A Study of United States Prison System

Subject: Law
Pages: 28
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Study level: College


United States is the leading country in the world with the highest number of persons incarcerated in jails and prisons; and also the leading country with the highest number of prisons, most of which have been built over the last few decades (Parenti, 2008). In United States, like many other countries worldwide, incarceration is the major method that is used as punishment for convicted persons, besides probation. The United States prison system is one of the oldest which is run and overseen both by the state and the federal government. This means that states have responsibilities and duties to run prison facilities in their jurisdictions as well as budget and plan for construction of new ones. By 2009, the total number of US federal prisons had exceeded the 115 mark, this is without counting the military prison facilities, state prison facilities and county jails among other forms of prisons that are usually outsourced by the governments from private companies (Lambert and Walsh, 2009). Despite a general reduction in crime rate over the years, the United States prison system has continued to grow to be one of the most massive worldwide with a record 7.3 million incarcerated persons in 2008 which continue to rise every day (Lynch, 2007).

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Since the start of early 1990, crime rate in United States dramatically dropped to the lowest ever recorded rates in the country and have since remained relatively low, a phenomenon that has been the subject of many research studies which sought to describe and explain the reasons behind this major drop in crime rate.

To date no single research study has advanced a convincing theory to explain this phenomenon, however what is not in contention is that during the 1990 decade all forms of crimes, that ranged from homicides to shoplifting reduced by 40% across all cities in the country in what later come to be known as the “Great American Crime Decline” (Elsner, 2006). In other cities such as New York which were prone to even high crime rates before this period, the drop in crime rate was even more dramatic and reduced by a whopping 75% (Elsner, 2006). Despite this massive reduction in crime rate that still remain about the same to date, the inmates population in the US prison system had ironically been increasing at an astronomical rate that currently surpasses the two million mark with others more than five million being on probation (Elsner, 2006).

So far there is no single factor that can directly be attributed to this paradoxical phenomenon, instead many research studies that have been written on the subject attempts to attribute this crime reduction to range of factors or a combination of such factors. Hence, without substantive evidence of what might have led the US prison system to become one of the largest in the world and probably one of the most ineffective too in the wake of reduced crime rates, most policy makers would be unable to implement measures that would ideally rectify this anomaly.

As such, the purpose of this research study is to critically explore the factors contributing to this contrasting growth of United States prison system, challenges facing it, and examine its effectiveness in reigning in crime levels and rehabilitation. More importantly this study will dwell on one major objective of investigating whether the US prison system has been effective in achieving its core objectives; that of crime deterrence and rehabilitation. The intention of this research study is to generate knowledge that can shape future policies in this area and recommend ways of overcoming the challenges that face the US prison system and thereby strengthen its ability to achieve it core mission.


Consequently, the objectives of this study will be two, namely:

  1. Objective 1: to carefully examine whether the US prison system as a correctional institution is in any way effective in achieving the twin primary functions of any correctional facility; that of rehabilitation and crime deterrence.
  2. Objective 2: to identify the major challenges facing the US prison system


In this research study I hypothesize that the US prison system has to a large extent failed to achieve its two core functions of rehabilitation of criminals and crime deterrence despite its supersize, unrivalled incarceration rates and well funded programmes. I also hypothesize that this is mainly because of existent of poor government policies and inefficient legislations.

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The evolution of US prison system

While the great American crime decline was taking place in the 1990s, the government continued incarcerating peoples in prisons at even higher rates that were unprecedented in the country’s prison system. In the year 1990 up to 2008 for instance, the number of incarcerated persons in US prisons rose to an all time of 2.3 million from just about a million prisoners in 1990 while another approximately 5 million were on probation (Lambert and Walsh, 2009). The highest proportion of incarcerated persons including those on probation and parole involve drug related cases; most of this drug related cases has to do with possession, substance abuse and crimes from addiction which stands at 2 million out of the 7.3 million (Pendleton, 2009).

Perhaps then, the question is why many people continued to be sent to prisons during this period when crime rate statistics indicated it to be at its lowest. Indeed over the last two decades, the United States government rapidly expanded it prison facility and more than quadrupled its spending on prison system as shown in the chart below.

Trend on Incarceration in US
Figure 1. Trend on Incarceration in US

In California State for instance, the number of new prisons that were built over a ten year period between 1984 when crime rate started dipping and 1994 totaled 21 facilities, it was by far the fastest growing sector of the country (Elsner, 2006). Currently the total cost of running the prison system in US has become monumental with States spending just about $60 billion dollars a year with additional funding being provided by the federal governments on prisons in their jurisdictions (Wolcott and Head, 2010).

