A better path forward for criminal justice: Changing prisons to help people change

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Christy visher and christy visher professor - university of delaware john eason john eason associate professor - university of wisconsin.

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Below is the third chapter from “A Better Path Forward for Criminal Justice,” a report by the Brookings-AEI Working Group on Criminal Justice Reform. You can access other chapters from the report here .

Prison culture and environment are essential to public health and safety. While much of the policy debate and public attention of prisons focuses on private facilities, roughly 83 percent of the more than 1,600 U.S. facilities are owned and operated by states. 1 This suggest that states are an essential unit of analysis in understanding the far-reaching effects of imprisonment and the site of potential solutions. Policy change within institutions has to begin at the state level through the departments of corrections. For example, California has rebranded their state corrections division and renamed it the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. For many, these are not only name changes but shifts in policy and practice. In this chapter, we rethink the treatment environment of the prison by highlighting strategies for developing cognitive behavioral communities in prison—immersive cognitive communities. This new approach promotes new ways of thinking and behaving for both incarcerated persons and correctional staff. Behavior change requires changing thinking patterns and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based strategy that can be utilized in the prison setting. We focus on short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations to begin implementing this model and initiate reforms for the organizational structure of prisons.

Level Setting

The U.S. has seen a steady decline in the federal and state prison population over the last eleven years, with a 2019 population of about 1.4 million men and women incarcerated at year-end, hitting its lowest level since 1995. 2   With the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, criminal justice reformers have urged a continued focus on reducing prison populations and many states are permitting early releases of nonviolent offenders and even closing prisons. Thus, we are likely to see a dramatic reduction in the prison population when the data are tabulated for 2020.

However, it is undeniable that the U.S. will continue to use incarceration as a sanction for criminal behavior at a much higher rate than in other Western countries, in part because of our higher rate of violent offenses. Consequently, a majority of people incarcerated in the U.S. are serving a prison sentence for a violent offense (58 percent). The most serious offense for the remainder is property offenses (16 percent), drug offenses (13 percent), or other offenses (13 percent; generally, weapons, driving offenses, and supervision violations). 3 Moreover, the majority of people in U.S. prisons have been previously incarcerated. The prison population is largely drawn from the most disadvantaged part of the nation’s population: mostly men under age 40, disproportionately minority, with inadequate education. Prisoners often carry additional deficits of drug and alcohol addictions, mental and physical illnesses, and lack of work experience. 4

According to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average sentence length in state courts for those sentenced to confinement in a state prison is about 4 years and the average time served is about 2.5 years. Those sentenced for a violent offense typically serve about 4.7 years with persons sentenced for murder or manslaughter serving an average of 15 years before their release. 5 Thus, it is important to consider the conditions of prison life in understanding how individuals rejoin society at the conclusion of their sentence. Are they prepared to be valuable community members? What lessons have they learned during their confinement that may help them turn their life around? Will they be successful in avoiding a return to prison? What is the most successful path for helping returning citizens reintegrate into their communities?

Regrettably, prison life is often fraught with difficulty. Being sentenced to incarceration can be traumatic, leading to mental health disorders and difficulty rejoining society. Incarcerated individuals must adjust to the deprivation of liberty, separation from family and social supports, and a loss of personal control over all aspects of one’s life. In prison, individuals face a loss of self-worth, loneliness, high levels of uncertainty and fear, and idleness for long periods of time. Imprisonment disrupts the routines of daily life and has been described as “disorienting” and a “shock to the system”. 6 Further, some researchers have described the existence of a “convict code” in prison that governs behavior and interactions with norms of prison life including mind your own business, no snitching, be tough, and don’t get too close with correctional staff. While these strategies can assist incarcerated persons in surviving prison, these tools are less helpful in ensuring successful reintegration.

Thus, the entire prison experience can jeopardize the personal characteristics required to be effective partners, parents, and employees once they are released. Coupled with the lack of vocational training, education, and reentry programs, individuals face a variety of challenges to reintegrating into their communities. Successful reintegration will not only improve public safety but forces us to reconsider public safety as essential to public health.

Despite the toll of difficult conditions of prison, people who are incarcerated believe that they can be successful citizens. In surveys and interviews with men and women in prison, the majority express hope for their future. Most were employed before their incarceration and have family that will help them get back on their feet. Many have children that they were supporting and want to reconnect with. They realize that finding a job may be hard, but they believe they will be able to avoid the actions that got them into trouble, principally committing crimes and using illegal substances. 7 Research also shows that most individuals with criminal records, especially those convicted of violent crimes, were often victims themselves. This complicates the “victim”-“offender” binary that dominates the popular discourse about crime. By moving beyond this binary, we propose cognitive behavioral therapy, among a host of therapeutic approaches, as part of a broader restorative approach.

Despite having histories of associating with other people who commit crimes and use illegal drugs, incarcerated individuals have pro-social family and friends in their lives. They also may have some personality characteristics that make it difficult to resist involvement in criminal behavior, including impulsivity, lack of self-control, anger/defiance, and weak problem-solving and coping skills. Psychologists have concluded that the primary individual characteristics influencing criminal behavior are thinking patterns that foster criminal activity, associating with other people who engage in criminal activity, personality patterns that support criminal activity, and a history of engaging in criminal activity. 8  While the context constrains individual behavior and choices, the motivation for incarcerated individuals to change their behavior is rooted in their value of family and other positive relationships. However, most prison environments pose significant challenges for incarcerated individuals to develop motivation to make positive changes. Interpersonal relationships in prison are difficult as there is often a culture of mistrust and suspicion coupled with a profound absence of empathy. Despite these challenges, cognitive behavioral interventions can provide a successful path for reintegration.

Many psychologists believe that changing unwanted or negative behaviors requires changing thinking patterns since thoughts and feelings affect behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) emerged as a psycho-social intervention that helps people learn how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior and emotions. It focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful cognitive distortions and behaviors, improving emotional regulation, and developing personal coping strategies that target solving current problems. 9  In most cases, CBT is a gradual process that helps a person take incremental steps towards a behavior change. CBT has been directed at a wide range of conditions including various addictions (smoking, alcohol, and drug use), eating disorders, phobias, and problems dealing with stress or anxiety. CBT programs help people identify negative thoughts, practice skills for use in real-world situations, and learn problem-solving skills. For example, a person with a substance use disorder might start practicing new coping skills and rehearsing ways to avoid or deal with a high-risk situation that could trigger a relapse.

Since criminal behavior is driven partly by certain thinking patterns that predispose individuals to commit crimes or engage in illegal activities, CBT helps people with criminal records change their attitudes and gives them tools to avoid risky situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a comprehensive and time-consuming treatment, typically, requiring intensive group sessions over many months with individualized homework assignments. Evaluations of CBT programs for justice-involved people found that cognitive restructuring treatment was significantly effective in reducing criminal behavior, with those receiving CBT showing recidivism reductions of 20 to 30 percent compared to control groups. 10 Thus, the widespread implementation of cognitive behavioral therapy as part of correctional programming could lead to fewer rearrests and lower likelihood of reincarceration after release. CBT can also be used to mitigate prison culture and thus help reintegrate returning citizens back into their communities.

Thus, the widespread implementation of cognitive behavioral therapy as part of correctional programming could lead to fewer rearrests and lower likelihood of reincarceration after release.

Even the most robust CBT program that meets three hours per week leaves 165 hours a week in which the participant is enmeshed in the typical prison environment. Such an arrangement is bound to dilute the therapy’s impact. To counter these negative influences, the new idea is to connect CBT programming in prison with the old idea of therapeutic communities. Therapeutic communities—either in prison or the community—were established as a self-help substance use rehabilitation approach and instituted the idea that separating the target population from the general population would allow a pro-social community to develop and thereby discourage antisocial cognitions and behaviors. The therapeutic community model relies heavily on participant leadership and requires participants to intervene in arguments and guide treatment groups. Inside prisons, therapeutic communities are a separate housing unit that fosters a rehabilitative environment.

Cognitive Communities in prison would be an immersive experience in cognitive behavioral therapy involving cognitive restructuring, anti-criminal modeling, skill building, problem-solving, and emotion management. These communities would promote new ways of thinking and behaving among its participants around the clock, from breakfast in the morning through residents’ daily routines, including formal CBT sessions, to the evening meal and post-dinner activities. Blending the best aspects of therapeutic communities with CBT principles would lead to Cognitive Communities with several key elements: a separate physical space, community participation in daily activities, reinforcement of pro-social behavior, use of teachable moments, and structured programs. This cultural shift in prison organization provides a foundation for restorative justice practices in prisons.

Accordingly, our recommendations include:

Short-Term Reforms

Create Transforming Prisons Act

Accelerate decarceration begun during pandemic.

Medium-Term Reforms

Encourage Rehabilitative Focus in State Prisons

Foster greater use of community sanctions.

Long-Term Reforms

Embrace Rehabilitative/Restorative Community Justice Models

Encourage collaborations between corrections agencies and researchers, short-term reforms.

To begin transforming prisons to help prisons and people change, a new funding opportunity for state departments of correction is needed. We propose the Transforming Prisons Act (funded through the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance) which would permit states to apply for funds to support innovative programs and practices that would improve prison conditions both for the people who live in prisons and work in prisons. This dual approach would begin to transform prisons into a more just and humane experience for both groups. These new funds could support broad implementation of Cognitive Communities by training the group facilitators and the correctional staff assigned to the specialized prison units. Funds could also be used to broaden other therapeutic programming to support individuals in improving pro-social behaviors through parenting classes, family engagement workshops, anger management, and artistic programming. One example is the California Transformative Arts which promotes self-awareness and improves mental health through artistic expression. Together, these programs could mark a rehabilitative turn in corrections.

While we work to change policies and practices to make prisons more humane, we also need to work towards decarceration. The COVID-19 crisis has enabled innovations in diverting and improving efforts to reintegrate returning citizens in the U.S. During the pandemic, many states took bold steps in implementing early release for older incarcerated persons especially those with health disorders. Research shows that returning citizens of advanced age and with poor health conditions are far less likely to commit crime after release. This set of circumstances makes continued diversion and reintegration of this population a much wiser investment than incarceration.


In direct response to calls to abolish prisons and defund the police, state prisons should move away from focusing on incapacitation to rehabilitation. To assist in this change, federal funds should be tied to embracing a rehabilitative mission to transform prisons. This transformation should be rooted in evidence-based therapeutic programming, documenting impacts on both incarcerated individuals and corrections staff. Prison good-time policies should be revisited so that incarcerated individuals receive substantial credit for participating in intensive programming such as Cognitive Communities. With a backdrop of an energized rehabilitative philosophy, states should be supported in their efforts to implement innovative models and programming to improve the reintegration of returning citizens and change the organizational structure of their prisons.

In direct response to calls to abolish prisons and  defund  the police, state prisons should move away from focusing on incapacitation to rehabilitation.

As the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, current U.S. incarceration policies and practices are costly for families, communities, and state budgets. Openly punitive incarceration policies make it exceedingly difficult for incarcerated individuals to successfully reintegrate into communities as residents, family members, and employees. A long-term policy goal in the U.S. must be to reduce our over-reliance on incarceration through shorter prison terms, increased reliance on community sanctions, and closing prisons. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that decarceration poses minimal risk to community safety. Given this steady decline in the prison population and decline in prison building in the U.S. since 2000, we encourage other types of development in rural communities to loosen the grip of prisons in these areas. Alternative development for rural communities is important because the most disadvantaged rural communities are both senders of prisoners and receivers of prisons with roughly 70 percent of prison facilities located in rural communities.


Public safety and public health goals can be achieved through Community Justice Centers—these are sites that act as a diversion preference for individuals who may be in a personal crisis due to mental health conditions, substance use, or family trauma. Recent research demonstrates that using social or public health services to intervene in such situations can lead to better outcomes for communities than involving the criminal justice system. To be clear, many situations can be improved by crisis intervention expertise specializing in de-escalation rather than involving the justice system which may have competing objectives. Community Justice Centers are nongovernmental organizations that divert individuals in crisis away from law enforcement and the justice system. Such diversion also helps ease the social work burden on the justice system that it is often ill-equipped to handle.

Researchers and corrections agencies need to develop working relationships to permit the study of innovative organizational approaches. In the past, the National Institute of Justice created a researcher-practitioner partnership program , whereby local researchers worked with criminal justice practitioners (generally, law enforcement) to develop research projects that would benefit local criminal justice agencies and test innovative solutions to local problems. A similar program could be announced to help researchers assist corrections agencies and officials in identifying research projects that could address problems facing prisons and prison officials (e.g., safety, staff burnout, and prisoner grievance procedures).

Recommendations for Future Research

Some existing jail and prison correctional systems are implementing broad organization changes, including immersive faith-based correctional programs, jail-based 60- to 90-day reentry programs to prepare individuals for their transition to the community, Scandinavian and other European models to change prison culture, and an innovative Cognitive Community approach operating in several correctional facilities in Virginia. However, these efforts have not been rigorously evaluated. New models could be developed and tested widely, preferably through randomized controlled trials, and funded by the research arm of the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), or various private funders, including Arnold Ventures.

Correctional agencies in some states may be ready to implement the Cognitive Community model using a separate section of a prison or smaller facility not in use. Funding is needed to evaluate these pilot efforts, assess fidelity to the model standards, identify challenges faced in implementing the model, and propose any modifications to improve the proposed Cognitive Community model. Full-scale rigorous tests of the Cognitive Community model are needed which would randomly assign eligible inmates to the Cognitive Community environment or to continue to carry out their sentence in a regular prison setting. Ideally, these studies would observe the implementation of the program, assess intermediate outcomes while participants are enrolled in the program, follow participants upon release and examine post-release experiences in the post-release CBT program, and then assess a set of reentry outcomes at several intervals for at least one year after release.

Prison culture and environment are essential to community public health and safety. Incarcerated individuals have difficulty successfully reintegrating into their communities after release because the environment in most U.S. prisons is not conducive to positive change. Normalizing prison environments with evidence-based programming, including cognitive behavioral therapy, education, and personal development, will help incarcerated individuals lead successful lives in the community as family members, employees, and community residents. States need to move towards less reliance on incarceration and more attention to community justice models.

Recommended Readings

  • Eason, John M. 2017. Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation . Chicago, IL: Univ of Chicago Press.

Travis, J., Western, B., and Redburn, S. (Eds.). 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. National Research Council; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; Committee on Law and Justice; Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Orrell, B. (Ed). 2020. Rethinking Reentry . Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.

Mitchell, Meghan M., Pyrooz, David C., & Decker, Scott. H. 2020. “Culture in prison, culture on the street: the convergence between the convict code and code of the street.” Journal of Crime and Justice . DOI:  10.1080/0735648X.2020.1772851 .

Haney, C. 2002. “The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment.” https://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/psychological-impact-incarceration-implications-post-prison-adjustment .

  • Carson, E. Ann. 2020. Prisoners in 2019. NCJ 255115. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Travis, Jeremy, Bruce Western, and Steven Redburn, (Eds.). 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. National Research Council; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; Committee on Law and Justice; Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration . Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • Kaeble, Danielle. 2018. Time Served in State Prison, 2016. NCJ 252205. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Haney, Craig. 2002. “The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment.” Prepared for the Prison to Home Conference, January 30–31, 2002. https://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/psychological-impact-incarceration-implications-post-prison-adjustment .
  • Visher, Christy and Nancy LaVigne. 2021. “Returning home: A pathbreaking study of prisoner reentry and its challenges.” In P.K. Lattimore, B.M. Huebner, & F.S. Taxman (eds.), Handbook on moving corrections and sentencing forward: Building on the record (pp. 278–311). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Latessa, Edward. 2020. “Triaging services for individuals returning from prison.” In B. Orrell (Ed.), Rethinking Reentry . Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.
  • Nana Landenberger and Mark Lipsey. 2005. “The positive effects of cognitive-behavioral programs for offenders: A meta-analysis of factors associated with effective treatment.” Journal of Experimental Criminology , 1, 451–476.

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Richard Lempert

April 24, 2024

Why Do We Have Prisons in the United States?

The Enlightenment brought the idea that punishments should be certain and mild, rather than harsh with lots of pardons and exceptions.

Prison interior

What is prison for? That’s a question a growing movement is asking as it looks beyond reforming prisons and sentencing laws, and imagines abolishing incarceration altogether. To think about what that might look like, it’s worth considering  how the U.S. prison system began , as historian Jim Rice did in his analysis of an early Maryland penitentiary.

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Maryland based its criminal law on English precedent, which meant terrifying punishments like hanging for minor theft, but also selective enforcement of the penalties with frequent pardons that demonstrated the mercy of officials. But where English lawmakers feared poor migrants wandering the country, Maryland’s upper classes needed more laborers than they could find. So, in place of the death penalty, thieves in the state were typically lashed and fined, keeping them alive while plunging them into debt. Those who couldn’t pay might be sold into servitude.

Then, in 1789, as Baltimore grew from a village to a city desperately in need of public works crews, the state passed the “Wheelbarrow Act.” This made most serious offenses punishable with hard labor on roads and the Baltimore harbor—up to seven years for free men or 14 for enslaved men.

