit increased incarceration with reduced crime (5).

Prison growth has skyrocketed (5).

Prison costs have skyrocketed (1)

Large numbers of mentally ill in U.S. prisons (3).

overcrowding, failure to protect both adults and juveniles, has not reduced crime rate, increased recidivism.


statistics on problem

Three strikes and you're out rule

Drug laws have caused increase in inmates increased sentence length

Unrealistic expectations

Political consequences if this pattern is challenged

Affect areas of society unevenly.

No benefit: drugs are cheaper than they have ever been before.

states have eliminated parole boards.

New home for the mentally ill

High rate of mentally ill and the addicted in prsons.

B. Cause: Changes in mental health care

Prisons are Expensive

A. Costs

B. Privatization hasn't worked

Prisoners can't be protected from other prisoners (8) (9)

A. Adults

B. Juveniles

VI. Ineffective in reducing crime (2) (4)

A. incarcerating juveniles increases recidivism (8)

B. Comparison of U.S. And Canada shows no decrease in crime from increased prison use

VII. Conclusion Prisons can work, but all too often not as currently operated

A. Problems

B. Solutions


The United States prison population has skyrocketed in recent years. In 1978 our country had only 500,000 prisoners, but by 2001 the number was close to 2 million (Marciniak, 2002). In 2001 the U.S. Department of Justice reported that many people believe that the reason violent crime declined in the United States during the 1990's was because of tougher sentencing laws that keep convicted criminals in jail and off the streets for longer periods of time (Marciniak, 2002). In fact, the United States has the highest percentage of imprisoned population in the world. While we make up only 5% of the world's people, our prisons hold 25% of all the world's prisoners (Marciniak, 2002). The cost to run all our prisons and jails is estimated to be $40 billion, making it the single most expensive human services program the country has (Marciniak, 2002).

Rise in Prison Populations

The number of prisoners is higher, and the number of prisoners with serious mental illness or substance abuse problems has increased significantly as well (Sigurdson, PAGE). In particular some of the prisoners with mental illness do not cope well with one inevitable consequence of the ballooning prison population -- overcrowding.

Our country has built about 1,000 new jails and prisons since 1980, but in spite of this overcrowding is widespread (Marciniak, 2002). For example, Cook County Jail was built to hold about 9,800 prisoners, but by May of 2001 it contained over 11,800 prisoners. Many of these extra prisoners had to sleep on the floor because there were no beds available. Many of these prisoners had to be sent to jails some distance from family and friend to be properly housed. The Cook County Jail considered various solutions including converting the gymnasium into bed space. During the summer they considered using tents.

A county jail in Alabama had over 250 prisoners in a facility designed to hold about 100, and once again, many had to sleep on the floor (Marciniak, 2002). These circumstances illustrate a common current attitude about prisons in the United States today. As Marciniak (2002) put it, "Rehabilitation is out; retribution is in."

Another contribution is the "three strikes and you're out" rule, stating that anyone convicted for a third time of a felony gets a life sentence. Many prisoners now have life sentences who never would have twenty years ago, causing a significant increase in prison population. Tougher drug laws have resulted in more prison sentences: by one estimate, the war on drugs alone has increased prison costs by over $24 billion per year (Kay, PAGE).

None of this would be of great concern if it resulted in either a safe society or convicts who returned to society more able to contribute to society in positive ways, but neither seems to be true. As Judge Whitman Knapp said, "People think they can stop the drug traffic by putting people in jail and by having terribly long sentences. But, of course, it doesn't do any good." (Kay, PAGE) However, politicians pass our state and federal laws, and the political fallout from challenging this part of the war on drugs can be serious, with rivals characterizing that politician as weak on crime or ready to look the other way regarding drug use and trafficking (Kay, PAGE), so politicians follow what they believe to be the will of the people. Unfortunately these laws tend to impact some segments of society harder than others, and many believe that enforcement is aimed more at poorer communities and minorities (Ouimet, PAGE). In spite of all of this, the war on drugs has been a dismal failure; drugs are cheaper and easier to get than ever before.

In one final move causing increased prison populations, 15 states no longer have parole boards. Of those parole boards remaining, they have become markedly more selective about whom will be granted parole (Marciniak, 2002). While this in fact may be a very good thing, it keeps more prisoners in the prisons.

Need for Psychological Support for Inmates

With all these prisoners, It would seem sensible to make sure that our prison programs are as effective as possible and that they do produce ex-convicts who are less likely to commit more crimes, but this doesn't seem to be true. In fact our prison system is both large and significantly flawed.

One of the most serious problems facing our prisons is the fact that many inmates are mentally ill as well as convicted of a crime. In fact, our jails and prisons house more mentally ill people than all our state psychiatric hospitals put together (Sigurdson, PAGE), at least partly because of breakthroughs in the treatment of mental illness during the last fifty years. With the development of effective anti-psychotic drugs in the 1950's and Lithium in the 1960's, the majority of those housed in mental hospitals could be released. They needed good mental health support on the outside, however, and unfortunately most did not receive it for a variety of reasons (Sigurdson, PAGE). In addition, substance abuse is extremely high among those who have some kind of mental illness -- possibly as high as 80-90%, along with 60-70% of inmates generally (Sigurdson, PAGE), resulting in a prison population in great need of psychiatric and psychological services. In fact the largest single group of offenders housed in jails and prisons today are those who were convicted or are being held on some kind of drug charge, or are there indirectly because of substance abuse (Marciniak, 2002). Because of this trend, the number of female prisoners has more than doubled since 1990 (Marciniak, 2002), and in the state of New York, 80% of those women left children behind on the outside (Marciniak, 2002), creating a ripple effect of problems in the community.

Cost of Running Prisons

The costs of building and running prisons are immense. One new 1,600-bed prison in Illinois required 800 new employees with a total payroll of $40 million. At $1.3 billion per year, correctional programs are the largest item in that state's budget (Marciniak, 2002). A prison recently built in Oklahoma housed 1,440 inmates and cost $37 million to build.

To reduce the costs of running prisons, some states have turned to privatization, where private companies staff and administer the facilities. This has resulted in multiple problems. In Louisiana, the state privatized their juvenile facilities with disastrous results, including a high rate of assaults among the inmates, a significant lack of psychological and health care, and sometimes failure to provide "general necessities" (Staff writers, PAGE). The court had to direct the state to provide medical care for these youth and ordered multiple levels of supervision to solve the egregious deficits found (Staff writers, PAGE).

California privatized some prisons only to find that they had to create an entire new bureaucracy within the state government to over see them (Weintraub, PAGE). Governor Davis noted that private companies report to stockholders, and that they are likely to do what is in their best financial interest, and that those interests might not be what was best for the state or its citizens.

Inmate Safety

One ongoing problem whether or not prisons are privatized or not is the matter of prisoner safety. All kinds of assaults, including rape, are markedly frequent in prisons. In one case, a small prisoner was placed in a cell with a large strong one known to be a sexual predator. After a night of victimization, the predator was removed from the cell for a hearing. His new victim ran out of the cell and refused to enter it again. They then realized from the records that the two should never have been placed together to begin with (Lewin, PAGE). While this case was documented, however, research shows that few such attacks are prosecuted and that most prisons provide neither medical attention nor counseling for the victims. Most…[continue]

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