In many of these States, spending on all forms of correctional facilities have become the major area that substantial amount of government funding is directed to, having even surpassed spending on education (Wolcott and Head, 2010). With more correctional facilities being built to accommodate the ever increasing numbers of incarcerated persons in United States, the question of whether indeed the prison system is any more effective becomes even more apparent. More so, when crime rates are known to have not significantly reduced despite the harsher laws to deter crime that has been implemented. It is on this backdrop that I am going to investigate the effectiveness of prison system in the United States. In order to fully understand how the correctional system of US works let us briefly discuss the prison structure that is currently in place.

US Prison system overview

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) categorizes and subdivides correctional facilities into various levels and categories based on various factors such as security, nature of inmates, nature of convictions and duration of imprisonment. So far, there are nine categorizations of prison facilities which include: federal transfer centers, metropolitan transfer centre, US penitentiaries, federal correctional complex, federal detention centre, federal correctional institutions, federal medical centre and federal prison camps (Rivers and Anwyl, 2000). Generally they can be categorized into three groups; those that are used for housing general inmates serving average years with minimal fright risks such as federal prison camps and federal correctional institutions.

The other category are the high security prisons usually used for persons convicted of serious crimes and for longer periods collectively referred as Supermax such as US penitentiaries (Rivers and Anwyl, 2000). Finally there are prisons that are only used to house convicted persons that require medical or probably psychiatric care.

US Policy on crime

In what later come to be described as the “broken window theory” by James Wilson, the government adopted stiff laws for even the lesser crimes (Parenti, 2008). This approach was based on the school of thought that advocated for harsh penalties for lesser offenders in order to deter people from committing more serious crimes, in this policy many form of drug related crimes carried lengthy imprisonment or life sentences. The result from this shift of imprisonment policy is perhaps the single major factor that has contributed to the current monstrous prison system of the United States. Indeed, this fact is more asserted when you consider the rate of incarceration between 1980 after this policy shift to year 2000, when number of incarcerated persons increased by threefold during this period (Parenti, 2008).

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By 2006, per capita incarceration rate in US stood at 737 persons for every 100,000, far higher than the average rates for most developed countries with the exceptions of Russia and China. In States such as Georgia “one in 13 adults was in the justice system” which was by far the highest at the time (Elsner, 2006; Lambert and Walsh, 2009). In fact, the number of convicted persons in US at 2.2 million during this period was far much more than in China at 1.5 million prisoners with a population of 1 billion people (Elsner, 2006; Central Intelligence Agency, 2012).

Most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate the current number of persons incarcerated in US prisons to be about 2.1 million persons, while those on probation still in excess of 7 million (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012). Similarly, the US still leads globally as the country with most offenders incarcerated in prisons with approximately 24% of global imprisonment taking place within its borders (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention, 2012).

Proportion of persons incarcerated in US prisons
Figure 2: Proportion of persons incarcerated in US prisons

Whichever way you look at it, the shortcomings of the US prison system are made starker by these disproportion rates of incarcerated persons, not to mention the other number of persons that are on parole or probation which combined adds up to 7.4 million (Lambert and Walsh, 2009). However, the policy shift of the early 1980s is not the only factor that can be attributed to the current colossal size of US prison system.

Currently more than half of all imprisoned persons in United States are first time offenders, most of whom are imprisoned for crimes that do not involve homicides or drug related cases (Slevin, 2006). In a research study that sought to compare data on incarceration rates of various countries, United States was found to be six times more inclined to imprison any type of offender compared to other equally developed nations in Europe (Slevin, 2006). The research study applied the Peace Scale of Punitiveness, a form of a scale that used qualitative and quantitative data to determine the relative rate of incarceration in a country (Slevin, 2006).

For instance, an offender in California who has been previously convicted twice for burglary would easily get a life sentence in the third time, in what is referred as the “three strikes and you are out” law (Parenti, 2008). The current US prison system continues to be fuelled by the public misinformed approach to crime reduction that perfectly serves the needs of the government in what has now come to be a glaring symptom of deep rooted society problems. Indeed, the current prison system has little to do with crime control, or in that case rehabilitation of convicted persons as we have so far seen; in any case, if it was in anyway effective the crime rate would have dropped by now and less people would be incarcerated.