But the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was an era of criminal justice reform on both sides of the Atlantic. The Enlightenment brought the idea that punishments should be certain and mild, rather than harsh with lots of pardons and exceptions, and that they should relate only to the crime, not the status of the person being punished. This also offered a more formal way to address crime in growing urban areas where officials could no longer respond to lawbreaking based on personal familiarity with the participants in a dispute.

In 1809, Maryland joined the growing ranks of U.S. states and European countries punishing crimes at penitentiaries. As the word suggested, the theory behind the institutions was that inmates could be induced to repent and reform. Not surprisingly, Maryland determined that a key tool in this project was “labour of the hardest and most servile kind,” including textile work, nail-making, and housekeeping. And while reformers expected penitentiaries to provide religious education and tailor work assignments to the goal of character improvement, in practice they were geared toward the fiscal needs of the institution, which the state expected to be self-supporting.

Another key divergence between theory and practice involved black convicts. Lawmakers assumed that African-Americans—free or enslaved—were inherently unreformable and that “prison life too closely resembled everyday black life to hold any real terror,” Rice writes. Nonetheless, black people flooded into the penitentiary.

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From the start, the penitentiary system didn’t fulfill reformers’ dreams. But the system made sense to officials who needed to keep order in bustling cities and supply labor to growing industries. The question today is what role prisons fill for the people who support them, and what alternatives might work better for the communities that bear the brunt of punishment.

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  • Analysis & Opinion

How Atrocious Prisons Conditions Make Us All Less Safe

The American prison system seems designed to ensure that people return to incarceration instead of successfully reentering society.

  • Shon Hopwood
  • Prison and Jail Reform
  • Social & Economic Harm

This essay is part of the  Brennan Center’s series  examining  the punitive excess that has come to define America’s criminal legal system .

Imagine one of those dystopian movies in which some character inhabits a world marked by dehumanization and a continual state of fear, neglect, and physical violence — The Hunger Games , for instance, or Mad Max . Now imagine that the people living in those worlds return to ours to become your neighbors. After such brutal traumatization, is it any wonder that they might struggle to obtain stable housing or employment, manage mental illness, deal with conflict, or become a better spouse or parent?

This is no fantasy world. American prisons cage millions of human beings in conditions similar to those movies. Of the more than 1.5 million people incarcerated in American prisons in 2019, more than 95 percent will be released back into the community at some point, at a rate of around 600,000 people each year. Given those numbers, we should ensure that those in our prisons come home better off, not worse — for their sake, but for society’s as well.

Yet our prisons fail miserably at preparing people for a law-abiding and successful life after release. A long-term study of recidivism rates of people released from state prisons from 2005 to 2014 found that 68 percent were arrested within three years and 83 percent were arrested within nine years following their release. And evidence confirms the great irony of our American criminal justice system: the longer someone spends in “corrections,” the less likely they are to stay out of jail or prison after their release. The data tells us that people are spending more time in prisons and the longest prison terms just keep getting longer, and thus our system of mass incarceration all but assures high rates of recidivism.

It is not difficult to understand why our prisons largely fail at preparing people to return to society successfully. American prisons are dangerous. Most are understaffed and overpopulated. Because of inadequate supervision, people in our prisons are exposed to incredible amounts of violence, including sexual violence. As just one example, in 2019 the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division concluded that Alabama’s prison system failed to protect prisoners from astounding levels of homicide and rape. In a single week, there were four stabbings (one that involved a death), three sexual assaults, several beatings, and one person’s bed set on fire as he slept.

Our prisons are so violent that they meaningfully impact the rehabilitation efforts for those inside them. There is an ever-present fear of violence in our gladiator-style prisons, where people have no protection from it. Incarcerated people who frequently witness violence and feel helpless to protect against it can experience post-traumatic stress symptoms — such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, and difficulty with emotional regulation — that last years after their release from custody. Because escalating conflict is the norm for those serving time in American prisons (often provoking violence as a self-defense mechanism), when they face conflict after being released, they are ill-equipped to handle it in a productive way. If the number of people impacted by prison violence was small, this situation would still be unjust and inhumane. But when more than 113 million Americans have had a close family member in jail or prison, the social costs can be cataclysmic.

Part of the reason our prisons are so violent is due to the idleness that occurs in them. As prison systems expanded over the last four decades, many states rejected the role of rehabilitation and reduced the number of available rehabilitation and educational programs. In Florida, which is the nation’s third largest prison system, there are virtually no education programs for prisoners, even though research shows that those programs reduce violence in prison and the recidivism rate for those released from prison.

It is not just the violence that is harmful. How American prisons are designed negatively impacts the ability of people to be self-reliant after their release. Prisons create social isolation by taking people from their communities and placing them behind razor wire, in locked cages. Through strict authoritarianism, rules, and control, prisons lessen personal autonomy and increase institutional dependence. This ensures that people learn to rely upon the free room and board only a prison can offer, thus rendering them less able to cope with economic demands upon release .

The location of our prisons also causes harm. Many prisons are located far away from cities and hundreds of miles from prisoners’ families. Consequently, family relationships deteriorate, impacting both prisoners and their loved ones. Just this past Mother’s Day, more than 150,000 imprisoned mothers spent the day apart from their children. As children with an incarcerated parent run greater risks of health and psychological problems, lower economic wellbeing, and decreased educational attainment, the aggravating effect of imprisonment far from one’s family is obvious.

The ill-considered location of prisons also increases the likelihood of inadequate attention paid to people with serious mental issues, who are widely present in our prisons. Prisons in remote and rural areas fail to hire and retain mental health professionals , and due to a lack of such resources, misdiagnosis of serious mental health issues is more likely. And not only is the treatment of such prisoners inadequate, but false negative determinations can also make it more difficult for them to receive disability benefits or treatment once released.

Prisons tend to rinse away the parts that make us human. They continue to use solitary confinement as a mechanism for dealing with idleness and misconduct, despite studies showing that it creates or exacerbates mental illness. Our prisons also foster an environment that values dehumanization and cruelty. At the federal prison in which I served for more than a decade, I watched correctional officers handcuff and then kick a friend of mine who had a softball-sized hernia protruding from his stomach. Because he was asking for medical attention, they treated him like a dog. There was little empathy in that place. And for over 10 years of my life, when those in authority addressed me, it was with the label “inmate.” The message every day, both explicitly and implicitly, was that I was unworthy of respect and dignity. Such an environment leads people to have a diminished sense of self-worth and personal value , affecting a person’s ability to empathize with others. The ability to empathize is a vital step towards rehabilitation, and when our prisons fail to rehabilitate, public safety ultimately suffers.

In sum, if you were to design a system to perpetuate intergenerational cycles of violence and imprisonment in communities already overburdened by criminal justice involvement, then the American prison system is what you would create. It routinely and persistently fails to produce the fair and just outcomes that will make us all safer.

So what can be done to fix our prisons? One of the reasons why our prison systems are so immune to change is because the worst of prison abuses occur behind closed doors, away from public view. Few prison systems have the independent oversight and transparency needed to ensure that they implement the best policies or comply with constitutional protections such as the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment .

There is no reason why our prisons should not be modeled on the principle of human dignity , which respects the worth of every human being. If you translated that into policy, it would mean that people in prison would be protected from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and would be provided with adequate mental health and medical treatment. It would mean prison systems would foster interpersonal relationships by placing people in facilities close to their loved ones and allowing ample in-person, phone, and video visitation. It would mean providing training on how to become better citizens, spouses, and parents. And it would mean offering educational and vocational programs designed to provide job skills for reentry, and behavioral programs designed to create empathy and autonomy, thereby preparing former prisoners to lead law-abiding and successful lives.

Shon Hopwood is a lawyer and associate professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. He served over 10 years in federal prison and is the author of Law Man: Memoir of Jailhouse Lawyer .

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Millions of Americans are incarcerated in overcrowded, violent, and inhumane jails and prisons that do not provide treatment, education, or rehabilitation. EJI is fighting for reforms that protect incarcerated people.

As prison populations surged nationwide in the 1990s and conditions began to deteriorate, lawmakers made it harder for incarcerated people to file and win civil rights lawsuits in federal court and largely eliminated court oversight of prisons and jails. 1 Meredith Booker, “ 20 Years Is Enough: Time to Repeal the Prison Litigation Reform Act ,” Prison Policy Initiative (May 5, 2016).

Today, prisons and jails in America are in crisis. Incarcerated people are beaten, stabbed, raped, and killed in facilities run by corrupt officials who abuse their power with impunity. People who need medical care, help managing their disabilities, mental health and addiction treatment, and suicide prevention are denied care , ignored, punished, and placed in solitary confinement.  And despite growing bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, the private prison industry continues to block meaningful proposals. 2 The Sentencing Project, “ Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons ” (2018).

Escalating Violence

Related Article

Alabama’s Prisons Are Deadliest in the Nation

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the level of violence in Alabama state prisons.

Alabama’s prisons are the most violent  in the nation. The U.S. Department of Justice found in a statewide investigation that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of people in its prisons, where homicide and sexual abuse is common, knives and dangerous drugs are rampant, and incarcerated people are extorted, threatened, stabbed, raped, and even tied up for days without guards noticing.

Serious understaffing, systemic classification failures, and official misconduct and corruption have left thousands of incarcerated individuals across Alabama and the nation vulnerable to abuse, assaults, and uncontrolled violence. 3 Matt Ford, “ The Everyday Brutality of America’s Prisons ,” The New Republic (Apr. 5, 2019).

Denying Treatment

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The Marshall Project

A tragic case in New York illustrates how prisons are failing to provide adequate mental health treatment.

More than half of all Americans in prison or jail have a mental illness. 4 Mental Health America, “ Access to Mental Health Care and Incarceration .”’ Prison officials often fail to provide appropriate treatment for people whose behavior is difficult to manage, instead resorting to physical force and solitary confinement, which can aggravate mental health problems.

More than 60,000 people in the U.S. are held in solitary confinement. 5 Liman Center for Public Interest Law & Association of State Correctional Administrators, “ Reforming Restrictive Housing: The 2018 ASCA-Liman Nationwide Survey of Time-in-Cell ” (Oct. 2018). They’re isolated in small cells for 23 hours a day, allowed out only for showers, brief exercise, or medical visits, and denied calls or visits from family members.  Studies show that people held in long-term solitary confinement suffer from anxiety, paranoia, perceptual disturbances, and deep depression. Nationwide, suicides among people held in isolation account for almost 50% of all prison suicides, even though less than 8% of the prison population is in isolation. 6 Erica Goode, “ Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life,” New York Times (Aug. 4, 2015).

The Supreme Court signaled in 2011 that failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care to incarcerated people could result in drastic consequences for states. It found that California’s grossly inadequate medical and mental health care is “incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society” and ordered the state to release up to 46,000 people from its “horrendous” prisons. 7 ‘ Brown v. Plata , 563 U.S. 493 (2011).’

But states like Alabama continue to fall far below basic constitutional requirements. In 2017, a federal court found Alabama’s “ horrendously inadequate ” mental health services had led to a “skyrocketing suicide rate” among incarcerated people. The court found that prison officials don’t identify people with serious mental health needs. There’s no adequate treatment for incarcerated people who are suicidal. And Alabama prisons discipline people with mental illness, often putting them in isolation for long periods of time.

Tolerating Abuse

Related Case

The Murder of Rocrast Mack

A 24-year-old man was beaten to death by guards at Alabama’s Ventress Prison.

A handful of abusive officers can engage in extreme cruelty and criminal misconduct if their supervisors look the other way.  When violent correctional officers are not held accountable, a dangerous culture of impunity flourishes.

The culture of impunity in Alabama, and in many other states, starts at the leadership level. The Justice Department found in 2019 that the Alabama Department of Corrections had long been aware of the unconstitutional conditions in its prisons, yet “little has changed.” In fact, the violence has gotten worse since the Justice Department announced its statewide investigation in 2016.

Similarly, ADOC failed to do anything about the “toxic, sexualized environment that permit[ted] staff sexual abuse and harassment” at Tutwiler Prison for Women despite “repeated notification of the problems.”

In the face of rising homicide rates,  Alabama officials misrepresented causes of death and the number of homicides in the state’s prisons.  The Justice Department reported that Alabama officials knew that staff were smuggling dangerous drugs into prisons. But rather than address staff corruption and illegal activity, state officials tried to hide the alarming number of drug overdose deaths in Alabama prisons by misreporting the data.

Enriching Corporations

No universal decline in mass incarceration.

Report from the Vera Institute of Justice shows “the specter of mass incarceration is alive and well.”

Mass incarceration is “an expensive way to achieve less public safety.” 8 Don Stemen, “ The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer ,” Vera Institute of Justice (2017). It cost taxpayers almost $87 billion in 2015 for roughly the same level of public safety achieved in 1978 for $5.5 billion. 9 Bureau of Justice Statistics, “ Summary Report: Expenditure and Employment Data for the Criminal Justice System 1978 ” (Sept. 1980). Factoring in policing and court costs, and expenses paid by families to support incarcerated loved ones, mass incarceration costs state and federal governments and American families $182 billion each year. 10 Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, “ Following the Money of Mass Incarceration ,” Prison Policy Initiative (2017).

Rising costs have spurred some local, state, and federal policymakers to reduce incarceration. But private corrections companies are heavily invested in keeping more than two million Americans behind bars. 11 Eric Markowitz, “ Making Profits on the Captive Prison Market ,” The New Yorker (Sept. 4, 2016).

The U.S. has the world’s largest private prison population. 12 The Sentencing Project, “ Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons ” (2018). Private prisons house 8.2% (121,420) of the 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons. 13 Jennifer Bronson & E. Ann Carson, “ Prisoners in 2017 ,” Bureau of Justice Statistics (Apr. 2019). Private prison corporations reported revenues of nearly $4 billion in 2017. 14 Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, “ Following the Money of Mass Incarceration,” Prison Policy Initiative (2017). The private prison population is on the rise , despite growing evidence that private prisons are less safe, do not promote rehabilitation, and do not save taxpayers money.

The fastest-growing incarcerated population is people detained by immigration officials. 15 Gretchen Gavett, “ Map: The U.S. Immigration Detention Boom ,” PBS Frontline (Oct. 18, 2011).   The federal government is increasingly relying on private, profit-based immigration detention facilities . 16 Madison Pauly, “ Trump’s Immigration Crackdown is a Boom Time for Private Prisons ,” Mother Jones (May/June 2018). Private detention companies are paid a set fee per detainee per night, and they negotiate contracts that guarantee a minimum daily headcount, creating perverse incentives for government officials. Many run notoriously dangerous facilities with horrific conditions that operate far outside federal oversight. 17 Emily Ryo & Ian Peacock, “ The Landscape of Immigration Detention in the United States ,” American Immigration Council (Dec. 2018).

Private prison companies profit from providing services at virtually every step of the criminal justice process, from privatized fine and ticket collection to bail bonds and privatized probation services. Profits come from charging high fees for services like GPS ankle monitoring, drug testing, phone and video calls, and even health care. 18 In the Public Interest, “ Private Companies Profit from Almost Every Function of America’s Criminal Justice System ” (Jan. 20, 2016).

Many state and local governments have entered into expensive long-term contracts with private prison corporations to build and sometimes operate prison facilities. Since these contracts prevent prison capacity from being changed or reduced, they effectively block criminal justice and immigration policy changes. 19 Bryce Covert, “ How Private Prison Companies Could Get Around a Federal Ban ,” The American Prospect (June 28, 2019).

Featured Work

EJI is confronting the nation’s most deadly and overcrowded prison system by investigating, documenting, and filing federal lawsuits and complaints about conditions in Alabama’s prisons.

Challenging Violent Prison Culture

EJI is suing the Alabama Department of Corrections for failing to respond to dangerous conditions and a high rate of violence at St. Clair Correctional Facility.

Investigating Sexual Abuse

EJI exposed the widespread sexual abuse of women incarcerated at Tutwiler Prison for Women, leading to a federal investigation.

Exposing Corruption, Violence, and Abuse

EJI has documented severe physical and sexual abuse and violence perpetrated by correctional officers and officials in three Alabama prisons for men.

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Prison Reform

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Published: Mar 13, 2024

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essay about prison system

Prison System In America Essay Example

Imagine you are a prisoner in America, in for a crime you did not commit. You have been charged with the minimum sentence for murder (25 years) knowing you are not guilty. America’s prison system is flawed to say the least, with its long days, grueling work, and its negative ability to rehabilitate its members back to society. America has maintained its prison systems since 1891, under Charles Foster, with little to no change to the way they go about taking care of their occupants. Many changes should be made to America’s prison system to alleviate is flaws in everyday life.  

To determine how “effective” a prison system is, we must determine what is the ratio per 100,000 people arrested is. Additionally, testing its ability to rehabilitate and keep people out of prison establishes how worthwhile the prison system may be. Due to changing times and growing economies prison systems must adapt to styles that seem fit to their respective countries.  

Personally, I believe we should look to Norway as a beacon to update and evaluate Americas Prison System. Norway's incarceration and rehabilitation rates beats most other competing prison systems globally. These components assemble a prison system that may prove more productive in a modernized society with more civilians. In this paper I argue that America can develop and adapt its prison systems to equate closer to Norway's, regarding mental/physical health, money spent per prisoner, and overall reduction in incarceration and an increase in rehabilitation.  

