The United States Prison System
A Glimpse Behind the Bars
Currently there are 2.2 million Americans behind bars.
They cost the country $60 billion a year.
Studying the American prison system and the issues that currently exist within it is an exhausting task. Even taking a mere glimpse at the overlaying problems will provide an intense awakening and much material for critical thought.
Discrimination based on race clearly exists within the prison system.
- On December 31st, 2005-There were an estimated 491 prisoners per 100,000 United States residents, up from 411 at the year 1995. As well, there were 3,145 black male sentenced inmates per 100,000 black males in the United States. There were 1244 Hispanic male sentenced inmates per 1000 Hispanic males and 471 white male inmates per 100,000 while males, at this time. To visit the Bureau of Justice Statistics page, Prison Statistics, click here.
This racial discrimination that exists within the prison system is having great effects on the country, especially in the area of voting.
- “According to an October 1998 report by The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based legal research and service organization, in a dozen states, 30 to 40 percent of the next generation of black men will permanently lose the right to vote if current trends continue. In nine states, one in four black men can never vote again because they were convicted of a felony. Upon release from prison in Washington State, felons automatically lose the right to vote…This loss of voting rights nationwide not only highlights the eroding political power base of blacks, but it also calls into question the notion of democracy in America.” To view the article, Number of Blacks in Prison Nears 1Million, from which this information was gathered, click here.
The number of Americans imprisoned is obnoxiously high.
- The United States has the highest per capita rate of people in prison.
- In the year 2000, the Human Rights Watch found that 22 states and the federal prison system operated at 100 percent or more of their highest capacity. Due to this extreme overcrowding the rise in privately operated facilities has recently spiked. Such private prisons now house 5.5 percent of all state prisoners and 2.5 percent of all federal prisoners. This information was gathered from the Human Rights Watch article on the general state of the American prison system. To view this article, click here.
Prisons are expensive to operate.
- “Prisons are a costly enterprise. Prisoner maintenance a few years ago averaged around $7,041 a year per prisoner for adult jails and $9,439 for adult prisons. In a few states the figure exceeded $20,000 per prisoner. Construction costs range from $25,000 to $50,000 per bed. Nationwide this price has meant a $5 billion construction bill for the 800 local, state and federal institutions that in January 1977 were planning to add 200,000 prison beds. The state lost tax revenue, and welfare costs for inmate-related families added still another layer of expenditures that governmental agencies had to build into their expanding criminal-justice budgets.” To view the article by Robert A. Fangmeier entitled Myths and Realities About Prisons and Jails, that contains this information, click here.
It has been questioned whether or not the crimes many Americans have been imprisoned for actually merit incarceration as the fairest, most economical, efficient, and ethical punishment option.
- “Contrary to the public perception that the incarceration of violent offenders has driven America's prison growth, the [Justice Policy] Institute found that 77% of the growth in intake to America's state and federal prisons. between 1978 and 1996 was accounted for by nonviolent offenders. According to data collected by the United States Justice Department, from 1978 to 1996, the number of violent offenders entering our nation's prisons doubled (from 43,733 to 98,672 inmates); the number of nonviolent offenders tripled (from 83,721 to 261,796 inmates) and the number of drug offenders increased seven-fold (from 14,241 to 114,071 inmates). Justice Department surveys show that 52.7% of state prison inmates, 73.7% of jail inmates, and 87.6% of federal inmates were imprisoned for offenses which involved neither harm, nor the threat of harm, to a victim. Based on this data, we estimate that by the end of 1998, there were 440,088 nonviolent jail inmates, 639,280 nonviolent state prison inmates, and 106,090 nonviolent federal prisoners locked up in America, for a total 1,185,458 nonviolent prisoners.” To read the report by Daniel Maccallair entitled America’s One-Million Nonviolent Prisoners, where from this quote was taken, click here.
In reality, how effective is the prison system?
The definition of a correctional facility is “a prison”. But is this really the case; are prisons really correctional facilities?
- Upon their investigation, the Human Rights Watch found that many prison inmates have “scant opportunities for work, training, education, treatment, or counseling” because of taxpayer resistance to increasing the already outrageous amount on money spent on the prison system. Finding themselves in such seemingly hopeless situations, inmates with long sentences, little hope of release, who are jammed into poorly equipped facilities—therefore with little incentive for good behavior—often become violent. To read the Human Rights Watch article on the general state of the American prison system entitled U.S. Prisons, click here.
- The Human Rights Watch also found that prisoner on prisoner sexual abuse is currently a rising issue in the US prison system, as the number of inmates continually increases. As the issue of rape increases, so do the numbers of those both physically and psychologically damaged. Physical effects vary from instance to instance and include the transmission of diseases/infections, such as HIV (a particularly growing concern). The psychological stress that inevitably follow sexual abuse is another area of great concern as “victims of prison rape commonly report nightmares, deep depression, shame, loss of self-esteem, self-hatred, and considering or attempting suicide.” Because of the damages that accompany sexual abuse anger and tendencies toward violence often increase. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspects of the issue of sexual abuse in prisons is that “prison authorities, unsurprisingly, generally claim that prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse is an exceptional occurrence rather than a systemic problem”. Due to this attitude, along with the issues of funding previously discussed, victims of sexual abuse in prisons do not often receive adequate care. To read the official Human Rights Watch report No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons, click here.
Missing from and unable to be seen in the statistics above is the number of children left with one or no parents, the families that struggle to make ends meet with limited income, and cyclic nature of imprisonment in the U.S. This cycle mentioned now is one in which children lacking opportunity become constrained in a sort of negative mindset without the influences of essential figures in their lives.