Nevertheless, the government has been aware that increasing incarceration rate would hardly reduce the country crime rate which has kept on increasing ever since 1980 when increasing incarceration become the official policy. Yet, despite this more resources and funding continue to be directed towards this social program at the expense of other well known programs that are known to significantly reduce the rate of crime. To compare the contrast in government funding, consider the fact that one in six government employees works in US prison system which gulps up excess of $60 billion per year just from the government funding alone (Struckman and Sickmund, 2000).

Since prison system is the major area of funding that most states spend on, the implication is that the government has over the years cut back spending on equally more important programs such as education. In fact, there is evidence that the government systematically continued to channel more funds towards an ever expanding prison system since 1980s while gradually reducing and almost abandoning other vital social programs that could have been instrumental in crime prevention and rehabilitation (Herzing and Burch, 2003). The result is the current prison system, which incidentally serves as the first line strategy of reducing crime, which is almost the only strategy of reducing crime in US.

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In the ten year period leading up to 1994, when the government was rapidly expanding the prison system, California built twenty one fully fledged prison facilities while only one University was built during this period (Slevin, 2006). Over the 1980 and 1990 decade the prison system continued to receive increased funding year in year out while funding for other social programs remained dismal. For instance during this period in California, education funding increased by 15% on average while prison system funding was being increased at 209% per year (Slevin, 2006). Other social programs such as poverty reduction programs, convict rehabilitation programs, healthcare programs and urban development program seems to have collapsed largely because of adequate resource allocation (Henderson, 2010). And as many studies observes, “without education, job skills, and other basic services, offenders are likely to repeat the same steps that brought them to jail in the first place” (Pew Centre on the States, 2011).

The Rise of Prison Privatization in US

“A private corporation is not in the business of being humanitarian. It’s in the business of increasing profit and market share. Doing that typically is extremely harmful to the general population. It may make some number look good” (Chomsky, 1999). In a nutshell, this observation can explain why privatization of prisons revolution in US that occurred in the early 1980s was a bad idea from the onset and why their continued existence is counterproductive to the express objective of any prison system in the world. Foremost, like Chomsky states the private prisons institutions interests are at completely opposite sides with those of any government prisons mission statement as far as decongestion of prisons for instance is concerned. Secondly, private prisons are profit oriented which means that they have to reduce costs, which we must assume that at times happens at the expense of the prisoners or quality services (Smith, 1993).

Indeed, the issue of privately ran correctional facilities has been of great contention wherever it has been practiced. Privatization of prisons is a practice that can take several shapes ranging from “no facility ownership, partial operational administration, total facility ownership to total administration by the private sector” (Pozen, 2003; Smith, 1993).

According to Feeler, the practice of privately run prisons has a long history, one that can be traced from 1607 in Virginia (Austin and Coventry, 2001). Back then, English colonialists brought along convicted felons to the US with the promise of pardon at the cost of agreeing to be sold into servitude. By doing this, the state would increase its capacity for handling convicts without any additional cost. Since colonies ended up inheriting their colonizers ways of handling things, this marked the beginnings of the privatization of correctional services in the US.

The need for the privatization of prisons in the US has recently come about as a result of a number of factors. The most fundamental factor though has been the rising number of inmates in US jails leading to overcrowding in Federal, State and County jails since the 1980s. This has been largely understood to be as a result of the popular notion that longer prison terms would serve as a deterrence measure against possible future offenders coupled with the need for state and federal governments to cut the cost of running and building more prisons (Moore, 1998).

The other motivation has been the notion that correctional services ran by the private sector are bound to be more efficient; that they offer higher quality services at reduced cost (Chan, 1994). More fundamentally though, private prisons are the result of the dominant contemporary attitudes and beliefs that have adopted the terminology neoliberalism. Inherent in this ideology is the belief that the private sector is superior to the public sector indecision making and service delivery (Garofalo, 2008; Cooper and Williams, 2005). So based on these few hypotheses, private prisons were reinvented in US in 1980s as a way of improving service delivery in the prison system. This study will however only focus on the question regarding their efficiency as concerns the two pronged objectives of the correction system.

The most readily available means of testing whether prisons, public or private, achieve their two pronged objective is recidivism. Recidivism is defined by Mckean and Ransford (2004) as a former convict’s relapse into crime within three years after release (Langan and Levin, 2002). Thus, its rates can therefore be used to assess the success of the rehabilitative and deterrent aims of serving prison time.

As we shall see later in the data analysis section, national recidivism rates have registered no significant change in recidivism rates even with the rapid increase of private prisons nationally. So in conclusion, the claim that “outsourcing and privatization have benefits that include the ability for the government to shop around for vendors in order to choose the quality and quantity of services required” (Dixon et al., 1996; Taylor and Warrack, 1998; Farabee and Knight, 2002) is a gross misconstruction of facts if the current figures are anything to go by.