Norway vs America’s prison systems 

Norway's Prisons Systems are arguably the best prison system internationally. Norway's incarceration rate in 2014 was a ratio of 75 per 100,000 people arrested under law. Additionally, Norway has an annually increasing rehabilitation rate. From this past decade Norway has decreased its recidivism rate down to 20% of all prisoners reinterred into prisons after rehabilitation. Norway, as a growing country, avoids lots of obstacles regarding its inmates by what Bolorzul Dorjsuren from the Borgen project states as “taking a new approach” stating, “(Norway's) prisons’ accepting, caring and empathetic approach has paved the way for many prisoners into becoming fine citizens supporting their country’s economy” (Dorjuren). This demonstrates the effectiveness of Norway's Prisons as opposed to many other global ones.  

America and its growing prison system have begun to backtrack on what its goals. It is unsafe and difficult to live in Americas prisons. The type of treatment you may receive may be determined by the crime for what you were sentenced with. America functions differently than many other countries. The American Prison System intends to steal your rights away and punish the criminal for years on end. America's prisons occupants are bound to its prisons. In America after serving a sentence, many prisoners have roughly a 66% chance of reinterring prisons after rehabilitation. The overwhelming majority of these people will spend most of their time in jail because it is normal for them. More than half of the recidivists have nothing when returning to society and thus, must steal to provide for themselves. 

ADX VS Halden   

Currently, in America there has been a heavy increase in the use of spending annually per prisoner. As populations grow, so will prisons.  Rudy Gerhold from Kent Partnership states as “a growth of 300% more prisoners in America, spending per annuity will rise” (Gerhold).  As expected, a prisoner for 20 years will cost less than a prisoner for life. This has become one of Americas biggest setbacks compared to Norway. Norway spends roughly 93,000 an inmate for each annual year, compared to America’s 23,000 spending budget per prisoner. Spending typically goes towards many things such as mental health and drug abuse counseling, anger management, necessities as well as food. Having more of this allows for more additional activities such as Norway's famous prison, Halden, wood working, mechanics, and music production. Additional growth and production allow for an increase in rehabilitation rates. 

Contrary to Norway, as an American citizen, you can have up to life in jail for a crime you committed. In your respective prisons, you may be subject to violence for little to no reason at all. Some examples of this violence is seen and explained in a THE NEW REPUBLIC article by Matt Ford. He speaks about Prison Guards traumatizing sights in Prison. These stories go as far as, prisoners lying dead on the floor so long that “their face was flattened,” to other forms of torture such as inmates beat others with broken mop handles and giving chemical burns to other inmates with heated up shaving cream. Many of these victims needed outside help because they were harmed so badly. These atrocities happen in almost every prison. Americas most “secure” prison is known as Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Prison, (ADX) known for being the most isolated prisons in America holding prisoners with violent pasts with other prisoners, foreign and domestic terrorists, and those who head drug and gang cartels.  

Norway is a country which approaches a problem as a puzzle. Attempting to solve it regarding everyone. In 2009 Norway decided to change its maximum sentencing up to 21 years, with exceptions to severe cases such as war crimes and genocide which is punishable by 30 years and additional years if needed. However, despite this, Norway, and Bob Cameron from Slate, believes that keeping a progressive approach to occupants sentencing prioritizes rehabilitation as a primary strategy for reducing future criminal behavior. As a result of the citizens and occupants of Norway are safer and feel sheltered from any crime related threats. 


The adjustments needed for America must start now so change can begin soon to promote a beneficial economy. 

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152 Prison Essay Topics & Corrections Topics for Research Papers

Welcome to our list of prison research topics! Here, you will find a vast collection of corrections topics, research papers ideas, and issues for group discussion. In addition, we’ve included research questions about prisons related to mass incarceration and other controversial problems.

🏆 Best Essay Topics on Prison

✍️ prison essay topics for college, 👍 good prison research topics & essay examples, 🎓 controversial corrections research topics, 💡 hot corrections topics for research papers, ❓ prison research questions.

  • Prisons Are Ineffective in Rehabilitating Prisoners
  • The Comfort and Luxury of Prison Life
  • Prison System Issues: Mistreatment and Abuse
  • Prison Reform in the US Criminal Justice System
  • Norway Versus US Prison and How They Differ
  • Overcrowding in Prisons and Its Impact on Health
  • The Issue of Overcrowding in the Prison System
  • How ”Prison Life” Affects Inmates Lifes As statistics indicate, 98% of those released from American prisons, after having served their sentences, do not consider themselves being “corrected”.
  • Rehabilitation Programs Offered in Prisons The paper, am going to try and analyze some of the rehabilitation programs which will try to deter the majority of the inmates from been convicted of many crimes they are involved in.
  • Prison Reform: Rethinking and Improving The topic of prison reform has been highly debated as the American Criminal Justice System has failed to address the practical and social challenges.
  • Mental Health Institutions in Prisons Mental institutions in prisons are essential and might be helpful to inmates, and prevention, detection, and proper mental health issues treatment should be a priority in prisons.
  • How Education in Prisons Help Inmates Rehabilitate Criminal justice presupposes punishments for committing offenses, which include the isolation of recidivists from society.
  • Mass Incarceration in American Prisons This research paper describes the definition of incarceration and focuses on the reasons for imprisonment in the United States of America.
  • Prisons and the Different Security Levels Prisons are differentiated with regard to the extent of security, including supermax, maximum, medium, and minimum levels. This paper discusses prison security levels.
  • Security Threat Groups: The Important Elements in Prison Riots Security Threat Groups appear to be an a priori element of prison culture, inspired and cultivated by its fundamental principles of power.
  • Prison Makes Criminals Worse This paper discusses if prisons are effective in making criminals better for society or do they make them worse.
  • Prison Life in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts In the article Larry Goldsmith has attempted to provide a detailed history of prison life and prison system during the 19th century.
  • Prison System in the United States Depending on what laws are violated – federal or state – the individuals are usually placed in either a federal or state prison.
  • The Role of Culture in the School-to-Prison Pipeline The school-to-prison pipeline is based on many social factors and cannot be recognized as only an outcome of harsh disciplinary policies.
  • Prison Culture: Term Definition There has been contention in the area of literature whether prison culture results from the environment within the prison or is as a result of the culture that inmates bring into prison.
  • Women Serving Time With Their Children: The Challenge of Prison Mothers The law in America requires that mothers stay with their children as a priority. Prisons have therefore opened nurseries for children of mothers who are serving short terms.
  • Early Prison Release to Reduce a Prison’s Budget The primary goal of releasing nonviolent offenders before their sentences are finished is cutting down on expenses.
  • Prison Staffing and Correctional Officers’ Duties The rehabilitative philosophy in corrective facilities continually prompts new reinforced efforts to transform inmates.
  • Discrimination in Prison Problem The problem of discrimination requires a great work of social workers, especially in such establishments like prisons.
  • Privatization of Prisons in the US, Australia and UK The phenomenon of modern prison privatization emerged in the United States in the mid-1980s and spread to Australia and the United Kingdom from there.
  • Alcatraz Prison and Its History With Criminals Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary famously referred to as “The Rock”, served as a maximum prison from 1934-1963. It was located on Alcatraz Island.
  • Prison Population by Ethnic Group and Sex Labeling theory, which says that women being in “inferior” positions will get harsher sentences, and the “evil women hypothesis” are not justified.
  • Researching of the Reasons Prisons Exist While prisons are the most common way of punishing those who have committed a crime, the efficiency of prisons is still being questioned.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment Analysis Abuse between guards and prisoners is an imminent factor attributed to the differential margin on duties and responsibilities.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment’s Historical Record The Stanford Prison Experiment is a seminal investigation into the dynamics of peer pressure in human psychology.
  • The Lucifer Effect: Stanford County Prison In 1971, a group of psychologists led by Philip Zimbardo invited mentally healthy students from the USA and Canada, selected from 70 volunteers, to take part in the experiment.
  • The Prison Effect Based on Philip Zimbardo’s Book This paper explores the lessons that can be learned from Philip Zimbardo’s book “The Lucifer Effect” and highlights the experiment’s findings and their implications.
  • Ethical Decision-Making for Public Administrators at Abu Ghraib Prison The subject of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib Prison has garnered global attention and a prominent role in arguments over the Iraq War.
  • Bruce Western’s Book Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison The book by Bruce Western Homeward: Life in the Year after Prison provides different perspectives on the struggles that ex-prisoners face once released from jail.
  • Psychology: Zimbardo Prison Experiment Despite all the horrors that contradict ethics, Zimbardo’s research contributed to the formation of social psychology. It was unethical to conduct this experiment.
  • Economic Differences in the US Prison System The main research question is, “What is the significant difference in the attitude toward prisoners based on their financial situation?”
  • Transgender People in Prisons: Rights Violations There are many instances of how transgender rights are violated in jails: from misgendering from the staff and other prisoners to isolation and refusal to provide healthcare.
  • The Prison-Based Community and Intervention Efforts The prison-based community is a population that should be supported in diverse spheres such as healthcare, psychological health, social interactions, and work.
  • The Canadian Prison System: Problems and Proposed Solutions The state of Canadian prisons has been an issue of concern for more than a century now. Additionally, prisons are run in a manner that does not promote rehabilitation.
  • American Prisons as Social Institutions The prison system of the U.S. gained features that distance it from the theoretical conception of a redemptive control mechanism.
  • Prisons as a Response to Crimes Prisons are not adequate measures for limiting long-term crime rates or rehabilitating inmates, yet other alternatives are either undeveloped or too costly to ensure public safety.
  • The State of Prisons in the United Kingdom and Wales Since 1993, there has been a steady increase in the prison population in the UK, hitting a record highest of 87,000 inmates in 2012.
  • Drug Abuse Demographics in Prisons Drug abuse, including alcohol, is a big problem for the people contained in prisons, both in the United States and worldwide.
  • My Prison System: Incarceration, Deterrence, Rehabilitation, and Retribution The prison system described in the paper belongs to medium-security prisons which will apply to most types of criminals.
  • The Criminal Justice System: The Prison Industrial Complex The criminal justice system is the institution which is present in every advanced country, and it is responsible for punishing individuals for their wrongdoings.
  • Penal Labor in the American Prison System The 13th Amendment allows for the abuse of the American prison system. This is because it permits the forced labor of convicted persons.
  • Private and Public Prisons’ Functioning The purpose of this paper is to discuss the functioning of modern private and public prisons. There is a significant need to change the approach for private prisons.
  • “Picking Battles: Correctional Officers, Rules, and Discretion in Prison”: Research Question The “Picking Battles: Correctional Officers, Rules, and Discretion in Prison” aims to define the extent to which correctional officers use discretion in their work.
  • Recidivism in the Criminal Justice: Prison System of America One of the main issues encountered by the criminal justice system remains recidivism which continues to stay topical.
  • The Electronic Monitoring of Offenders Released From Jail or Prison The paper analyzes the issue of electronic monitoring for offenders who have been released from prison or jail.
  • “Episode 66: Yard of Dreams — Ear Hustle’’: Sports in Prison “Episode 66: Yard of dreams — Ear hustle’’ establishes that prison sports are an important aspect of transforming the lives of prisoners in the correctional system.
  • The Concept of PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Rape remains among the dominant crimes in the USA; almost every minute an American becomes a victim of it. The problem is especially acute in penitentiaries.
  • Recidivism in the Criminal Justice: Prison System of America The position of people continuously returning to prisons in the United States is alarming due to their high rates.
  • Prisonization and Secure Housing Units in Prisons The main issue of SHUs is that the absence of community forces a person to experience a significant mental crisis because humans are social creatures.
  • Prison’s Impact on People’s Health The paper explains experts believe that the prison situation contributes to the negative effects on the health of the convicted person.
  • Contribution of Prisons to US Racial Disparities The USA showcases persistent racial disparities, especially in the healthcare system. The discriminatory regime has lasted from systemic inequality within essential systems.
  • Prisons in the United States In the present day, prisons may be regarded as the critical components of the federal criminal justice system.
  • Understanding the U.S. Prison System This study will look at the various issues surrounding the punishment and rehabilitative aspects of U.S. prisons and determine what must be done to improve the system.
  • American Criminal Justice System: Prison Reform Public safety and prison reform go hand-in-hand. Rethinking the way in which security is established within society is the first step toward the reform.
  • Private Prisons: Review In the following paper, the issues that are rife in connection with contracting out private prisons will be examined along with the pros and cons of private prisons’ functioning.
  • Crimes and the Federal Prison Comparison Boesky and Milken admitted to the charges and sought guilty plea favour while Martha was defensive of not having committed any crime.
  • Arkansas Prison Scandals Regarding Contaminated Blood A number of scandals occurred around the infamous Cummins State Prison Farm in Arkansas in 1967-1969 and 1982-1983.
  • State Prison System v. Federal Prison System The essay sums that the main distinction between these two prison systems is based on the type of criminals it handles, which means a difference in the level of security employed.
  • Prisons in the United States Analysis The whole aspect of medical facilities in prisons is a very complex issue that needs to be evaluated and looked at critically for sustainability.
  • Sex Offenders and Their Prison Sentences Both authors do not fully support this sanction due to many reasons, including medical, social, ethical, and even legal biases, where the latter is fully ignored.
  • Criminal Punishment, Inmates on Death Row, and Prison Educational Programs This paper will review the characteristics of inmates, including those facing death penalties and the benefits of educational programs for prisoners.
  • Prison System for a Democratic Society This report is designed to transform the corrections department to form a system favorable for democracy, seek to address the needs of different groups of offenders.
  • Healthcare Among the Elderly Prison Population The purpose of this article is to address the ever-increasing cost of older prisoners in correctional facilities.
  • Women’s Issues and Trends in the Prison System The government has to consider the specific needs of the female population in the prison system and work on preventing incarceration.
  • What Makes Family Learning in Prisons Effective? This paper aims to discuss the family learning issue and explain the benefits and challenges of family learning in prisons.
  • Overcrowding in Jails and Prisons In a case of a crime, the offender is either incarcerated, placed on probation or required to make restitution to the victim, usually in the form of monetary compensation.
  • Unethical and Ethical Issues in the Prison System of Honduras Honduras has some of the highest homicide rates in the world and prisons in Honduras are associated with high levels of violence.
  • Prison Reform in the US Up until this day, the detention facilities remain the restricting measure common for each State. The U.S. remains one of the most imprisoning countries.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment Review The video presents an experiment held in 1971. In general, a viewer can observe that people are subjected to behavior and opinion change when affected by others.
  • Whether Socrates Should Have Disobeyed the Terms of His Conviction and Escaped Prison? Socrates wanted to change manners and customs, he denounced the evil, deception, undeserved privileges, and thereby he aroused hatred among contemporaries and must pay for it.
  • Psychological and Sociological Aspects of the School-to-Prison Pipeline The tendency of sending children to prisons is examined from the psychological and sociological point of view with the use of two articles regarding the topic.
  • School-to-Prison Pipeline: Roots of the Problem The term “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the tendency of children and young adults to be put in prison because of harsh disciplinary policies within schools.
  • US Prisons Review and Recidivism Prevention This research paper will focus on prison life in American prisons and the strategies to decrease recidivism once the inmates are released from prison.
  • Administrative Segregation in California Prisons In California prisons, administrative segregation is applied to control safety as well as prisoners who are disruptive within the jurisdiction.
  • Meditation in American Prisons from 1981 to 2004 Staggering statistics reveal that the United States has the highest rate of imprisonment of any country in the world, with the cost of imprisonment of this many people is now at twenty-seven billion dollars.
  • Impact of the Stanford Prison Experiment Have on Psychology This essay will begin with a brief description of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment then it will move to explore two main issues that arose from the said experiment.
  • Use of Contingent Employees at the Federal Bureau of Prisons Contingent employment is a staffing strategy that the Federal Bureau of Prisons can use to address its staffing needs as well as achieve its budgetary target.
  • Death Penalty from a Prison Officer’s Perspective The death penalty can be considered as an ancient form of punishment in relation to the type of crime that had been committed.
  • Recidivism in American Prisons At present, recidivism is a severe problem for the United States. Many prisoners are released from jails but do not change their criminal behavior due to a few reasons.
  • The Grizzly Conditions Prisoners Endure in Private Prisons The present paper will explore the issue of these ‘grizzly’ conditions in public prisons, arguing that private prisons need to be strictly regulated in order to prevent harm to inmates.
  • Keeping Minors and Adult Inmates Separate to Address the Problem of Violence in Prisons Managing aggressive behaviors in prison and preventing the instances of violence is a critical issue that warrants a serious discussion.
  • Evaluation of the Stanford Prison Experiment’ Role The Stanford Prison Experiment is a study that was conducted on August 20, 1971 by a group of researchers headed by the psychology professor Philip Zimbardo.
  • Women in Prison in the United States: Article and Book Summary A personal account of a woman prisoner known as Julie demonstrates that sexual predation/abuse is a common occurrence in most U.S. prisons.
  • American Prison Systems and Areas of Improvement The current operation of the prison system in America can no longer be deemed effective, in the correctional sense of this word.
  • Prison Crowding in the US Most prisons in the United States and other parts of the world are overcrowded. They hold more prisoners that the initial capacity they were designed to accommodate.
  • School-to-Prison Pipeline in Political Aspect This paper investigates the school-to-prison pipeline from the political point of view using the two articles concerning the topic.
  • School-to-Prison Pipeline in American Justice This paper studies the problem by reviewing two articles regarding the school-to-prison pipeline and its aspects related to justice systems.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment The Stanford prison experiment is an example of how outside social situations influence changes in thought and behavior among humans.
  • Prison Population and Healthcare Models in the USA This paper focuses on the prison population with a view to apply the Vulnerable Population Conceptual Model, and summarizes US healthcare models.
  • Prisoners’ Rights and Prison System Reform Criminal justice laws are antiquated and no longer serve their purposes. Instead, they cause harms to society, Americans and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
  • Contracting Out Private Prisons The issue of contracting the private prisons for accommodating the inmates has been challenged by various law suits over the quality of service that this companies offer to the inmates.
  • Drugs and Prison Overcrowding There are a number of significant sign of the impact that the “war on drugs” has had on the communities in the United States.
  • Prison Dog Training Program by Breakthrough Buddies
  • Prison Abuse and Its Effect On Society
  • The Truth About the Cruelty of Privatized Prison Health Care
  • Prison Incarceration and Its Effects On The United States
  • The United States Crime Problem and Our Prison System
  • Prison Overcrowding and Its Effects On Living Conditions
  • General Information about Prison and Capital Punishment Impact
  • Problems With The American Prison System
  • Prison and County Correctional Faculties Overcrowding
  • People Who Commit Murder Should Be A Prison For An Extended
  • African American Men and The United States Prison System
  • Prison Gangs and the Community Responsibility System
  • Prison Overcrowding and Its Effects On The United States
  • Prison Should Not Receive Free College Education
  • Pregnant Behind Bars and The United States Prison System
  • Prison Life and Strategies to Decrease Recidivism
  • Penitentiary Ideal and Models Of American Prison
  • The Various Rehabilitation and Treatment Programs in Prison
  • Prison and Mandatory Minimum Sentences
  • Prisoner Visit and Rape Issue In Thai Prison
  • Private Prisons Are Far Worse Than Any Maximum Security State Prison
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StudyCorgi. (2021, December 21). 152 Prison Essay Topics & Corrections Topics for Research Papers. https://studycorgi.com/ideas/prison-essay-topics/

