Prison Reform the United States Research Paper

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The average felony sentence imposed upon federal and state offenders in 1996 was 62 months, or just over 5 years. On average these prisoners actually serve 45% of a state sentence for a mean prison stint of 2 years and 4 months, and 85% of a federal sentence for a stint of 4 years and 5 months. Once they are released, the recidivism rates are high. According to Lin (2000), "incarceration, as it stands, does not prevent recidivism" (p. 4). In addition, even if the released prisoners do not commit another crime, it does not mean that they become self-supporting and contribute to their community as much as possible.

.Lin (2000) argues that it is not clear that prisons, as institutions, have the capacity to provide the type of environment required for preparation of returning to the outside world. Prisons are not presently designed to be schools or factories, most do not have any facility for providing advisors who can counsel or environments where family ties and support can be nurtured. The history of work, counseling, and family programs in prisons does not bode well for the future. The programs that do exist are difficult to evaluate, often operated arbitrarily, and continually wondering if rehabilitation actually works. The prison is an institution marked by great staying power but modest achievement.

Johnson, in his book Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison (xxxx) quotes Hawthorne who, at the turn of the 20th century, described his prison experience in an article called "Our barbarous Penal System." Hawthorne was writing about Atlanta Federal penitentiary, but his focus was that all prisons were basically corrupt. To Hawthorne, prison reform is impossible. As noted above, many prison critics share these views. They would believe that the American penal systems will never serve any constructive purpose. Prisons are just taking people off the streets and warehousing them. According to Johnson (xxxx), most Americans favor prisons that offer a combination of punishment and treatment. They believe that prisoners should get their punishment, get well with education and training and then get on with their lives.

Johnson (xxxx) explains that prison reform has at least two present connotations. The first is restructuring sentencing to assure that only the more serious offenders go to prison, perhaps for longer terms than presently and the development of intermediate and other sanctions to take up the sagging of the smaller prison system. Johnson's emphasis is on the second connotation of prison reform, or improving individual prisons. He states that reformed prisons must provide Spartan but responsive conditions of confinement that have access to programs, because these promote personal autonomy, security and relatedness to others and allow offenders to assume responsibility for their own conduct and "get on" constructively with their lives. Even a bloated prison system, Johnson explains, which has decent prisons, is a major improvement over warehousing. Johnson adds that this means understanding the pains of the prison system. The goal of prison reform is to develop mature adults who are able to live productively in a society and cope with daily problems they face in life without harming others and to attempt to become productive citizens who are willing take responsibility for their community and work for its progress.

One of the more successful programs that Johnson (xxxx) uses as an example is the Quay classification system, which consists of a reliable and valid measure of the prisoner's current behavior by looking at his or her past behavior. The Quay system provides prison officers with a tool that they can use to provide a quick and reliable account of a prisoner's current behavior. This vehicle can be used in a number of ways: to track changes in a prisoner's behavior over time, to compare the behavioral characteristics of the populations of different prisons and determine the degree of displayed aggressive behavior, to measure the change in the behavior of a group of prisoners following a change in regimen, to be part of a classification system that will ensure that prisoners are not held above a necessary level of security, to protect certain vulnerable prisoners.

Another example that Johnson (xxxx) provides is unit management, with the purpose of determining inmate program needs and monitoring involvement to encourage pro-social institution and community behaviors to benefit inmates, victims and society.
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Unit management stress a multi-disciplinary unit team, with staff offices located within each inmate housing unit, which are responsible for responding to emergencies and disturbances and assuming necessary correctional officer posts. These unit managers are responsible for directing and supervising a housing unit and total administration in addition to planning, developing, and implementing programs to meet the inmates' particular needs. Innovative programming requires close supervision and evaluation. Correctional Counselors develop and implement these programs, provide counseling and serve as the unit expert and coordinator of inmate.

Dealing with stress is another necessity, Johnson (xxxx) notes, and points to Toch who has suggested an orientation program for incoming prisoners. In an ideal situation, no one would send inmates into an unfamiliar environment where the prisoners cannot monitor the consequences of decisions. Environmental circumstances are another issue to face. Johnson (xxx) writes about defining ecological settings that are conducive to the prisoner. For example, prisoners who are prone to violence would be assigned to settings that combined the ecological dimensions of freedom and support. It is necessary to place people in proper environments and have constructive activities from learning how to cope with daily adjustment problems to participation in formal correctional programs.

Another program that has been very successful with a variety of different populations, not only prisoners and parolees is cognitive behavior therapy. This program is used with the general public who has anxiety problems as well as individuals such as returning soldiers who have post-traumatic stress disorder. The main goal of cognitive programming is instructing individuals to better understand their behavior and its consequences and learn how to change to more pro-social attitudes, beliefs, cooperation and flexibility. Cognitive restructuring/distortions programs are aimed to changing the individual's beliefs and values and cognitive skills deficits programs look to change the person's thinking process. Cognitive restructuring work toward altering errors in thinking and cognitive skill interventions attempt to alter thinking deficits. Both of these forms of cognitive interventions assist in promoting pro-social thoughts and behaviors. That is, the major goal of these forms of cognitive interventions is the rehabilitation of the offender. Such cognitive programs have been effectively implemented in community corrections, juvenile facilities, adult prisons, and substance abuse programs Although the adult prison system has been more reluctant to utilize cognitive programming, research suggests that can be quite effective at reducing recidivism rates of program participants.

Champion (xxxx) raises another issue: How what happens to the parolees when they are on probation. What programs, if any, are the most effective? Can they achieve their objectives and support recidivism? He stresses that every program that is implemented needs to be evaluated to determine if it cost effective and accomplishes its stated goals. Each of these programs have different elements, for example, heighten offender accountability where restitution to victims or the community is encouraged. It is also necessary to clearly define recidivism, which can have many different meanings and expectations.

At the end of his book, Johnson (xxxx) asks for the American citizens to place their efforts on penal reform. Is this possible? Can the American mindset be changed from warehousing to supportive programming? There is a major difference between the U.S. And many countries in Europe and the rest of the Americas, actually nearly anywhere else worldwide. The difference is that the U.S. penal system is not a criminal justice system. Instead, as many state, it is a Gulag system similar to that in the Soviet Union. It is being used to politically control the population and specifically a targeted group within in this general population. Huge numbers of people are being incarcerated and no longer treated like citizens. This has proven to be easier than putting greater efforts on the society that has developed these criminals in the first place.

In America, it is a necessity to change more than just the system. It is changing the underlying belief systems of the populace. In order to have true prison reform, it is necessary to alter the prejudicial attitudes that are underneath the system itself. For example, the negative attitudes toward prisoners that many people have. These prisoners are seen as individuals who have not followed the correct rules of the society and need to be banned from that society and put away from the general public. Unfortunately, then the situation comes "out of sight, out of mind." With all the other issues facing the American citizenry on a regular basis, the plight of those behind the prison walls is not a high priority. Americans…

Sources Used in Documents:


Alexander, M. (2010) Is Mass Incarceration the New Jim Crow? NY: New Press

Durham, a.M. (1994) Crisis and reform: current issues in American punishment. Canada: Little Brown and Co.

Johnson, R. Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison

Katz, L., Levitt, S.D., & Shustorovich, E. (2003) Prison conditions, capital punishment and deterrence. American Law and Economics Review, 5(2):318-343,

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