In order to investigate the efficacy of the US system in reducing crime rates and rehabilitating convicts I have largely relied on secondary data. This research study will rely on great amount of qualitative data from secondary sources that would be collected through literature review. Thus, in this study the research design used incorporates both qualitative and quantitative techniques. A combination of these two research approaches will enable literature review and summarization of relevant data on key variables of interest that must be measured and analyzed during the data analysis process. Since the objective of this research study is to investigate the effectiveness of US prison system and factors challenging it, through use of already available data, then the most appropriate research design for this research study will be descriptive research design.

Therefore the research approach used in this study is both descriptive and explanatory because it outlines what the concept of US prison system entails and the failures of this strategy as an approach of crime control in the society and rehabilitation of convicted persons. The research conducted in this report is deductive in nature because information is extracted from existing and already present theories and literature sources. Theories developed by various other research studies and existing literature sources are used to evaluate the data and obtain meaningful knowledge.

Additionally, because this is a desk-based review study, there was no need for sampling of data or use of questionnaires for that matter; as such, the data for this research study was obtained from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics website and other authoritative reports as well as publications which contains most of the statistics that I need to use in the study. I will also obtain similar statistics from other countries for comparison purposes that will enable me research the objectives of this research study fully. Because this research study also intends to generate knowledge that would contribute in strengthening the US prison system, literature review would especially be an integral component of the research study. Finally the data obtained has been organized and then analyzed so as to provide meaningful trends that are necessary in exploration of possible theories that might explain such trends.

Ethical Issues

As a general rule every research study must incorporate very essential considerations of ethics that must be observed throughout the process. One such ethical issue to consider is referred as confidentiality and privacy; in this case the researcher puts in place measures that guarantee the privacy of respondent information that is given in confidence (Gilgun et al, 1997). But since in this case primary source of data collected from respondents was not utilized given that this is a form of desk-review study there are no ethical issues that were encountered.

In any case no interaction with any study subjects took place. The only possible ethical consideration that might have been encountered during this research study was the need to disclose the intention of the research data solicited from government institutions but since all data needed was available online this too was not necessary.

Data Analysis

Now since our major objective for this study is to assess how effective the US prison system has achieved its twin purposes, let us now review current statistics for purposes of validating or otherwise disregarding the hypothesis of our study.

Trend in incarceration rates in US prisons (1920-2006)
Figure 3: Trend in incarceration rates in US prisons (1920-2006)
 Trend in incarceration rates in US prisons per 100,000
Figure 4: Trend in incarceration rates in US prisons per 100,000 (1925-2007)

There are several facts that can be deduced from the two graphical representations above that show the number of people incarcerated in US prisons between 1920 and 2006 (figure 3). One, is that for the most part the rate of increase on incarcerated persons up to 1980s was relatively gradual, but drastically increased thereafter which according to recent statistics continues to do so (figure 4 indicates the same). Between 1980 for instance and 1990 the number of persons incarcerated in prisons rose from slightly less than half a million to more than 1.2 million in just one decade. Thereafter, in the next decade following (year 2000), the number of prisoners increased again from this level (1.2 million) to approximately 2 million persons. This unprecedented rate in number of persons being incarcerated in US prisons continues to increase at this astronomical rate.

These figures raise one critical question which is at the centre of our study investigations, but which our extensive literature review will enable us to address. The question is if the US prison system is in anyway effective in crime deterrence, then why did the number of prisoners within its jurisdiction shoot up since the early 1980s up to date?

US serious crime rate (violent crimes and homicides
Figure 5: US serious crime rate (violent crimes and homicides) per 100,000 over the years (1960-2007)

That serious crime rate in US has been plummeting for the last several decades, is a fact that is well documented in many research studies. In the figure above, the crime rate is calculated as per FBI Uniform Crime Report which is pegged on the indicator of property and violent crime. As shown the rate of crime is foremost relatively low, and secondly since 1980s these categories of crime have been plummeting ever since; in fact, current data indicates that US violent and homicide crimes are at par with other developed nations such as Russia and China

A comparison of countries globally based on their incarceration rates
Figure 6: A comparison of countries globally based on their incarceration rates

The most current data indicates that US continues to lead globally with the highest incarceration rates at more than 750 persons for every 100,000 people; and this has been the trend ever since the incarceration rates started spiking in 1980s. It is when US imprisonments rates are compared globally that the extent of US crisis as regards incarceration rates can be well understood. In this figure 25% of all prisoners are incarcerated in US prisons while it only accounts for actually 4.5% of world population. Additionally as evident from the figure, China has incarceration rate of 120 compared to US at 750 per 100,000 persons. As we can see on the above figure, India and China for instance which has much higher population than US, have far less incarceration rates than US with China at number 9 and India number 14 on this figure. Lastly, on a comparative basis Russia is the only country that is closest to US incarceration figures at 620 per 100,000 persons.