"152 Prison Essay Topics & Corrections Topics for Research Papers." StudyCorgi , 21 Dec. 2021, studycorgi.com/ideas/prison-essay-topics/.

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1. StudyCorgi . "152 Prison Essay Topics & Corrections Topics for Research Papers." December 21, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/ideas/prison-essay-topics/.


StudyCorgi . "152 Prison Essay Topics & Corrections Topics for Research Papers." December 21, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/ideas/prison-essay-topics/.

StudyCorgi . 2021. "152 Prison Essay Topics & Corrections Topics for Research Papers." December 21, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/ideas/prison-essay-topics/.

These essay examples and topics on Prison were carefully selected by the StudyCorgi editorial team. They meet our highest standards in terms of grammar, punctuation, style, and fact accuracy. Please ensure you properly reference the materials if you’re using them to write your assignment.

This essay topic collection was updated on January 9, 2024 .

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Visualizing the racial disparities in mass incarceration

Racial inequality is evident in every stage of the criminal justice system - here are the key statistics compiled into a series of charts..

by Wendy Sawyer , July 27, 2020

Recent protests calling for radical changes to American policing have brought much-needed attention to the systemic racism within our criminal justice system. This extends beyond policing, of course: Systemic racism is evident at every stage of the system , from policing to prosecutorial decisions, pretrial release processes, sentencing, correctional discipline, and even reentry. The racism inherent in mass incarceration affects children as well as adults, and is often especially punishing for people of color who are also marginalized along other lines, such as gender and class.

Because racial disparity data is often frustratingly hard to locate, we’ve compiled the key data available into a series of charts, arranged into five slideshows focused on policing , juvenile justice , jails and pretrial detention, prisons and sentencing, and reentry . These charts provide a fuller picture of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, and make clear that a broad transformation will be needed to uproot the racial injustice of mass incarceration.

Following the slideshows, we also address five frequently asked questions about criminal justice race/ethnicity data.

There are racial disparities in policing and arrests:

police contact

There are racial disparities in the arrest and confinement of youth:

youth arrests

There are racial disparities in local jails and pretrial detention:

jail incarceration rates

There are racial disparities in prisons, extreme sentences, and solitary confinement:

imprisonment rates

There are racial disparities in homelessness, unemployment, and poverty after release:


Frequently asked questions about race and ethnicity in criminal justice data

Q: why are terms used inconsistently, such as “hispanic” and “latino/a”.

A: Sharp-eyed readers will notice some inconsistency in the terms used in the charts above, and across the literature more generally. For example, the Census Bureau and most national criminal justice data uses the category “American Indian or Alaska Native” to describe indigenous people in the U.S., but the juvenile justice system data uses the term “American Indian.” Likewise, “Hispanic” is used most frequently in various national data sets to refer to those with Spanish-speaking ancestry, but some sources use Latino/a (or Latinx), which specifically refers to those with Latin American ancestry. In these charts (and in most of our publications), we use the terminology of the original data sources.

Q: Why are some racial/ethnic categories not represented in the data?

A: The question of how accurately race and ethnicity data reflect justice-involved populations goes beyond inconsistent labels. Most obviously, not all racial or ethnic groups are consistently represented in the data; less populous Census-identified groups, such as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Asian, and American Indian or Alaska Native – as well as the sizable but less specific “Two or more races” and “Some other race” – are very often excluded in publications, even when they are collected. Moreover, all of these categories are so broad that they lump together groups with very different experiences with the U.S. justice system. They disregard tribal differences, sweep people of East Asian and South Asian origins into one category, and somehow ignore Arab Americans entirely. As a result, our observations of racial and ethnic discrimination are limited to these broad categories and lack any real nuance.

Q: Where can I find data about racial disparities in my state’s criminal justice system?

A: Unfortunately, the more specific you want to get with race/ethnicity data, the harder it is to find an answer, especially one that’s up-to-date. State-level race and ethnicity data can be hard to find if you are looking to federal government sources like the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). BJS does publish state-level race and ethnicity data in its annual Prisoners series ( Appendix Table 2 in 2018), but only every 6-7 years in its Jail Inmates series (most recently the 2013 Census of Jails report, Table 7 ). The Vera Institute of Justice has attempted to fill this gap with its Incarceration Trends project, by gathering additional data from individual states. Individual state Departments of Correction sometimes collect and/or publish more up-to-date and specific data; it’s worth checking with your own state’s agencies.

Q: Where can I find criminal justice race/ethnicity data disaggregated by sex?

A: Disaggregating racial/ethnic data by sex is unfortunately not the norm in reports produced by the federal government (i.e. BJS). For people able to access and analyze the raw data, such analyses are often possible, but most people rely on the reports published by government agencies like BJS. As you can see in the chart showing prison incarceration rates by sex and race/ethnicity, BJS does sometimes offer this level of detail. But again, the same level of detail is not available for jails, and an analysis of both race/ethnicity and sex by state is all but unheard-of – even though it is precisely this level of detail that is most useful for advocates trying to help specific populations in their state.

Q: How are the data collected, and how accurate are the data?

A: Finally, the validity of any data depends on how the data are collected in the first place. And in the case of criminal justice data, race and ethnicity are not always self-reported (which would be ideal). Police officers may report an individual’s race based on their own perception – or not report it at all – and the surveys that report the number of incarcerated people on a given day rely on administrative data, which may not reflect how individuals identify their own race or ethnicity. This is why surveys of incarcerated people themselves are so important, such as the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails and the Survey of Prison Inmates, but those surveys are conducted much less frequently. In fact, it’s been 18 years since the last Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, which we use to analyze pretrial jail populations, and 16 years since the last published data from the Survey of Inmates were collected.

How to link to specific images

Because some readers might want to link to specific images in this briefing out of the context of these slideshows, we’ve created these special URLs so you can link directly to a specific image:

Wendy Sawyer is the Prison Policy Initiative Research Director. ( Other articles | Full bio | Contact )

Related briefings:

  • New report: The Racial Geography of Mass Incarceration  +
  • Updated charts provide insights on racial disparities, correctional control, jail suicides, and more  +
  • Racial disparities in diversion: A research roundup  +

Recommended Reading:

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Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior

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essay about prison system

“Is this the prison?” asks a 40-something American woman wearing cargo pants and a floral sleeveless blouse.

Linda, my guide and translator, pauses beside me between the posts of an open picket fence. After six years of teaching as a volunteer inside American prisons, I’ve come from the private college where I work to investigate the Scandinavian reputation for humane prisons. It’s the end of my twelfth prison tour, and I consider the semantics of the question: If you can’t tell whether you’re in a prison, can it be a prison? I’ve never considered this in so many words. Yet I find that I know the answer, having felt it inside a prison cell in Denmark: There is no punishment so effective as punishment that nowhere announces the intention to punish. Linda is an intern working on a degree in public policy. Young and thoroughly practical, she smiles and says to the tourists, “Yes, you are here.”

The Americans look shocked and afraid. The father glances at his wife. The wife cocks her head back, as though she’s ventured too far. The son—fit as my La Crosse-playing students—takes a step in reverse, just outside the gate, and says to his mother: “I told you.” (Linda clearly wonders what she’s said to cause such a reaction.)

Then the son adds, his voice cracking on a nervous attempt at sarcasm: “It’s sure reassuring to know we’re being protected from criminals.”

The Americans gather into a family huddle. Their whispers grow hot. The son grabs the top of his head—unable to believe this conversation is even taking place. Their response speaks to a particularly American reaction to prisons, and there’s nothing unusual in it. But we’ll leave them here to fill in the background needed to understand their dilemma.

Suomenlinna Island has hosted an “open” prison since 1971. The 95 male prisoners leave the prison grounds each day to do the township’s general maintenance or commute to the mainland for work or study. Serving time for theft, drug trafficking, assault, or murder, all the men here are on the verge of release. Cellblocks look like dorms at a state university. Though worse for wear, rooms feature flat-screen TVs, sound systems, and mini-refrigerators for the prisoners who can afford to rent them for prison-labor wages of 4.10 to 7.3 Euros per hour ($5.30 to $9.50).  With electronic monitoring, prisoners are allowed to spend time with their families in Helsinki. Men here enjoy a screened barbecue pit, a gym, and a dining hall where prisoners and staff eat together. Prisoners throughout Scandinavia wear their own clothes. Officers wear navy slacks, powder-blue shirts, nametags and shoulder bars; but they carry no batons, handcuffs, Tasers or pepper-spray. The assistant warden who has led Linda and me around, Timo, looks like a wizened roadie: graying beard, black vest and jeans, red shirt, biker boots, and a taste for slim cigars.

One might wonder just where is the “prison” part of this Scandinavian open prison. Where are the impenetrable barriers? The punishing conditions that satisfy an American sense of justice?

First, an important caveat: Nordic prisons are not all open facilities. Closed prisons here date to the mid-19th century, copied from Philadelphia’s Eastern State, or New York’s Auburn, back when those prisons represented models of humane treatment. To an American eye, these prisons look like prisons: 10-meter walls, cameras, steel doors. I’ve heard men describe Scandinavian closed-prison conditions in ways that echo those of the American prison where I have led a writing workshop since 2006: officials intent on making life onerous, long hours in lockup, arbitrarily enforced rules.

Yet inside the four high-security prisons I’ve visited in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, common areas included table tennis, pool tables, steel darts, and aquariums. Prisoner art ornamented walls painted in mild greens and browns and blues. But the most profound difference is that correctional officers fill both rehabilitative and security roles. Each prisoner has a “contact officer” who monitors and helps advance progress toward return to the world outside—a practice introduced to help officers avoid the damage experienced by performing purely punitive functions: stress, hypertension, alcoholism, suicide, and other job-related hazards that today plague American corrections officers, who have an average life expectancy of 59 .

This is all possible because, throughout Scandinavia, criminal justice policy rarely enters political debate. Decisions about best practices are left to professionals in the field, who are often published criminologists and consult closely with academics. Sustaining the barrier between populist politics and results-based prison policy are media that don’t sensationalize crime—if they report it at all. And all of this takes place in nations with established histories of consensual politics, relatively small and homogenous populations, and the best social service networks in the world, including the best public education. Standing outside a Nordic closed prison, the American son would have felt perfectly at ease. But inside, northern Europe’s closed facilities operate along the lines of humanism that American prisons abandoned early, under a host of pressures -- such as overcrowding, the push to make prisons profitable by contracting out collective labor, the use of unpaid prisoners as private farmhands, and, since 1973, the rise of an $80 billion mass incarceration industry. There is also the matter of scale. The prison population of Sweden (6,900) is less than half the population of Rikers Island at its height (14,000). Several prisons in the U.S. each hold nearly twice the prison population of Finland. This is not simply the difference between large and much smaller countries. U.S. incarceration rates are the highest in the world, about 10 times those throughout Scandinavia, which are among the world’s lowest.

essay about prison system

There’s certainly a tipping point at which smaller numbers of prisoners allow for a different quality of prison practice. But the issue here is the instinctive, visceral fear of prisons and prisoners. It is about basic assumptions regarding what states must do to people who violate the law, not only in order to secure the safety, but to satisfy the sense of justice, of law-abiding citizens. Even if the U.S. prison population dropped by 90 percent overnight, it’s not clear that U.S. prison officials, under the eye of the public and politicians, would either know how or be allowed to handle the remaining prisoners differently. And this is at a time when even tough-on-crime politicians acknowledge that states are going broke supporting prisons with no positive return to taxpayers—including no net boost to public safety. So this is both a philosophical quandary and a practical question: How is it that Nordic prisons that seem so cushy yield recidivism rates one-half to one-third of those in the U.S. (20-30 percent versus 40-70 percent)? And why can’t the U.S. reduce prison populations not simply through drug courts and very tepid sentencing reforms but by creating more transformative prisons? The answers emerge from the history that stands behind these American tourists’ nervous condition.

Twenty years of social science research has drawn a consistently clear portrait of the rise of America’s unprecedented regime of mass incarceration: Over the past four decades, Republicans and Democrats have waged a “tougher on crime than you” arms race built upon white unease with the disruption of the old racial order brought about by the civil rights and Black Power movements. Once segregation was declared unconstitutional and black activists began to demand equal rights, white fear called out for “law and order.” Seeking votes and profits, politicians and media have encouraged the white public’s worst fears of becoming the victims of black perpetrators. Under the guise of the wars on drugs, crime, and terror, the urban poor and disenfranchised, especially young black men, have been rounded up in mass numbers, largely for non-violent drug crimes, of which middle-class whites have been consistently shown to be equal perpetrators.

Meanwhile, even the most serious television shows like Law & Order and The Wire present black criminals as overrepresented by unscrupulous defense lawyers—defending the “punks” that George Zimmerman believed “always get away with it.” And these trends have continued even though crime rates have been dropping since the early 90s, while only one in 40 criminal cases goes to jury trial and prosecutors bargain pleas by threatening suspects with the longest prison sentences in the industrialized world.

Decades of research show that incarceration and crime rates in the U.S. bear no fixed relationship. Between 1999 and 2009, for example, New York shrank its prison population by 20 percent while crime rates dropped by 29 percent; from 2000 to 2010, Indiana increased its prison population by 45 percent and reduced its crime rate by .08 percent. In the 1950s, Finland made the decision to lower its incarceration rates in line with Scandinavian norms; it shrank that rate by 75 percent across periods of both rising and stable crime. Prison size is not determined by crime rates but by what states decide to treat as crimes, how much punishment the public demands, and, in the U.S. today, how successful the prison industry is in fomenting this demand. And all of these factors are determined by whom voters imagine this punishment landing upon.

This peculiarly American institutionalization has created a nation where few middle-class white Americans can name anyone they know personally who has been sentenced to prison, and even fewer black Americans of any class cannot.

In 1993, Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie (a major influence on Scandinavian penal policy) had already unpacked this phenomenon. In Crime Control as Industry , Christie concluded that the more unlike oneself the imagined perpetrator of crime, the harsher the conditions one will agree to impose upon convicted criminals, and the greater the range of acts one will agree should be designated as crimes. More homogeneous nations institutionalize mercy, which is to say they attend more closely to the circumstances surrounding individual criminal acts. The opposite tendency, expressed in mandatory sentencing and indiscriminate “three strikes” laws, not only results from, but widens social distance. The harshness of the punishment that fearful voters are convinced is the only thing that works on people who don’t think or act like them becomes a measure of the moral distance between these voters and people identified as criminals.

Author Kenneth E. Hartman has lived inside California prisons for over three decades. In an essay in the forthcoming book, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America , he speaks to why that system sees 75 percent of all repeat parolees back within three years:

Most prisoners are uneducated, riddled with unresolved traumas and ill-treated mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, and self-esteem issues far too often bordering on the pathological. The vast majority has never received competent health care, mental health care, drug treatment, education or even an opportunity to look at themselves as humans. Had any of these far less draconian interventions been tried… no doubt many of my peers would be leading productive lives. We internalize the separation and removal, the assumed less-than status, and hold up the idiotic and vainglorious pride we pretend to, like clown’s make-up, to hide our shame. In the end, the vast majority of us become exactly who we are told we are: violent, irrational, and incapable of conducting ourselves like conscious adults. It is a tragic opera with an obvious outcome. Nothing else works is not a statement of fact; it is the declaration of an ideology. This ideology holds that punishment, for the sake of the infliction of pain, is the logical response to all misbehavior. It is also a convenient cover story behind which powerful special interest groups hide.

Though white, Hartman echoes the observations of the same Black Power prison writers of the 1960s and ‘70s, whose insights helped inspire white backlash: Convicted criminals bring to prison issues that devolve directly from poverty and poverty’s traumatic fallout: broken and abusive homes, communities and schools; mental illness, alcoholism, and addiction.  Rather than remediating the effects of these issues, prisons tend to institutionalize them.

Those of us in the virtually prison-immune demographics also fail to credit convicted people with the simple capacity to see and understand where they are. No imprisoned American has to be told she has been left to the whims of under-screened and under-trained staff, most of whom are also from impoverished circumstances. They see staff rewarded with promotion for harsh treatment of prisoners and on the way to solid pensions. They know that it doesn’t matter what potential for shame, for self-castigation, penitence, or desire to make amends resides inside any American prisoner. Parole decisions are made by political appointees who watch the backs of their patrons. The system itself breeds cynical resentment. Witnessing the humiliation, racism, and physical assault perpetrated against prisoners—by staff, or tolerated between prisoners—can overfill the psychological space where reflection and self-searching might occur.

Now imagine yourself in a prison that commands a view from a tourist brochure. Your cell phone lies on a shelf, next to a TV and CD player, inside a prison that lets you go to paid work or study. There is no perimeter wall. Prison staff will help you with free-world social services to cover a missed month’s rent on your family’s apartment. Another will help you look for work, or for the next stage of education. Imagine yourself a prisoner who knows he is in prison for what he did, not because of his color or class, or because, lacking the resources for a proper defense, he plea-bargained under threat of near-geological years of incarceration. But also imagine living on this lovely island knowing, every minute of every day, that this is not your home, these people are not your family, your friends, your children, and you are always one misstep from a cell in a closed prison. You have strict curfews. In town you carry an electronic anklet. Yet nothing here feels unfair or unreasonable. You have, after all, committed a crime serious enough to make a range of other remedies untenable. Nothing you can see or touch or smell or taste, and no interaction with staff gives you anything to blame or resent about the system that brought you here.

This is the polished glass nightmare. Every emotional discomfort, every moment of remorse that you might try to cover with resentment of the system, everything you try to grip onto to crawl away from personal responsibility slides back into the pit of the self. Judges and prosecutors are unelected professionals who are under political pressure only to minimize prison populations. The message everywhere you look and walk is the same. You did this to yourself . You sit in a university classroom, but you harbor a secret. You are not like the others. On the way to work, you walk along a lovely sea wall, among kids and adults on holiday, but you know you are not free. You look like them; they never raise an eyebrow at you. But you know. You are under quarantine, and the disease is the past you made for yourself. Everything is being done to help and prepare you to clear this secret and live again like others. But the weight, finally, rests with you. This truly existential weight is implicit in the principle of normality, which is practiced throughout Scandinavian prisons: “The punishment is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed,” reads a fact sheet on criminal services in Norway. “During the serving of a sentence, life inside will resemble life outside as much as possible. You need a reason to deny a sentenced offender his rights, not to grant them. Progression through a sentence should be aimed as much as possible at returning to the community. The more closed a system is, the harder it will be to return to freedom.”

One has to wonder if 10 years in such a glass funnel, directing all shame, anger and recrimination back onto oneself is not a morally harsher sentence than twice that time inside a 24-hour war zone where some of the most powerful warriors wear state uniforms, where family visits are made into scenes of collective humiliation, and where the few rehabilitative programs are run either by other prisoners or by unionized staff who suffer even less scrutiny than guards.

Inside U.S. prisons, decades can be filled with the labor of simple survival. Reflection upon the decisions that brought anyone to confinement must overcome the bitterness evoked by a system that sustains such an environment.

I met Erik in a Danish open prison where he was finishing a 10-year sentence for a drug-related murder. He began addiction treatment and work toward his public-school diploma while awaiting the appeal of his case. He continued his studies while serving two years in a closed prison. The open prison of Søbysøgård occupies an old manor farm amid rolling hills laced with suburban streets and alcoves. Buildings erected in the 17th century house administrative offices and classrooms with carved moldings, fireplaces, and towering windows. There is no perimeter wall and no fences. Prisoners work in a small dairy, or in three greenhouses raising organic herbs, zucchini, and cucumbers. Having done well in school (his English is excellent), Erik is allowed to study full-time for his university degree. He wants to earn a master’s, “To give me a better chance of getting a job, with a prison record.” (His record will be cleared after five years if he works in the private sector; after ten years if he works in the public sector.) Erik’s room is about 8 by 12 feet, with TV, computer (to facilitate on-line study on strictly limited sites), sound system, and a cell phone he can use to call home or get calls at any time. When I visited, he stressed the importance of the phone for keeping contact with family, to sustain emotional ties, as well as “to vent and to heal.” One wall is covered with pictures of himself as a younger man with his girlfriend. The housing unit has a clean, bright communal kitchen. Men cook together in order to save money. A bus takes them to a grocery where local citizens wait outside while the men shop.

Edvin, the director of education, is a tall man who dresses like a farmer and sits by quietly while I speak with Erik and two other men, who together represent the racial demographics in Scandinavian prisons as a whole: two are white natives and the third is a foreign-born man of color. In Edvin’s presence they are openly critical of the life inside closed prisons. All express thanks that they are not in one, let alone in the American prisons they have seen on TV. On the last walk from the dairy down the gravel driveway, I learn why they trust Edvin. He’s concerned about plans to build a closed prison adjacent to Søbysøgård. At the end of the drive, he stops and faces me.

“I worry that we will ruin the spirit of Søbysøgård.”

He’s described that spirit throughout our tour: sober work and study, supportive community, and active reintegration into life outside. An officer that I spoke to expressed a similar sentiment. He’d served in a closed prison, and he did not want to go back.

But it was inside Erik’s cell that dread lifted my neck hairs at the thought of serving time in such a place. A breeze touched the leaves of the maple tree outside his window. Then it curled the corners of the pictures tacked and taped to the wall: Erik in a tux beside his silver-tiara-ed girl; he and friends on a beach with his dog, a dopey-looking setter. Prisoners develop a sixth sense for the moods of others. It’s a required skill for anyone who has lived with people who suffer emotional and mental disorders that can turn violent. He sensed that something was up. I looked at him.

“I did this to myself,” he said.

I did not know what to say. I said, “I’m sorry.”

“Not as sorry as I am.”

Jeremy has been in my maximum-security writing workshop for three years. He’s serving 22 years to life. He has difficulty getting to the class due to conflicts with religious practice and guards that seem to enjoy picking on him because he’s Puerto Rican, Muslim, physically slight (about 5’5” and 140 pounds), and a law-library clerk (thus standing just above child molesters among guards’ favorite targets). His major project has been a long essay about his crime. He was raised by an abusive stepfather who once held a gun to his head and threatened to kill him. On the street, he was harassed by a neighborhood bully. The bully was strong and tough but, unlike Jeremy, unpopular with girls. The bully once broke Jeremy’s arm so badly that a steel plate now holds it together. Without a place of retreat either inside or outside his home, Jeremy decided to kill himself. He took his father’s gun. He was high, but needed to get higher to work up his courage, when he ran into the bully outside a liquor store and shot him. Jeremy was 17.

He’s mindful of actions he might have taken: moving in with his sister, seeking outside help, even getting control of his popularity with girls. With a merely competent lawyer his story might have played well with a jury, but he had no money for a real defense. He didn’t deny that he’d killed. He took a plea bargain from a DA who threatened what prisoners call a “lights out”  stretch of years, used to scare suspects into saving the state the time and costs of a jury trial.

I have listened to men complain about their cases, their do-nothing lawyers, about racism. Jeremy does not complain. He’s a self-effacing young man. But I wonder what he’ll be by his first parole hearing at age 40. He can feel no more profound regret than he does already for the family of the young man he killed. He can feel no deeper remorse for his actions. Yet for another 18 years he will endure counselors (many of them former guards) who do little more than keep prisoner files in order. He will continue the daily work of self-protection from men in need of mental health and addiction care. He’ll continue to do white-collar work for wages that can be counted in dimes and pennies. He’ll talk with his sister from a phone in the yard, impatient men waiting behind him, at sky-high rates charged only to prisoners. And for 18 years he’ll negotiate the moods of correctional officers who find in him enjoyable sport. Jeremy is no longer the scared kid who pulled a trigger. He has said, in many ways, “I did this to myself.” But by the time he leaves he may be too far removed from that kid, across decades among violently desperate men, and staff whose simplistic refrain stretches nation-wide: “If you can’t do the time, you shouldn’t have done the crime.”

If Jeremy seems too much the poster child for more merciful prisons, consider Jake: white and sent by his mother’s hard work to private schools, Jake became enamored of the mystique around organized crime. He killed his crime partner, as he admits now, in large part to complete his street cred as a gangster. Jake, too, takes the full weight for his crime. He was young and stupid. He believed that the man he killed had already gotten away with murder. This was all part of a self-credentialing plan. He went to trial with a legendary defense lawyer, and lost. He carries the lights-out years that Jeremy bargained out of. And every night that we sit discussing his essays about his crime, his regrets, or his research into theories of criminal deterrence, I can see and hear him continue an internal wrestling match. The self-loathing that wells up from thinking about the destructive arrogance of his crime grapples with resentment at the destructive stupidity of the prison.

I’ve heard older men describe how they came in cocky, then grew into shame and remorse. Yet their regret is regularly overshadowed by anger against the arbitrary suffering that the prison perpetrates. These older, wiser men, like Kenneth Hartman, know this is the toughest challenge inside. The chaos of the life that put them in prison eventually evolves into the self-understanding that comes with age and assuming the weight of their crimes. But then begins the daily labor of denying the prison its power to turn them into the animals it sees in condemned people. As Rutgers University professor of education, Benjamin Justice, and Yale Law professor Tracey Meares observe , the overt curriculum of the system is about fairness, due process, and protection of law-abiding citizens. But for the objects of policing and punishment, “the American criminal justice system offers…race- and class‐based lessons on who is a citizen deserving of fairness and justice and who constitutes a group of dangerous others deserving of severe punishment, monitoring, and virtual branding.”

For a forthcoming book and digital archive, over the past four years I have been soliciting, reading, and editing non-fiction essays by incarcerated Americans writing about their experience inside—essays from over half the states, by black, white, Latina/o, Native American, and Asian and Pacific Island prisoners; by men, women, and gender-variant prisoners; by first-timers and by people who were first locked up when Lyndon Johnson was president. Though many praise individuals who have helped them inside, not one essay among several hundred expresses the belief that the system exists at its current scale for any other reason than the tax-funded profits and jobs it provides.

Beatings and purely arbitrary punishment are the norm. Health care is poor when it is not dangerous. In many facilities, programs for addicts and alcoholics (who make up 85 percent of those convicted of violent crimes) are so inadequate that the names on waiting lists today will wait decades for help. And no matter the race of the writer, the racism within the system is assumed if not explicitly criticized. What political prisoner, reformer, and eventual California prison administrator Kate Richards O’Hare wrote in her book In Prison in 1923 remains true today: “…by the workings of the prison system society commits every crime against the criminal that the criminal is charged with committing against society.”

Scandinavian prisons are roughly as racially and ethnically homogeneous as American prisons: 70 percent of Nordic prisoners are ethnically white citizens; the other 30 percent are foreign-born (mostly from other EU countries). In U.S. prisons, ethnic and racial minorities make up over 60 percent of the population. The difference is that the majority of Scandinavian prisoners look like the majority—including the voting majority—outside.  Laws, enforcement policies, and prison practices are those that the majority of citizens assume would work for themselves. Whatever other differences may exist between law-abiding families and people convicted of crimes, the prison system itself does not seek to widen the social distance between them.

Though anti-immigrant racism has been on the rise in Europe for years, when its most egregious incident occurred in Norway—the massacre of 69 citizens, including many children—the nation’s response was a deeper embrace of tolerance. (Roses became the symbol of this tolerance. Import tariffs on roses were dropped so that all Norwegians could contribute to spontaneous memorials.) In this rare case, the killer will likely never see the free world again. But his suffering is and will continue to be his own.

In 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Baumont came to America to study its prisons. They conclude their report with a warning: “…guard against extremes, and do not let the zeal with which you advocate certain means obscure the object sought to be obtained by them.”

Prisons are failing. It’s time to find an alternative

Barbed wire is seen inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, March 7, 2018. Picture taken March 7, 2018.    To match Special Report USA-JAILS/LOUISIANA       REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton - RC1CA5F4DFD0

68% of people released from prison in the US are rearrested within three years. Image:  REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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essay about prison system

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In recent years, the use of imprisonment as a response to crime and violence has risen steadily across the globe.

More than 10 million people around the world are currently behind bars . As our social systems are being reshaped by Globalization 4.0, it is time to consider whether our current approach to prison and punishment is keeping us safe.

Most criminal justice systems around the world are increasingly reliant on prisons. Globally, the number of prisoners has grown by almost 20% since the turn of the millennium and continues to rise.

The players involved in the prison industry include hedge funds, architects, utilities and construction companies, and a number of multinationals employing free or reduced-cost prison labour.

Overall, prison expenses make up a significant portion of government budgets: in the US, $81 billion is spent annually on public correctional agencies alone (not including private prisons).

Is the investment in prisons justified?

One major consideration is whether prisons are effective or not in achieving their stated objective of keeping society safe.

In most countries, the evidence is clear that they are not. In the US, two in three (68%) of people released from prison are rearrested within three years of release. In England and Wales, two in three (66%) of young people and nearly half of adults leaving prison will commit another crime within a year .

However, a handful of countries are bucking this trend. In Norway, only one in five (20%) of adults leaving prison are reconvicted within two years of release. Similar reoffending rates are seen across the Scandinavian nations. In Uruguay’s National Rehabilitation Centre, the recidivism rate is just 12%; in Germany, it’s 33% within three years.

What’s causing the difference in reoffending?

The common thread is that the most effective prisons are the ones that look least like prisons.

In most countries, including the US and UK, prisons prioritise punishment: they limit access to families, education and employment. Prisoners can be locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. Overcrowding, drugs, gangs and riots are common, and amenities like food and access to healthcare are basic.

But reoffending rates are lowest in prison facilities that minimise the focus on punishment: those that try to mirror life in the outside world.

In these facilities, prisoners can wear their own clothes, live in their own rooms with private showers, cook their own meals, access paid work and receive conjugal visits. Some have internet access throughout.

These prisons prioritise relationships and decency: they focus on rehabilitating prisoners through therapeutic interventions, employment and education. They are a far cry from being centres of punishment.

Some cities have already started applying this logic to other public institutions designed to tackle crime, veering away from a punishment and prison-based approach.

Glasgow, for example, was branded the European murder capital by the World Health Organisation in 2005. Over the past decade, knife crime has plummeted.

The shift is not due to an increase in punishment but rather, a major change in the role of the Scottish police force. Over the past decade, they have introduced a public health approach , working collaboratively with health, education and social services.

Before arresting and prosecuting violent perpetrators, they ask what caused the act of violence, how they can reduce the associated risks, and what best practice approaches would prevent future offences.

In Eugene, Oregon’s third-largest city, medics and crisis workers are the typical first responders to emergency calls – not the police. This approach is tailored, more effective and cheaper, providing city residents with both financial and social benefits.

An extension of this approach could see a gradual replacement of the entire traditional police service with an emergency response team, with specialised response units for mental health, neighbourhood disputes, domestic violence, drug crime, and serious violence.

Localised, person-centred services would tackle the root causes of offending with the real solutions, sustainably reducing crime and improving safety for everyone.

Another popular approach for delivering accountability outside the traditional criminal justice system is restorative justice. In this process, which originated in indigenous communities, the victim chooses to meet with the individuals or representatives who caused them harm.

In a facilitated face-to-face conference, they agree a resolution, repair the harm caused and find a way forwards – for example, a heartfelt apology, commitment to receive professional treatment, community service or a donation. Restorative justice ensures perpetrators of crimes take responsibility for the harm that they have caused and that victims of crimes are empowered to be a part of the process.

A 2001 UK government-funded study found that in a randomised control trial, restorative justice reduced the frequency of reoffending by 14% and the majority of victims were satisfied with the process.

A separate study showed that diverting young people who committed crimes from community orders to a pre-court restorative justice process would produce lifetime cost savings of £7,000 per person, and save society £1 billion over a decade.