Trend in cost of incarceration in US prisons
Figure 7: Trend in cost of incarceration in US prisons (1987-2007)

Based on this graph, it is evident that the correctional institution had steadily continued to receive increased funding since the incarceration rates started increasing. We must presume it is in the late 1980s after the prisons could take no more that the government even pumped more funding so as to expand the ill equipped prison system to keep pace with the high rates of imprisonment that has taken place since then. Based on the above figure, the prison system budget for 2007 for instance was in excess of $44 billion, representing an increase of 315% compared to annual budget of the same institution 20 years ago in 1987 making it one of the most rapidly developing industries of all sectors in the country.

Comparison of percentage increase on spending between prisons and education system in US for a span of 20 years
Fig 8: Comparison of percentage increase on spending between prisons and education system in US for a span of 20 years (1987-2007)
Direct comparison of national spending between correctional services and the education system
Figure 9: Direct comparison of national spending between correctional services and the education system

The above two figures 8 & 9, sought to provide a direct comparison between the level of States funding in two critical sectors; the education and the prison system. The data analysis provided here seeks to contrast the growth rate of the correctional institution with another sector, in this case that of education. As we can see, while the prison system budget increased by a whopping 127% over a span of 20 years, the educational sector grew by a mere 21% (figure 8). In fact, literature review indicates that the trend was the same in many other sectors. The implication here is that funding was diverted from other sectors so as to finance the expansion and sustenance of the correctional institution.

State Prison rate of recidivism compared against the release rate

State Prison rate of recidivism compared against the release rate
Figure 10: State Prison rate of recidivism compared against the release rate

The table above provides a snapshot of recidivism rates of the 41 States all over United States during two periods of time; 1999 to 2002 and again in 2004-2007. Except, for the 8 states that had missing data during the second round of survey, the recidivism rates are comprehensive for all other States. During this survey all States were surveyed for this specific period only and two key indicators recorded for each; rate of “releases” and “recidivism”.

So in this table the rate of releases matched with recidivism rate for every State is provided, which is then used to calculate the national recidivism rates. From the data presented on this table two key observations can be made; (1) the national recidivism rates during the two-three year periods surveyed are not so much different and averages approximately 44% (Lanza-Kaduce et al, 1999). (2) the number of prisoners released during any given 3-year period in US can be approximated to average 0.5 million as was the case during this survey (Lanza-Kaduce et al, 1999). With these two critical sets of data we can now obtain a better insight into US correctional institutions, and most importantly derive important inferences from the same.

Now let us highlight several statistics presented in the table above; one, we notice that California has the highest recidivism rates of all the States in US at 61.1%. This is not surprising given that California has not only the highest incarceration rates in US, but also some of the most harshest and controversial laws such as the “three strikes and you are out” legislation. Additionally, it is the only State that recorded large numbers of incarcerated persons by more than 10 times that of most States averaging about 122,000.

The reality of US prison system privatization

A possible theory that might explain the failure of the US prison system to achieve its core mandate that we have so far outlined could be explained by two unrelated factors that are prevalent in this sector. One is the presence of the private contractors who have for decades now been supplementing the US prison sector in one major area of providing private prisons. Currently, private contractors play a major role in the provision of correctional services in US making private prisons to be a significant player in this industry (Maguire et al, 1985). The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for instance which is the largest private prison contractor in US has correctional facilities in more than 16 States with inmate capacity that exceeds 75,000 persons as of 2008 (CCA, 2008).

CCA first become operational 28 years ago and since then it has remained functional while expanding its facilities every year (CCA, 2008). It is therefore unlikely for the US prison system to expect to achieve its mandate under an arrangement such as this where the private contractors controls a significant number of total correctional facilities operating in the country. Indeed, as one pundit aptly observed “a privately-run prison system has absolutely no incentive to reduce the rate of incarceration in the US; in fact, the only reason a private sector even exists is due to the quadrupling of prisoners since 1980” (Matuszak, 2008; Maguire et al, 1985).