Have you read?

We have solutions to crime. we just need to scale them, what’s behind south korea’s elderly crime wave, from prisoner to professor: why criminal records shouldn't keep people out of college.

How do we move to a new paradigm for delivering punishment?

Rethinking our traditional punitive approaches to reducing crime through public health diversions, restorative justice or other means could provide us with major wins in increasing public safety, reducing crime and cutting costs.

While it will require comprehensive cross-departmental engagement to achieve systems change, much of the work has already been done. Academic research, non-profit evaluations and city trials reveal clear best practice that can be implemented and scaled globally.

Technological advances could help us make some of these changes more efficiently. Bringing 21st Century digital tools into the public sector would enable often siloed government departments to communicate, share data and recognise patterns through artificial intelligence.

Database integration would enable a joined-up social services system, and a coordinated emergency response team. Developments in public health technology can enable individuals to better manage their physical, mental health and social care needs.

Technology is not, however, a panacea and these innovations could have unintended consequences.

There have been attempts to replace human criminal justice decision-making with algorithms, for example with judicial sentencing or police dispatching. While this has clear efficiency and cost benefits, trials have seen the algorithms incorporating and exacerbating pre-existing racial biases and prejudice .

Some countries have tried to reduce prisoner numbers by using electronic tagging, monitoring and restricting offenders’ geographic and temporal movements. Critics have called it a false structural change: rather than tackle the root causes of offending to sustainably reduce reoffending, tagging just replaces one prison with another, keeping people locked in their homes and local communities.

As to tech solutions within prisons, they miss the point. Improving a failing system is not the answer, when the institution itself is fundamentally flawed. There’s only so much we can do to reform prison, when the evidence points to the best solution being an entirely different system.

Globalization 4.0 is a call for us to reimagine what our public institutions should look like. With surges in violence and new threats like cybersecurity and terrorism, alongside pressing needs to cut government expenditure, we have a lot more to lose if we don’t act soon.

As a society that created the internet and has sent a spacecraft to Mars, we are more than capable of implementing a better solution to reduce crime than a failing 200-year-old Victorian prison model.

Our prisons and the way we approach punishment should be at the top of the list for an overhaul. By updating our global approach to tackling crime, we have a unique opportunity to make our world a safer and a better place for all of us.

Author: Baillie Aaron is the founder and CEO of Spark Inside .

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Prison System in England and Wales Essay


Prison systems in most parts of the world are undergoing different challenges. For example, the current prison system in England and Wales is considered to be in crisis (Chamberlen & Carvalho, 2019). The challenges escalating in the prison system include cases related to self-harm, violence over the past few years, overcrowding, and understaffing. The quality of healthcare, education offered, and availability of rehabilitation programs in prison systems are of poor standards. To reduce these challenges, many changes addressing the surging of these issues need to be made. For example, the authority in power should prioritize creating extra prison spaces. However, this requires a substantial investment of resources to ensure prison safety and rehabilitation services for post-release offenders. Programs and initiatives that address the cause of crimes need to be implemented in various systems, especially in education systems. Therefore, the prison crisis in England and Wales is contributed by factors like overcrowding and failure to address underlying crime that require urgent intervention to promote safety and better living conditions in prison.

The prison system in England and Wales is in crisis because of different constituents, which leads to the deterioration of the prison system. Different inspectorate reports and news from various media houses and campaign evaluations state that the significant cause of the crisis in prison systems is poor safety and care services offered to prisoners and staff (Chamberlen & Carvalho, 2019). These result in the emergence of unconducive conditions that result in violence, corruption, harm, and disorder. Consequently, there are reported a high number of deaths in custody, high rates related to the usage of drugs, and increased cases related to self-injury in prison systems (Chamberlen & Carvalho, 2019). The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union has made the government shift its focus from passing prison and Court bills into law. Consequently, this has forced the government to fail to deliver its promises. Thus, failure to implement laws results in the escalation of news related to the prison crisis

The political systems prison crisis through the shifting of justice secretaries who keep promising changes that do not happen. For example, in December 2017, the then-justice secretary David Lidington delivered a speech that articulated reforms to mitigate the prison crisis. The same day, the inspection report was released that exposed how the prison systems were worse. The following year, in January of 2018, the new state secretary, David Gauke, received an urgent notification from the chief Prison inspector requiring him to notify the public concerning steps taken in addressing eight deaths that emerged from Nottingham prison the last two years (Chamberlen & Carvalho, 2019). Therefore, it is evident that there is a severe problem facing the prison system that requires all stakeholders in society to reduce crime.

The economic crisis that took place in 2008 led made the government to impose austerity cuts on prison systems. Thus, this has led to the deterioration of conditions in prison systems. For example, persistent overcrowding in prison has led to freeing offenders with minor mistakes. Consequently, this has compromised the safety of the private and public sectors in the country. As a result, various scandals have emerged, showing the dark side of prison systems. For example, the killing and escape of two prisoners from Pentonville prison. Furthermore, other hygiene and poor living scandals were reported at HMP Liverpool (Chamberlen & Carvalho, 2019). Hence, it is evident that crime-related issues are rising in England and Wales due to corruption.

Various reports have been showing why the prison systems in England and Wales are in crisis. For instance, the Council of Europe’s committee responsible for preventing torture and human mistreatment published a report on the status of prisons in England. In the report, most prisons are in crisis because of poor detention facilities and procedures. Most prisons in England lack safety for inmates and staff. The national inspection report made similar claims. In the report, the Ministry of Justice released data showing that there were 350 deaths found in custody, whereby 120 of them were self-imposed (Chamberlen & Carvalho, 2019). These were the shocking figures recorded in a single year; hence, this clearly shows how prison systems are in crisis.

Cases related to self-harm have been on the rise in the recent past. This is due to the challenges that prisoners go through. For instance, cases related to assaults have been growing steadily over the past few years. This involves cases related to prisoner-to-prisoner or prisoner-to-officers. The number of reported related assaults was 20 425 in 2018, and in 2019, the number of reported cases was 25 031 (Chamberlen & Carvalho, 2019). These figures manifest how the prison system is in crisis. Hence, the increase in violence has affected the way prison officers work.

Consequently, prison officers have continuously called for a strike that is being halted by court order. Some of the grievances raised by prison officers include job cuts, which affected their work environment conditions and increased their exposure to danger and harm. The police raised concerns about drug misuse that resulted in prisoners’ lack of discipline. The state of staff corruption is high, which stimulates the mismanagement of resources (Chamberlen & Carvalho, 2019). These circumstances paint a clear picture of a severe crisis in prison systems.

The parliamentary system in England and Wales was against the backlog of cases, especially in Crown Courts. This has led to the accumulation of cases; for instance, 62,000 cases were recorded last year since the government standoff with barristers because of legal aid (Kirk, 2022). Further, 3,500 cases have been reported over the last three months (Kirk, 2022). The conflict between Barristers escalated when the criminal bar association (CBA) rejected John Boris’s government’s new legal fees offer. The then secretary of Justice, Raab Dominic, refused to give in to CBA’s demands, which demanded more legal fees. These forced the barristers to vote in favor of going to strike. The court is setting a new scheme whereby trials are set to happen in 2024 (Kirk, 2022). Therefore, witnesses, defendants, and alleged victims will be tried after a year.

A new justice secretary was appointed who ensured the conflict ended by agreeing with the Barristers to suspend the strike and accept the legal fees. However, the barristers suspended the industrial action, and only 54% agreed with the move (Godfrey et al., 2022). These left other barristers dissatisfied. Therefore, there needs to be continuous monitoring of the government management of the legal budget. Even after the easing of conflict between the CBA and the government, there is continuous unrest across the legal system because of the failure of the government to fulfill its promise in reforming the legal aid and flagship IT sector (Godfrey et al., 2022). Therefore, it is anticipated that there will be strikes due to the failure of the government to offer the promised reforms.

The staff in courts and magistrates are planning to strike if the promised improvements are not met. In addition, the backlog of cases has been attributed to the minimal commitment provided by court staff over the last few years. However, the government insists that the emergence of covid-19 has resulted in a backlog of cases. The delays experienced in the prison system and courts had been long-term challenges even before the emergence of covid-19. More than 40 000 cases were recorded outstanding in courts (Godfrey et al., 2022). The government catalyzed for delay of cases in courts after limiting the number of sitting days. Therefore, these led to the idleness of legal professionals and victims facing long waiting times for trials in courts.

The emergence of covid-19 led to the accumulation of cases in courts to more than 50% of the previous years (Kirk, 2022). The outstanding cases in courts are approximately over 60,000, which delays the offering of justice in courts (Godfrey et al., 2022). Consequently, this makes more people commit a crime since the time taken for crime committers to face trials fails to guarantee justice at the right time.

The immediate areas of immediate concern in prison systems involve different areas that need urgent actions. For instance, overcrowding prisons in England and Wales create widespread and complex challenges, especially in maintaining prisoners’ health and providing safe living conditions. Overcrowding in prisons leads to insanity and violent conditions that are risky to prisoners’ mental and physical well-being; thus, this leads to stress and psychological torture. The crowding rate in prisons remains worrying since it is in huge numbers. Approximately 80 000 people are held in penal institutions, which include pre-trial detainees, sentenced or remanded (MacDonald, 2018). This accumulation of prisoners is causing the suffering of staff workers in prison. For instance, prisoners are violent prisoners and have a high infection rate. Consequently, the conditions in prison systems are deteriorating up to the point that it is not meeting the expected international standards and rules. In addition, there is a shortage of prison officers; consequently, this has led to the failure of prisoners to receive their healthcare appointments (MacDonald, 2018). Therefore, these issues need urgent intervention to reduce mental health problems that are rising urgently.

There is a shortage of healthcare workers for prisoners; therefore, prisoners are untreated, leading to psychological torture that affects the general well-being of prisoners. The failure to meet the demands of the prison officials and staff contributes significantly to failure and crisis in prison systems. The number of healthcare and prison staff in the prison systems has reduced to 30% (MacDonald, 2018). Therefore, prisoners fail to participate in the appropriate rehabilitative procedures and leisure activities due to understaffing of officials (MacDonald, 2018). Consequently, prisoners spend extra time locked in prison cells; thus, this makes them live unhealthy lives.

The shortage of medical staffing violates international standards of the article of social and cultural rights (SCR), whereby each prisoner is given autonomy to better physical and mental health standards. SCR works with a united nation for social development to enhance awareness and ensure social protection, especially for prisoners. The failure to provide quality services to prisoners leads to unacceptable delays. The lack of high-security and medium beds in hospitals contributes to this. The shortage of medical staffing in prison is not justified as a way of punishing prisoners with unconducive living conditions that affect prisoners’ physical and psychological health (MacDonald, 2018). Consequently, prisoners are entitled to well and facilitated medical care with minimized harm. Offenders need to be taken care of to recover from illness; otherwise, they could do the offense again. Prisoners receive illegal substances like psychoactive substances that contribute to their poor health status of prisoners (MacDonald, 2018). Therefore, poor health care and prison protection are urgent areas that require serious attention.

Another area that needs urgent attention is the lack of security, which needs to change desperately. The members of parliament have raised concerns about the status of security in prisons, especially the manner the government pledges on prisons ahead of the upcoming election. The justice committee led by Bob Nail has criticized the approach taken by John Boris. According to the justice committee, the Prime Minister needed more explicit long-term strategies and reforms to transform court systems operations. The committee required the Prime Minister to clarify how the government could meet the pledges made by increasing legal funding. However, leaders are accused of using the situation for political gain (Savage, 2021). The ministry of justice has acknowledged the prison system’s pressing security issues. The chief inspector, however, highlighted that the major security issues are experienced because prisons are under-resourced, making prisons violent, especially during the covid-19 period when there was onerous restriction in prisons (Savage, 2021). Consequently, prisons’ insecurity is attributed to how officers use force to protect other staff and themselves.

The issues that are surrounding prison systems need to be solved. This can be done by adopting different strategies. For instance, ensuring reduced prison overcrowding is the key to mitigating the challenges and health problems the staff and prisoners are experiencing. To reduce overcrowding, the government should start programs that enable prisoners to manage drug abuse. These can be done by initiating education programs that sensitize released offenders to ways of avoiding crimes (MacDonald, 2018). Hence, failing to re-offend reduces prison crowding and provides society safety since crimes are minimized.

The European Union (EU) encourages the judicial systems to adopt and promote fair sentencing strategies and care programs that increase social reintegration. Social integration involves the integration of institutional programs that play a significant role in designing offenders in a manner that makes them re-enter and be accepted in society. These programs include education, job training, mentoring, counseling, mental health care, and substance training. When fully offered and assessed to offenders, these programs become effective. Some agencies have volunteered to offer community-based programs that offer follow and after-care services to offenders (MacDonald, 2018). The government should take the initiative of linking institutional services with community-based programs to ensure offenders are well-trained and well-supported before being released to society. To ensure effective social integration, the government should develop straightforward intervention programs such as grouping crimes into their groups for a more accessible identity of offenders and facilitating education programs that reduce recidivism (MacDonald, 2018). Therefore, offering training services to offenders transforms their lives, leading to adopting a healthy and safe lifestyle.

Funding prison systems in England and Wales has been a long-term challenge, contributing significantly to the prison system’s challenges. To transform prisons as a way of reforming offenders, creating new funding opportunities for the prison system is necessary. This can be done by adopting a transformative prison act funded by the ministry of justice (Clear et al., 2018). The program allows states to apply and request funds that offer supportive practices that could improve the condition of prisoners and staff members. The funds could offer supportive training programs to cognitive communities with special operations in different prison units. The funds could also offer therapeutic programs that support and improve social behaviors. These programs could include anger management, artistic schemes, and family and parenting workshops. For instance, the California transformative act has improvised mental health and created self-awareness through artistic work (Clear et al., 2018). Hence, these schemes could be significant in providing rehabilitative sessions to offenders.

Additionally, in response to handling prison crises such as self-harm, the police and legal representatives should shift their focus from incapacitation to ensuring rehabilitation. To ensure there is change, the government should provide extra legal funds that are used in rehabilitation missions that are aimed at transforming prisons. Rehabilitative transformation should be based on evidence, therapeutic programs, and impacts on incarcerated individuals. Revisiting of some prison policies should be incorporated such that imprisoned people receive fundamental credit for engaging in comprehensive schemes such as cognitive communities. States, prison departments, and the ministry of justice should implement innovative programs and models that improvise the manner prisons operate (Chamberlain et al., 2021). Hence, these mitigate the escalation of issues related to prison crises, such as lack of security.

To avoid people from being dragged to legal justice because of petty offenses, public safety can be secured by using community justice centers (CJCs). The CJC offers advisory services to people in crisis due to the use of substances, mental conditions, or family trauma. Research shows that community-based programs such as public or social services help traumatized people improve their condition rather than using the criminal justice system (Chamberlain et al., 2021). Using community-based programs could reduce social work’s burden from escalating in prison systems. Hence, these programs may reduce health and mental challenges.

The prison crisis experienced contributed to low budgetary plans for prison systems. The government has responded to these by rebuilding and renewing the prisons. The Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, confirmed that there is a plan by the government to build more prisons as a way of ensuring there is safety. The deputy prime minister added that the government is deploying a technology-based model that could help stop the flow of drugs, phones, and weapons into prison cells. There is a plan to eliminate drug dealers and offenders to cut crime and keep the public safe. The allocation of extra funds has backed up these strategies to prison systems, whereby approximately 4 billion euros have been allocated to prison systems (Loader, 2020). The budget is expected to build modern, secure, and innovative cells with conducive conditions to rehabilitate offenders and ensure safety. An additional six prisons are expected before 2027 (Rushchenko, 2019). The prisons will contain facilities that will provide offenders with vocational training skills (Rushchenko, 2019). Hence, these will transform offenders from criminals to productive people that society can accommodate.

Additionally, there is a plan to recruit more officers in the next three years. It is approximated that more than 2,000 officers will be employed in the next two years. There will be a new retention scheme to keep existing staff members in the police service. The prison governors will be guaranteed more autonomy to run their jails. There will be a new performance measure that will be used to in ensuring there is adequate security, training, and minimized drug use and addiction. Prisoners under construction will be used as training centers for prisoners (Boin, 2018). Additionally, these programs will help trained offenders find jobs that will reduce the chances of re-offending as a measure of cutting crime. There is a plan to crack down on drug dealers and traffickers in the supply chain and criminal gangs making hefty profits from illegal merchandising. These will reduce more exposure of young people and youths to the use of drugs, who are the primary target of this criminal (Boin, 2018). Hence, this will result in safety across the country, which is the government’s aim.

In conclusion, prison systems in England face a crisis that is contributed by several factors. For instance, the government has consistently failed to provide an adequate budget for the prison system. This has contributed to prison overcrowding since the available cells cannot accommodate the rising number of offenders. The government has failed to fulfill its promise to reduce challenges in the prison system. The accumulation of these challenges has further led to the escalation of other issues like creating unconducive living conditions in prison, self-harm, and insecurity that has led to cell deaths. These challenges need urgent intervention in order to reduce their accumulation. For example, the government should increase its legal aid to prisons, enabling more prisons to be constructed. Hence, these will lead to the creation of rehabilitation centers that will transform offenders into the right people that can be accommodated in society. The government will crack down on drug dealers who benefit from illegal business. Thus, these will ensure enough security, and by doing so, there will be a safe environment for living.

Boin, A., Hart, P. T., & Kuipers, S. (2018). The crisis approach. In Handbook of disaster research (pp. 23-38). Springer, Cham.

Chamberlen, A., & Carvalho, H. (2019). The thrill of the chase: punishment, hostility, and the prison crisis . Social & Legal Studies , 28 (1), 100-117. Web.

Chamberlain, P., Keppel-Palmer, M., Reardon, S., & Smith, T. (2021). It is criminal: the state of magistrates’ court reporting in England and Wales . Journalism , 22 (9), 2404–2420. Web.

Clear, T. R., Reisig, M. D., & Cole, G. F. (2018). American corrections . Cengage learning.

Godfrey, B., Richardson, J. C., & Walklate, S. (2022). The crisis in the courts: Before and beyond COVID . The British Journal of Criminology , 62 (4), 1036-1053. Web.

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Prison Violence as Punishment

  • Published: 13 May 2024

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essay about prison system

  • William L. Bell   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-1965-9713 1  

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The United States carceral system, as currently designed and implemented, is widely considered to be an immoral and inhumane system of criminal punishment. There are a number of pressing issues related to this topic, but in this essay, I will focus upon the problem of prison violence. Inadequate supervision has resulted in unsafe prison conditions where inmates are regularly threatened with rape, assault, and other forms of physical violence. Such callous disregard and exposure to unreasonable risk constitutes a severe violation of the rights of prisoners by the state. While there have been numerous legal, political, and activist efforts to draw attention to this issue—with the goal of reforming and making prisons safer—my goal is different. I argue that inmates who are victims of prison violence should have their sentences automatically reduced. Two distinct arguments are advanced in support of this claim. First, I argue that acts of prison violence are a sort of state-mediated harm which can thus be appropriately described as punishment-constituting. Second, and more straightforwardly, I argue that the compensation owed to prisoners who are victims of prison violence may naturally take the form of a reduced sentence.

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essay about prison system


essay about prison system

At Risk of Rights: Rehabilitation, Sentence Management and the Structural Violence of Prison

essay about prison system

Destabilizing Conceptions of Violence

Data availability.

Not applicable.

Beside the problem of inhumane prison conditions, the United States’ criminal legal institutions can also be criticized for overcriminalization (i.e., criminalizing conduct which should not be criminalized, e.g., drugs), and excessive punishment. Indeed, on this last point, I am of the opinion that the average American’s sense of justice and proportionality (with respect to punishment) is warped and skewed in the direction of favoring excessively harsh sentences. For a helpful overview of these issues and problems, see Wellman ( 2017 ).

Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan ( 2019 ).

For the sake of simplicity, I focus my attention in this essay almost exclusively upon the problem of prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Of course, much of the violence inmates experience is suffered at the hands of prison guards. However, I believe that if the claims and arguments I make concerning prisoner-on-prisoner violence are correct, they can easily and straightforwardly be applied to cases involving guard-on-prisoner violence.

For instance, the main thesis can easily be transposed so that it reflects terminology belonging to the retributivist’s lexicon. The proposal sketched along these lines would be something like: Criminals are deserving of a fitting punishment, but violence suffered while being incarcerated may sometimes reduce the amount of further incarceration warranted . However, because I believe a rights forfeiture theory is the best account we have for explaining the permissibility of punishment, and furthermore, that the complementary notion of rights reclamation is theoretically useful in helping elucidate those conditions under which punishment ceases to be just—I take forfeiture theory as my starting point. Defenders of a forfeiture account of punishment include Goldman ( 1979 ), Morris ( 1991 ), Simmons ( 1991 ), Kershnar ( 2002 ), and Wellman ( 2012 , 2017 ).

Spelling out precisely how much punishment a criminal is owed for a given offense has proven to be no easy task. While nearly everyone agrees that criminal punishment should be proportional to the gravity of the committed offense, there is lively debate among penal theorists regarding how to determine what counts as a proportionate response. For a terrific overview and discussion of the challenges that a theory of proportionality faces, see Ryberg ( 2019 ).

Not everyone agrees with framing things this way. For example, Saul Smilanksy has recently argued against the claim that punishment of the innocent and overpunishment are morally equivalent wrongs. See, Smilanksy ( 2022 ).

While the notion of rights forfeiture is well-discussed in the literature, far less attention has been given to the correlative notion of rights reclamation. For a fuller discussion of this concept and whether there are multiple means by which a wrongdoer may recover forfeited rights (other than punishment), see Bell ( 2024 ).

As Douglas Husak has noted, endorsement of a principle of proportionality “has no implications about the mode or kind of punishment that should be inflicted” and “defendants who have committed equally serious crimes may receive a different type of punishment, as long as these modes are comparable in severity” ( 2022 : 175–176). The point made here is similar but more exact: disparate lengths of imprisonment may be considered equivalent as long as there is a significant contrast in the harshness of the conditions of one’s incarceration.

I do not intend to suggest that residents at Norway’s Bastøy Prison experience no significant deprivations, only that the harshness of their treatment is less severe than that experienced in prisons like, for instance, Angola. To gain insight into the effects that Norway’s “Prison Island” has upon inmates, see Victor Lund Shammas ( 2014 ).

To be sure, Noorda’s focus is not on how different types of punitive measures affect our proportionality calculations, but upon how those subjected to certain types of non-traditional imprisonment are still deserving of standard legal protections ( 2023 : 20–25).

Lisa Kerr has compellingly argued that imprisonment and its effects upon inmates is, by and large, a “black box” for punishment theorists ( 2019 : 86). Philosophers typically theorize about punishment in the abstract, without paying much attention to how state punishment is carried out in practice. One particularly problematic habit of punishment theorists highlighted by Kerr is their almost exclusive focus upon the duration of a prison sentence when determining the severity of punishment: “the duration focus entails a view that imprisonment can be measured and fairly distributed by scaling particular amounts of time—the time in which liberty will be deprived—in response to wrongdoing. A great deal is often left out of this under-inclusive conception of incarceration” ( 2019 : 102). For instance, one variable often omitted from sentencing considerations is how an identical prison sentence can have a drastically different impact on different offenders due to their differing psychological constitutions (see Kolber 2009 ). One of the explicit aims of this paper is to avoid the disconnect between sentencing theory and imprisonment that Kerr rightfully worries about. The principle of Equivalence is intended to highlight that in figuring out what counts as a proportionate penal response, more than sentence duration should be taken into account. While all prisons deprive inmates of their liberty, there are additional variables at play—such as the general harshness of one’s carceral conditions—which should also be factored into proportionality calculations.

Richard Lippke dubbed this question as “the problem of relatedness” ( 2001 : 79).

I borrow this case unmodified from Quinn ( 1985 : 322).

The most in-depth analysis of the problem of relatedness is provided by Wellman ( 2017 ; Chap. 6).

While it is true that the imposition of hard treatment against a wrongdoer is only permissible if carried out with the appropriate punitive aims, there may in fact be some impermissible harms that qualify as punishment and thus result in rights reclamation despite the lack of an accompanying punitive intention. Indeed, one of the main objectives of this paper is to explore such murky waters.

This case is loosely based upon an example from Wellman ( 2017 : 183).

While Rodin’s ( 2014 ) discussion of conditional threats is the main inspiration for the argument developed in this passage, I borrow the language of “mediated harms” from Helen Frowe in her discussion of Rodin’s argument ( 2014 : 126–131). It is also worth highlighting that the notion of state-mediated harms discussed here may bear some similarity to the concept of “state-mediated structures of injustice,” as developed by Mantouvalou ( 2023 ; Chap. 2). Building upon the work of Marion Young, Mantouvaolu writes: “The responsibility in which I am interested is responsibility for the creation of vulnerability through law that is linked to structures of exploitation: this is why I call it state-mediated . It concerns responsibility for state action—the creation of vulnerability itself…The state authorities know or ought to know of the vulnerability that they create, perpetuate, and increase, along with the resulting structures of exploitation” ( 2023 : 21). Likewise, the problem of prison violence involves placing prisoners in an environment in which they are vulnerable to violence and abuse, and which represents a type of injustice that state actors likely do not intend but should be able to anticipate.

This move, again, parallels Rodin’s own argument. Rodin argues that when the victims of conditional threats are those who are “bound to us by relationships of loyalty, community, and kinship”, these associative bonds offset whatever discount would normally be applied to the harms which arise through the intervening agency of others” (2017: 83). Note, however, that there is significant debate about the status of associative obligations. Some deny that associative obligations exist; see, for example, Wellman ( 1997 ). The argument advanced above, then, is stronger than Rodin’s because the assumption that the state (which claims a monopoly upon the right to punish convicted criminals) has a special duty to protect its prisoners is relatively uncontroversial compared to claims about the existence of associative responsibilities.

Of particular note on this front is Allen Buchanan, who argues against what he dubs the “mirroring view”—i.e., the view that “the standard or typical justification for an international legal human right must appeal to an antecedently existing, corresponding moral human right” ( 2013 : 50–51).

I borrow the example of dueling from Daniel Callahan, who uses it to make an analogous point about euthanasia. In brief, Callahan argues that even if individuals have a private moral right to assisted suicide, this does not settle the question of whether that right should be institutionalized and protected by a system of law (Callahan 2014 : 85).

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I extend special thanks to Andrew Ramirez whose insightful line of questioning in response to another project led to the development of this paper. Additionally, I am grateful to Kit Wellman, Allan Hazlett, Graham Renz, Neal Baird, and Gina Cordoví for providing helpful feedback and comments on earlier drafts of this paper. A previous version of this paper was presented at the Indiana Philosophical Association, where I benefited from numerous insightful questions and comments from audience members. Finally, I am fortunate to have received such helpful and constructive feedback from the two anonymous reviewers of this journal, and I extend my sincere gratitude to them.

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When Prison and Mental Illness Amount to a Death Sentence

The downward spiral of one inmate, Markus Johnson, shows the larger failures of the nation’s prisons to care for the mentally ill.

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By Glenn Thrush

Photographs by Carlos Javier Ortiz

Glenn Thrush spent more than a year reporting this article, interviewing close to 50 people and reviewing court-obtained body-camera footage and more than 1,500 pages of documents.

  • Published May 5, 2024 Updated May 7, 2024

Markus Johnson slumped naked against the wall of his cell, skin flecked with pepper spray, his face a mask of puzzlement, exhaustion and resignation. Four men in black tactical gear pinned him, his face to the concrete, to cuff his hands behind his back.

He did not resist. He couldn’t. He was so gravely dehydrated he would be dead by their next shift change.

Listen to this article with reporter commentary

“I didn’t do anything,” Mr. Johnson moaned as they pressed a shield between his shoulders.

It was 1:19 p.m. on Sept. 6, 2019, in the Danville Correctional Center, a medium-security prison a few hours south of Chicago. Mr. Johnson, 21 and serving a short sentence for gun possession, was in the throes of a mental collapse that had gone largely untreated, but hardly unwatched.

He had entered in good health, with hopes of using the time to gain work skills. But for the previous three weeks, Mr. Johnson, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had refused to eat or take his medication. Most dangerous of all, he had stealthily stopped drinking water, hastening the physical collapse that often accompanies full-scale mental crises.

Mr. Johnson’s horrific downward spiral, which has not been previously reported, represents the larger failures of the nation’s prisons to care for the mentally ill. Many seriously ill people receive no treatment . For those who do, the outcome is often determined by the vigilance and commitment of individual supervisors and frontline staff, which vary greatly from system to system, prison to prison, and even shift to shift.

The country’s jails and prisons have become its largest provider of inpatient mental health treatment, with 10 times as many seriously mentally ill people now held behind bars as in hospitals. Estimating the population of incarcerated people with major psychological problems is difficult, but the number is likely 200,000 to 300,000, experts say.

Many of these institutions remain ill-equipped to handle such a task, and the burden often falls on prison staff and health care personnel who struggle with the dual roles of jailer and caregiver in a high-stress, dangerous, often dehumanizing environment.

In 2021, Joshua McLemore , a 29-year-old with schizophrenia held for weeks in an isolation cell in Jackson County, Ind., died of organ failure resulting from a “refusal to eat or drink,” according to an autopsy. In April, New York City agreed to pay $28 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Nicholas Feliciano, a young man with a history of mental illness who suffered severe brain damage after attempting to hang himself on Rikers Island — as correctional officers stood by.

Mr. Johnson’s mother has filed a wrongful-death suit against the state and Wexford Health Sources, a for-profit health care contractor in Illinois prisons. The New York Times reviewed more than 1,500 pages of reports, along with depositions taken from those involved. Together, they reveal a cascade of missteps, missed opportunities, potential breaches of protocol and, at times, lapses in common sense.

A woman wearing a jeans jacket sitting at a table showing photos of a young boy on her cellphone.

Prison officials and Wexford staff took few steps to intervene even after it became clear that Mr. Johnson, who had been hospitalized repeatedly for similar episodes and recovered, had refused to take medication. Most notably, they did not transfer him to a state prison facility that provides more intensive mental health treatment than is available at regular prisons, records show.

The quality of medical care was also questionable, said Mr. Johnson’s lawyers, Sarah Grady and Howard Kaplan, a married legal team in Chicago. Mr. Johnson lost 50 to 60 pounds during three weeks in solitary confinement, but officials did not initiate interventions like intravenous feedings or transfer him to a non-prison hospital.

And they did not take the most basic step — dialing 911 — until it was too late.

There have been many attempts to improve the quality of mental health treatment in jails and prisons by putting care on par with punishment — including a major effort in Chicago . But improvements have proved difficult to enact and harder to sustain, hampered by funding and staffing shortages.

Lawyers representing the state corrections department, Wexford and staff members who worked at Danville declined to comment on Mr. Johnson’s death, citing the unresolved litigation. In their interviews with state police investigators, and in depositions, employees defended their professionalism and adherence to procedure, while citing problems with high staff turnover, difficult work conditions, limited resources and shortcomings of co-workers.

But some expressed a sense of resignation about the fate of Mr. Johnson and others like him.

Prisoners have “much better chances in a hospital, but that’s not their situation,” said a senior member of Wexford’s health care team in a deposition.

“I didn’t put them in prison,” he added. “They are in there for a reason.”

Markus Mison Johnson was born on March 1, 1998, to a mother who believed she was not capable of caring for him.

Days after his birth, he was taken in by Lisa Barker Johnson, a foster mother in her 30s who lived in Zion, Ill., a working-class city halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. Markus eventually became one of four children she adopted from different families.

The Johnson house is a lively split level, with nieces, nephews, grandchildren and neighbors’ children, family keepsakes, video screens and juice boxes. Ms. Johnson sits at its center on a kitchen chair, chin resting on her hand as children wander over to share their thoughts, or to tug on her T-shirt to ask her to be their bathroom buddy.

From the start, her bond with Markus was particularly powerful, in part because the two looked so much alike, with distinctive dimpled smiles. Many neighbors assumed he was her biological son. The middle name she chose for him was intended to convey that message.

“Mison is short for ‘my son,’” she said standing over his modest footstone grave last summer.

He was happy at home. School was different. His grades were good, but he was intensely shy and was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in elementary school.

That was around the time the bullying began. His sisters were fierce defenders, but they could only do so much. He did the best he could, developing a quick, taunting tongue.

These experiences filled him with a powerful yearning to fit in.

It was not to be.

When he was around 15, he called 911 in a panic, telling the dispatcher he saw two men standing near the small park next to his house threatening to abduct children playing there. The officers who responded found nothing out of the ordinary, and rang the Johnsons’ doorbell.

He later told his mother he had heard a voice telling him to “protect the kids.”

He was hospitalized for the first time at 16, and given medications that stabilized him for stretches of time. But the crises would strike every six months or so, often triggered by his decision to stop taking his medication.

His family became adept at reading signs he was “getting sick.” He would put on his tan Timberlands and a heavy winter coat, no matter the season, and perch on the edge of his bed as if bracing for battle. Sometimes, he would cook his own food, paranoid that someone might poison him.

He graduated six months early, on the dean’s list, but was rudderless, and hanging out with younger boys, often paying their way.

His mother pointed out the perils of buying friendship.

“I don’t care,” he said. “At least I’ll be popular for a minute.”

Zion’s inviting green grid of Bible-named streets belies the reality that it is a rough, unforgiving place to grow up. Family members say Markus wanted desperately to prove he was tough, and emulated his younger, reckless group of friends.

Like many of them, he obtained a pistol. He used it to hold up a convenience store clerk for $425 in January 2017, according to police records. He cut a plea deal for two years of probation, and never explained to his family what had made him do it.

But he kept getting into violent confrontations. In late July 2018, he was arrested in a neighbor’s garage with a handgun he later admitted was his. He was still on probation for the robbery, and his public defender negotiated a plea deal that would send him to state prison until January 2020.