There is in fact a second possible theory that can explain why US prisons continues to fail in achieving its core mandates; this is another form of capitalism evident in the US prison system. This form of capitalization is very much thriving behind prisons walls as one study found out. It is no secret that some of the US global companies have for years benefited from the imprisonment crisis by having most of their labour needs outsourced from this sector. The study states “some of the companies that use prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing” (Davis, 2009; Andrew, 2007; Schichor, 1995). The extent of privatization that has crept within the US prison system from seemingly every end is amazing to say the least; another study observes,

“prison labour is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, all at a fraction of the cost of free labor” (Davis, 2009).

So perhaps then, part of the reason that US continue to incarcerate its population at its current rates has nothing to do with increased crime rates as we have so far observed. And probably for the same reason, it is likely that rehabilitation of prisoners and crime deterrence is not among the US correctional system priorities: not by accident but by design.

As it is, US prison system is big business, thanks to the 1980 implementation of privatizing for profit scheme that allowed prisons to make profits out of convicted persons and contribute to the funding of the facilities (Glenda, 2010). The prisoner for profit program allows prison authorities to lease prisoners to corporations in order to generate profit for running the prison facilities, currently prisoner labour bonds are among the various bonds that are listed and sold at the Wall Street (Glenda, 2010).

Corporations on the other hand are among the biggest clients of prisoner’s labour; with their vast need of cheap prisoner labour for sustaining their growth and production levels, it is not surprising then that it is in their best interest to advocate for legislations that guarantee longer imprisonments for convicted persons. The growth of corporations that rely on prison labour has continued to expand over the years and currently supplies more than 36% of all home appliances for instance that are sold in the country among other products such as manufacture of motor vehicle license plates (Glenda, 2010; Zuckerman, 2008).

In their justification of privatization of the US prison system, advocates of the current status quo have always argued that this approach is necessary in order to ease the burden on tax payers in running these institutions (Logan, 1990). This much, the proponents of prison privatization are actually right. A study by White (1999) on the US prison privatization observes this about the nature of prisons in developed countries, US included; “they are large organizations. They consist of many paid staff, bricks and mortar, beds, security devices, professional practitioners of ancillary services. They are expensive to build. They are expensive to operate. But they are easy to fill” (White, 1999).

As such it is likely that the US prison system has deliberately or otherwise allowed these competing interests to override its core mandate given that evidence on the ground indicates it has failed to achieve prisoner’s rehabilitation and crime deterrence in every way.

The racial equation in US incarceration rates

If the US prison system appears to be taking the form of a commercial entity that is profit driven, then the claim of social injustice and racial discrimination that the prison institution is accused to propagate is equally valid (Brennan Center for Justice, 2011). There is no doubt that the US prison system is a symptom of deep rooted society problem that are present and which have been left unaddressed by various administration for many decades. The historical injustices of minority races in America are best projected and perpetuated through the country prison system, not by accident but by design. The prison system in this case is being used as a solution for the wrong reasons; to contain and curtail the voices of the most discriminated members of the society, who incidentally make up the highest proportion of all persons incarcerated in US prisons.

Black American makes up approximately 13% of the total population, yet they account for half of all incarcerated persons in America during any given year (Johnson et al, 2010; Elesener, 2006; Brennan Center for Justice, 2011). It is when you combine the numbers of Hispanics and Blacks incarcerated in US prisons that one is able to realize the extent that the correctional institution is used to perpetuate discrimination in US. The most recent statistics indicates that the percentage of whites incarcerated behind bars in US accounts for slightly below 30% while Hispanics and Black-Americans make up the rest (Johnson et al, 2010; Elsener, 2006). With such a blatant abuse of the correctional system in US, it is unlikely that it can still be in a position to provide its core objectives.

A brief history of US astronomical incarceration rates

There are obvious things to infer from this trend of data presented in Figure 4; foremost, is the fact that crime rate in US for many decades remained constant and relatively low until 1980 when it drastically shot up. In fact, before 1980 the rate of incarceration in US was similar to that found elsewhere in other countries and was even considered generally low. The gradual increase in incarceration taking place before 1980s can be explained by the population increase of people in US; so as population rate of people increased the incarceration rate also increased in tandem with population increase up to 1980s.

However, thereafter the steep rise of people being imprisoned in US by almost 4 times cannot be explained by the population increase, and so some other factors must have contributed to this scenario. Indeed, an extensive study by Parenti (2008) that sought to understand this outcome, suggested the “broken window theory” discussed earlier as the major reason that significantly contributed to the astronomical incarceration rates that has taken place since then. Various other studies such as that by Holleman et al (2009) and Pettit & Western (2004) highlights the same factor as well as advances new theories that might have pushed up the rate of incarceration in US following post 1980. As one author noted “prior to the early 1980s, private prisons were virtually nonexistent. That quickly changed as the War on Drugs “tough on crime” mentality swept the nation with institution of draconian sentencing and release laws for nonviolent offenders, causing an explosion in U.S. incarceration rate” (Shapiro, 2011; Zhang et al, 2009).

In the aftermath as one study notes “the change was most evident in the epidemic incarceration of the population for drug-possession offenses in the 1970s and ’80s, which, combined with onerous mandatory sentences, was the dynamite for the prisoner explosion. Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1,200 percent since 1980” (Fauntroy, 2009)

Now despite this heightened legislations that were enacted then and which remains until now, the incarceration rates in US has shown no significant decrease. Since the idea of introduction of much harsh laws that incarcerated offenders’ en masse was to deter future crimes, then the indication is that this has not been achieved. Thus, based on current data that we just discussed it is clear that part of this study’s hypothesis is justified since there is evidence that US prison system has failed to deter crime, at least since 1980s. If it was achieving crime reduction we would have expected reduced incarceration rates instead, but there is no such evidence so far. However, let us review more data on the same.

The irony of the US prison system

Based on figure 5 it is obvious that serious crimes have not been rampant in US and has in fact been reducing since 1980s. This implies that crimes of other nature must have been responsible for clogging the US prisons system which we now know to be the case based on our literature review so far. At a time when serious crimes (mainly of violent nature and those that involves homicides) were decreasing in US it is bewildering that incarceration rates increased instead. Indeed, data available indicates that “the United States, in fact, has relatively low rates of nonviolent crime. It has lower burglary and robbery rates than Australia, Canada and England” (Liptak, 2008).

Besides this, various studies have observed another strange characteristics regarding US imprisonment trends and concludes; “people who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest of the world are less likely to receive prison time and certainly less likely to receive long sentences” (Liptak, 2008). It is such factors such as this that compound the challenges facing US prison system making it even more inefficient in accomplishing it core mandate; the result has been the gradual breakdown of the prison system to its present form which is ineffective in deterring crime and rehabilitating prisoners.

With more correctional facilities being built to accommodate the ever increasing numbers of incarcerated persons in United States, the question of whether indeed the prison system is any more effective becomes even more apparent. More so, when crime rates are known to have not significantly reduced despite the harsher laws to deter crime that has been implemented.

The global context of US incarceration rates

The global population just hit the 7 billion mark very recently and based on the most current statistics of world population disaggregated by countries, US is third on that list with 313,232,044 which represents just about 4.5% of total global population (figure 6) (CIA.gov. 2012). China which has 1.4 billion people, almost 5 times as much as US has only just about 1.5 million prisoners; considering China’s population size this is considerably low and suggests there is something driving up US incarceration rates. Now, we also realize that U.S incarceration rates and that of Russia are relatively closer to each other compared to all other countries globally as indicated in figure 6; this could be because of two reasons.

(1) Both U.S and Russia are relatively similar in regard to development, education levels and use of advanced technology, but this is probably the only common factor that the two countries have. (2) On the other hand U.S and Russia have very different economic concepts of capitalism and communism respectively; perhaps this is the only key difference that sets the two countries so far apart and which is responsible for driving up the incarceration rates in US prisons. Indeed, various studies have documented evidence that shows the capitalism system in US is responsible for having so many people incarcerated over the last few decades, and since the privatization of prisons is another form of capitalism system by itself thriving within the prison system, the result is a prison system that is so much capitalistic that it turns out to be counterproductive since as we have seen privatization of prisons defeats the very purpose of prison system.

US prisons rate of recidivism and factors responsible

Perhaps the single most important indicator that can be reliably used to measure the efficacy of any prison system world over is the rate of recidivism. Recidivism as previously defined is simply the rate at which already convicted prisoners coming out of a prison after serving time are likely to be rearrested again once they have been released within a 3 year window period (Lanza-Kaduce and Maggard, 2001). For the case of US prisons, this rate is astoundingly high to say the least since it implies that about half of all convicted person released will eventually be imprisoned again in less than 3 years from their date of release (Beck and Shipley, 1989). In fact, by just looking at this rate no further evidence is needed to determine how effective a prison system is in achieving its core mandate of rehabilitation and crime deterrence.