An inpatient mental health system

Around 40 percent of the about 1.8 million people in local, state and federal jails and prison suffer from at least one mental illness, and many of these people have concurrent issues with substance abuse, according to recent Justice Department estimates.

Psychological problems, often exacerbated by drug use, often lead to significant medical problems resulting from a lack of hygiene or access to good health care.

“When you suffer depression in the outside world, it’s hard to concentrate, you have reduced energy, your sleep is disrupted, you have a very gloomy outlook, so you stop taking care of yourself,” said Robert L. Trestman , a Virginia Tech medical school professor who has worked on state prison mental health reforms.

The paradox is that prison is often the only place where sick people have access to even minimal care.

But the harsh work environment, remote location of many prisons, and low pay have led to severe shortages of corrections staff and the unwillingness of doctors, nurses and counselors to work with the incarcerated mentally ill.

In the early 2000s, prisoners’ rights lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against Illinois claiming “deliberate indifference” to the plight of about 5,000 mentally ill prisoners locked in segregated units and denied treatment and medication.

In 2014, the parties reached a settlement that included minimum staffing mandates, revamped screening protocols, restrictions on the use of solitary confinement and the allocation of about $100 million to double capacity in the system’s specialized mental health units.

Yet within six months of the deal, Pablo Stewart, an independent monitor chosen to oversee its enforcement, declared the system to be in a state of emergency.

Over the years, some significant improvements have been made. But Dr. Stewart’s final report , drafted in 2022, gave the system failing marks for its medication and staffing policies and reliance on solitary confinement “crisis watch” cells.

Ms. Grady, one of Mr. Johnson’s lawyers, cited an additional problem: a lack of coordination between corrections staff and Wexford’s professionals, beyond dutifully filling out dozens of mandated status reports.

“Markus Johnson was basically documented to death,” she said.

‘I’m just trying to keep my head up’

Mr. Johnson was not exactly looking forward to prison. But he saw it as an opportunity to learn a trade so he could start a family when he got out.

On Dec. 18, 2018, he arrived at a processing center in Joliet, where he sat for an intake interview. He was coherent and cooperative, well-groomed and maintained eye contact. He was taking his medication, not suicidal and had a hearty appetite. He was listed as 5 feet 6 inches tall and 256 pounds.

Mr. Johnson described his mood as “go with the flow.”

A few days later, after arriving in Danville, he offered a less settled assessment during a telehealth visit with a Wexford psychiatrist, Dr. Nitin Thapar. Mr. Johnson admitted to being plagued by feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and “constant uncontrollable worrying” that affected his sleep.

He told Dr. Thapar he had heard voices in the past — but not now — telling him he was a failure, and warning that people were out to get him.

At the time he was incarcerated, the basic options for mentally ill people in Illinois prisons included placement in the general population or transfer to a special residential treatment program at the Dixon Correctional Center, west of Chicago. Mr. Johnson seemed out of immediate danger, so he was assigned to a standard two-man cell in the prison’s general population, with regular mental health counseling and medication.

Things started off well enough. “I’m just trying to keep my head up,” he wrote to his mother. “Every day I learn to be stronger & stronger.”

But his daily phone calls back home hinted at friction with other inmates. And there was not much for him to do after being turned down for a janitorial training program.

Then, in the spring of 2019, his grandmother died, sending him into a deep hole.

Dr. Thapar prescribed a new drug used to treat major depressive disorders. Its most common side effect is weight gain. Mr. Johnson stopped taking it.

On July 4, he told Dr. Thapar matter-of-factly during a telehealth check-in that he was no longer taking any of his medications. “I’ve been feeling normal, I guess,” he said. “I feel like I don’t need the medication anymore.”

Dr. Thapar said he thought that was a mistake, but accepted the decision and removed Mr. Johnson from his regular mental health caseload — instructing him to “reach out” if he needed help, records show.

The pace of calls back home slackened. Mr. Johnson spent more time in bed, and became more surly. At a group-therapy session, he sat stone silent, after showing up late.

By early August, he was telling guards he had stopped eating.

At some point, no one knows when, he had intermittently stopped drinking fluids.

‘I’m having a breakdown’

Then came the crash.

On Aug. 12, Mr. Johnson got into a fight with his older cellmate.

He was taken to a one-man disciplinary cell. A few hours later, Wexford’s on-site mental health counselor, Melanie Easton, was shocked by his disoriented condition. Mr. Johnson stared blankly, then burst into tears when asked if he had “suffered a loss in the previous six months.”

He was so unresponsive to her questions she could not finish the evaluation.

Ms. Easton ordered that he be moved to a 9-foot by 8-foot crisis cell — solitary confinement with enhanced monitoring. At this moment, a supervisor could have ticked the box for “residential treatment” on a form to transfer him to Dixon. That did not happen, according to records and depositions.

Around this time, he asked to be placed back on his medication but nothing seems to have come of it, records show.

By mid-August, he said he was visualizing “people that were not there,” according to case notes. At first, he was acting more aggressively, once flicking water at a guard through a hole in his cell door. But his energy ebbed, and he gradually migrated downward — from standing to bunk to floor.

“I’m having a breakdown,” he confided to a Wexford employee.

At the time, inmates in Illinois were required to declare an official hunger strike before prison officials would initiate protocols, including blood testing or forced feedings. But when a guard asked Mr. Johnson why he would not eat, he said he was “fasting,” as opposed to starving himself, and no action seems to have been taken.

‘Tell me this is OK!’

Lt. Matthew Morrison, one of the few people at Danville to take a personal interest in Mr. Johnson, reported seeing a white rind around his mouth in early September. He told other staff members the cell gave off “a death smell,” according to a deposition.

On Sept. 5, they moved Mr. Johnson to one of six cells adjacent to the prison’s small, bare-bones infirmary. Prison officials finally placed him on the official hunger strike protocol without his consent.

Mr. Morrison, in his deposition, said he was troubled by the inaction of the Wexford staff, and the lack of urgency exhibited by the medical director, Dr. Justin Young.

On Sept. 5, Mr. Morrison approached Dr. Young to express his concerns, and the doctor agreed to order blood and urine tests. But Dr. Young lived in Chicago, and was on site at the prison about four times a week, according to Mr. Kaplan. Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, was not one of those days.

Mr. Morrison arrived at work that morning, expecting to find Mr. Johnson’s testing underway. A Wexford nurse told him Dr. Young believed the tests could wait.

Mr. Morrison, stunned, asked her to call Dr. Young.

“He’s good till Monday,” Dr. Young responded, according to Mr. Morrison.

“Come on, come on, look at this guy! You tell me this is OK!” the officer responded.

Eventually, Justin Duprey, a licensed nurse practitioner and the most senior Wexford employee on duty that day, authorized the test himself.

Mr. Morrison, thinking he had averted a disaster, entered the cell and implored Mr. Johnson into taking the tests. He refused.

So prison officials obtained approval to remove him forcibly from his cell.

‘Oh, my God’

What happened next is documented in video taken from cameras held by officers on the extraction team and obtained by The Times through a court order.

Mr. Johnson is scarcely recognizable as the neatly groomed 21-year-old captured in a cellphone picture a few months earlier. His skin is ashen, eyes fixed on the middle distance. He might be 40. Or 60.

At first, he places his hands forward through the hole in his cell door to be cuffed. This is against procedure, the officers shout. His hands must be in back.

He will not, or cannot, comply. He wanders to the rear of his cell and falls hard. Two blasts of pepper spray barely elicit a reaction. The leader of the tactical team later said he found it unusual and unnerving.

The next video is in the medical unit. A shield is pressed to his chest. He is in agony, begging for them to stop, as two nurses attempt to insert a catheter.

Then they move him, half-conscious and limp, onto a wheelchair for the blood draw.

For the next 20 minutes, the Wexford nurse performing the procedure, Angelica Wachtor, jabs hands and arms to find a vessel that will hold shape. She winces with each puncture, tries to comfort him, and grows increasingly rattled.

“Oh, my God,” she mutters, and asks why help is not on the way.

She did not request assistance or discuss calling 911, records indicate.

“Can you please stop — it’s burning real bad,” Mr. Johnson said.

Soon after, a member of the tactical team reminds Ms. Wachtor to take Mr. Johnson’s vitals before taking him back to his cell. She would later tell Dr. Young she had been unable to able to obtain his blood pressure.

“You good?” one of the team members asks as they are preparing to leave.

“Yeah, I’ll have to be,” she replies in the recording.

Officers lifted him back onto his bunk, leaving him unconscious and naked except for a covering draped over his groin. His expressionless face is visible through the window on the cell door as it closes.

‘Cardiac arrest.’

Mr. Duprey, the nurse practitioner, had been sitting inside his office after corrections staff ordered him to shelter for his own protection, he said. When he emerged, he found Ms. Wachtor sobbing, and after a delay, he was let into the cell. Finding no pulse, Mr. Duprey asked a prison employee to call 911 so Mr. Johnson could be taken to a local emergency room.

The Wexford staff initiated CPR. It did not work.

At 3:38 p.m., the paramedics declared Markus Mison Johnson dead.

Afterward, a senior official at Danville called the Johnson family to say he had died of “cardiac arrest.”

Lisa Johnson pressed for more information, but none was initially forthcoming. She would soon receive a box hastily crammed with his possessions: uneaten snacks, notebooks, an inspirational memoir by a man who had served 20 years at Leavenworth.

Later, Shiping Bao, the coroner who examined his body, determined Mr. Johnson had died of severe dehydration. He told the state police it “was one of the driest bodies he had ever seen.”

For a long time, Ms. Johnson blamed herself. She says that her biggest mistake was assuming that the state, with all its resources, would provide a level of care comparable to what she had been able to provide her son.

She had stopped accepting foster care children while she was raising Markus and his siblings. But as the months dragged on, she decided her once-boisterous house had become oppressively still, and let local agencies know she was available again.

“It is good to have children around,” she said. “It was too quiet around here.”

Read by Glenn Thrush

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro .

Glenn Thrush covers the Department of Justice. He joined The Times in 2017 after working for Politico, Newsday, Bloomberg News, The New York Daily News, The Birmingham Post-Herald and City Limits. More about Glenn Thrush


Our Immigrant Detention System Shows Why We Need Prison Abolition

By Silky Shah

Protesters holding a banner reading SEEKING ASYLUM IS NOT A CRIME at Times Square Subway Station

On December 31, 2020, in the waning days of the Trump administration, a 58-year-old man from The Bahamas named Jesse Jerome Dean Jr. was set to be released from prison. Dean had been arrested and charged with drug trafficking in Florida in 1995, but he maintained his innocence and refused a plea bargain, which resulted in a thirty-year prison sentence. Over the course of more than two decades of incarceration, Dean was transferred to several federal prisons until he finally ended up at a privately operated immigrant prison in Baldwin, Michigan.

Upon his release, Dean was looking forward to reuniting with his family in The Bahamas, including his son, who had been only eight years old when his father was first taken into the custody of the US government. But Dean wasn’t a US citizen. Instead of being freed that December day in 2020, he was transferred yet again to a county jail in Battle Creek, Michigan, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rents bed space, to await deportation. During his thirty-five days in ICE custody, Dean’s health deteriorated. He complained twenty-seven times about abdominal pains and lost seventeen pounds. Staff ignored his protests for medical attention. One nurse threatened him with a citation for “interfering with staff duties.” On January 30, 2021, he told medical staff, “I feel like I’m going to die.” And five days later, twenty-six years after he was first imprisoned by the federal government, Dean passed away.

I had been organizing against immigrant detention for nearly two decades when I first learned about Dean’s death, and yet, I struggled to make sense of it. My work as an organizer taught me things that should have explained a moment like this. From having read dozens of death reports over the years, I knew in detail how horribly immigrants were treated inside detention centers. I also knew that Black men dying in the custody of the US government was not an uncommon occurrence. Dean died less than a year after one of the largest series of protests in US history had been set off by the brutal murder of George Floyd . Jesse Dean was now another addition to the list of Black people dying at the hands of the state. Still, even knowing all of this, Dean’s death rattled me. I couldn’t accept that this man—who had spent most of his adult life behind bars and was finally going to be freed and reunited with his family—had just been left to die. And despite working at an organization that advocates for an end to immigrant detention, I knew that his time in ICE custody was only part of the injustice he had experienced over twenty-six years in prison.

Dean’s story illustrates something that more people in the immigrant justice movement have come to realize in recent years: the US immigration enforcement system and the prison industrial complex are not separate, as is commonly understood, but are intertwined systems of repression. While some may see this relationship as a more recent phenomenon, accelerated by the post-9/11 crackdown on immigrant communities, migrants have long been labeled “illegal” or “criminal” as a strategy for controlling their movements and preventing their acceptance into US society. The harmful effects of these labels have only been compounded by the growth of mass incarceration. Today, the United States incarcerates nearly two million people in prisons, jails, and detention centers.

To understand how these systems are intertwined in the ways they are today, we have to return to the 1980s and 1990s. As abolitionist scholars such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore argue, it was during this period that prisons expanded as a “solution” to the economic, social, and political conditions of the time, notably rising social inequality and the erosion of welfare. The policy approach to immigration began to follow a similar path, and immigrants became a central target of the nativist agenda in Congress. Dean’s experience with the US criminal legal system was a direct result of these shifts. Laws that had been passed during the height of the war on drugs resulted in his multidecade prison sentence and required his detention and deportation after his sentence was complete. He should still be alive today.

It was at the Critical Resistance South conference in April 2003 that I first learned about prison abolition. Prisons had expanded rapidly in the decades prior, but this shift did not make us safer. While crime panics focus on random acts of violence, people are much more likely to be murdered or raped by someone they know. People believe that prisons and police protect them from violent acts like rape and murder, but these crimes are largely unreported or go unsolved. Most people in prison are poor and working class. They are also disproportionately people of color. Black people are incarcerated at a rate six times that of white people. Opportunities for steady income and housing are few and far between for people released from prison, and many end up back in the system.

Prisons did nothing to help society. They didn’t prevent harm; they only caused more of it. What purpose did they serve? Why did they keep expanding? The framework of abolition and the questions it posed helped me make sense of the senseless. Abolition isn’t just about what we don’t want. Abolition is about the world we want to create.

It wasn’t until I started organizing around federal policy at Detention Watch Network (DWN) in 2009, when Barack Obama had just taken office, that I began to better understand the nature of the abolitionist struggle—its arguments, its vision, and its practice. Abolition became a critical lens for our work at DWN and a theory of change. The Obama administration set out to reform the detention system early on and, in the process, it engaged with advocates to consider what reforms would be best to pursue. We raised concerns about conditions and encouraged alternatives to detention. The administration attempted to address these issues, but in the end, detention expanded, and deportations went through the roof. In response to the terrible conditions in detention centers, the Obama administration started contracting for even more private prison capacity, since the companies were willing to design facilities that ostensibly met their standards.


During those years, private prisons went from operating less than half of the detention system to making up 70 percent of its capacity. And implementing alternatives to detention only widened the net of government surveillance. ICE started putting people on electronic monitoring who would otherwise never have been detained. Detention continued to increase, and now ICE had another tool at its disposal for keeping track of people. The reforms only served to make the machinery larger.

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By Ashleigh Carter

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Abolition was more than just a vision. It helped us determine which reforms would further dismantle the system and which ones would only serve to fortify it. Once DWN adopted a detention abolition vision, our strategies and tactics became even sharper. Our approach shifted from a focus on conditions and alternatives to defunding and closing detention centers, aligning with abolitionist demands. A decade later, we finally started to win our campaigns to end immigrant detention contracts, something that had never happened before we had taken the position of abolition.

Here's an example. A few months prior to Dean’s death, in September 2020, a whistleblower report revealed that a doctor had performed hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures without consent on immigrant women locked up at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. An immediate deluge of coverage, investigations, and congressional visits followed.

That summer, as many immigrant rights organizations had been planning for the 2020 election, hoping for Trump’s defeat, and laying out blueprints for a potential new administration, the question of what to do about immigrant detention came up. For years, many establishment immigrant rights organizations had hesitated to call for the outright abolition of immigrant detention. But in the summer of 2020, for some, this demand didn’t seem so unfathomable anymore. After nearly four years of Trump in the White House, after living through a pandemic that ravaged prisons, jails, and detention centers, after a summer of protests that laid bare the inherent racism within our systems of governance, many realized that calling for an end to immigrant detention might be the only answer.

The salience of detention abolition had entered the mainstream immigrant rights movement. In combination with a long history of inside and outside organizing against Irwin, documentation of abuses by advocates and journalists, and a new administration, deeper shifts were possible. In May 2021, ten years after the facility first opened, the Department of Homeland Security ended the ICE contract with the Irwin County Detention Center. Despite President Joe Biden’s abysmal record on immigration, one that continued many Trump-era policies, Irwin wasn’t the only detention center to close. The Biden administration ended contracts at four additional detention centers over the next two years and requested less funding for immigrant detention in its annual budget. After forty years of constant detention expansion, we finally started to move the needle in the other direction.

Silky Shah is the author of UNBUILD WALLS: WHY IMMIGRANT JUSTICE NEEDS ABOLITION ( out May 2024 from Haymarket Books) and the executive director of Detention Watch Network.

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