This is because this indicator of recidivism has direct bearing on both of these two accomplishments given that; (1) if prisoners were effectively rehabilitated before release then recidivism rates will be expected to be much lower than this. And (2) achievement of crime deterrence would ideally also mean that less people will be willing to engage in any criminal activity including previously convicted persons, meaning recidivism will again be expected too to be relatively low. So, if US prisons could have been accomplishing both prisoner’s rehabilitation and crime deterrence, then no doubt this recidivism rates will be much lower. However, as we shall see, recidivism is also affected by another critical variable that has nothing to do with failure of prison institutions.

A government funded study that investigated the rate of recidivism across various States in US laments the high rates of recidivism by stating “new figures suggests that despite the massive increases in corrections spending, in many States there has been little improvement in the performance of corrections system” (PEW Centre on the States. 2011). There are several possible theories that can explain the high rates of recidivism in US; first, given that a significant number of prisoners incarcerated in US are for drug related offences including abuse, it is not surprising that the same offenders will be rearrested for the same offense upon release. The reasons for this are obvious because drug abuse is a very addictive habit making it very hard for offenders to resist committing these types of crimes. In any case, the government has invested very little in rehabilitation of drug users programs as is the case in many other social empowerment programs that are known to significantly reduce the level of crime as we shall shortly see.

Secondly, US has very strict legislations that appears bent towards ensuring that as many people as possible are sent behind bars rather than be put on probation so as to sustain the privatization of prisons concept which actually depend on prisoners as its lifeline. Thirdly, imprisonment is almost always the first line of defence and the only one when it comes to crime control in US, as such it is not surprising that it is the only institution that is heavily overburdened by excessive prisoners given that it is the only one functioning after many years of neglecting the rest of the institutions that complements its objectives.

Finally, education system which is at the centre of empowering people with skills and knowledge, and which has been known to significantly reduce the crime rates has for decades now been neglected at the expense of the prison system. This last factor brings us to our last discussion point which has to do with education neglect in U.S.

The educational system context in U.S crime control

Shortly after the incarceration rates in U.S started spiking in early 1980s, the prison system was confronted with increasingly large numbers of prisoners that it had to cope with. To address this challenge the immediate response by the government was to outsource some of the services to the private sector that the prison system was unable to provide; this led to the rise of prison privatization. But this as it turned out wouldn’t be enough to boost the prison system to the level that it was needed to match the unprecedented numbers of people that have been incarcerated every year since then. The solution was increased funding year-in, year-out pumped at this single institution of corrections so as to at least enable it cope with the more than 2.2 million prisoners that are currently incarcerated. Unfortunately, this was at the expense of various other equally deserving social programmes. One, of the institutions that has greatly suffered less funding since incarceration crisis kicked in is the education sector.

The education system in the aftermath of U.S imprisonment crisis started suffering reduced funding, perhaps due to the fact that more funds were now needed in the correctional institutions. Given that funding in education sector has been inversely correlated to prisons growth since the early 80s, then we can deduce that most of the funding being pumped in the correctional services must have been diverted from other sectors such as this of education. This is very much evident for instance in California which at the height of prison expansion in the early 1990 built 21 prisons compared to just 1 university during a ten year span as previously highlighted.

So by failing to fund and invest in education system for decades now following the imprisonment crisis of the 1980s, U.S unknowingly neglected one of the fundamental programs that would have effectively complimented the correctional services core mandate of rehabilitation and crime deterrence. As it is, the major reason that the rate of recidivism is exceptionally high for the case of U.S is because upon release, offenders are unable to make an honest living, of course due to lack of education which translates to knowledge and skills. Based on this observation, perhaps it’s time that US now started building more schools rather than correctional facilities. So for the case of US what has actually fuelled incarceration rates it would appear is a combination of factors such as this which we have been discussing throughout this section, not to mention the very breakdown of US prison system itself.


Throughout this paper we have pored through dozen of studies one after another for purposes of answering one critical question; “does the U.S imprisonment system, achieved or able to achieve for that matter its core functions of deterring crime and rehabilitation of prisoners”? In the process we have also reviewed and analyzed numerous existing data towards this end, in the end the picture that we have obtained of the U.S correctional institution is very accurate and indicates a monstrous system that despite its funding is very much inefficient. As one might say the facts speaks for themselves; in this case, this is even more so since the figures hardly lie. Thus, at this point I rest my case for the reader to decide if whether indeed the US prison system has been effective in meeting its core objectives. In conclusion I wish to echo the words of John Whitmire, the Senator for Texas and also the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee (2007) who stated “if we don’t change the course now, we will be building prisons forever and ever-prisons we can’t afford” (Pew Center on the States, 2011).


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