Prison Numbers Growth in the United States


A prison is a place where people are physically detained and normally denied a range of personal rights. An individual guilty of an offense is legally punishable by and can be imprisoned or incarcerated depending on the country’s systems. These forms of punishment are aimed at changing the prisoners’ behaviors for the betterment of the people, society, and nation or state at large. The punishment can include serving jail terms, inside the prison or outside the prison depending on the offense one has committed. It can also include being released on bond (Mauer 4).

Since the United States imprisons its citizens at a higher rate than any country in the world1 it should be of little surprise that there is a current state of disarray within America’s prison system. At present, the United States is plagued by severe prison overcrowding. A surplus of the total population of offenders is living in overly congested prison conditions that threaten their health and safety and the health and safety of penal staff, all the while implicating important constitutional issues. In light of burgeoning prison populations, commentators and experts feel the problem lies within state and federal criminal sentencing guidelines. For example, in response to the dilemma, Congress has ordered an advisory panel of judges to conduct a review of mandatory and minimum sentences, one that could lead to a dramatic rethinking of how the U.S. incarcerates its criminals.

Types of prisons in the United States

The United States has such a high imprisonment rate, and they have various types and divisions of prisons, including county jails, state prisons, and federal prisons, all of which are further delineated based on minimum, medium, and maximum security acts against others which is constant.

According to Christie (13), juvenile prisons are detention centers for people under the age of eighteen years found guilty of committing crimes. These centers are aimed at correcting the teenagers and helping them grow up to be morally upright and responsible young adults who will serve as good examples to others in society.

Military prisons are prisons run and operated by the military in which one is imprisoned upon committing a crime while still in service for the federal government.

Political prisons are used to detain individuals guilty of committing a political offense to serve as a correction measure and an example to other individuals.

Psychiatric prisons are centers where one is detained when they are suffering from mental or emotional problems until they are in a position to recover.

With more than one percent of the entire adult population, the United States is currently with the largest inmate population in the world. This phenomenal increase in the number of prisoners translates to an increase in prisons. Some of the major factors leading to the increase in the number of prisons in the United States are explained as follows.

Factors behind the expansion of prison in the United States

First, the increasing population throughout the country has been on the rise. The last thirty years have recorded a threefold surge in the United States’ prison population; partly because of the war on drugs that led to decreased violent crime and property crime measures that were curtailed through the mandated sentences in the early 1990s. The mentally challenged individuals who are not adequately treated are likely to self-medicate (use drugs) without medical prescription as well as act out anti-socially. Unfortunately, the majority of people who need mental help do not or cannot get the right medication. As a result, they end up committing crimes that will influence their way of living and end up behind bars. Therefore, an increasing number of crimes leads to an increase in population within prisons, hence overcrowding. By overcrowding, it prompts for more prisons to be built increasing the number of prisons in the United States (Mauer 6).

Secondly, increasing cases of Recidivism reported to be on the increase in the last decade has led to higher inmate populations and overcrowding that if not urgently addressed could mean serious problems shortly. This has led to the building up of more prisons to curb the problem of overcrowding. Ex-prisoners compared to average persons are disadvantaged because of the limited under-developed skills acquired, incomplete rehabilitation, and inadequate transitional services before the departure from prison. As a result, recidivism has been stationed for curtailment through imposing harsher sentences and building more prisons. Similarly, Institutionalized or historical racism also plays a big part in the high rates of US imprisonment.

Thirdly, an Increase in Ethnicity takes the form of institutional racism for a kid from a minority race, such as black and Hispanics. Such individuals tend to be poor and they have to deal with a culture that sends a constant, subtle message that they’re all a bunch of stupid criminals especially for the black kids. Additionally, certain problems within the black culture put pressure on kids not to succeed (it’s at least sometimes viewed as “selling out to the man”). When a ‘minority’ individual is found guilty of committing a crime, he/she is more likely to be sentenced than a white person guilty of a similar offense and is much more likely to get a harsher sentence. Increasing ethnicity means more people are committing crimes hence increasing the number of prisons (Mauer 8).

Fourth, an increasing number of prisons in the U.S. occurs due to the state of Violent and nonviolent crime. Although, the threefold increase in the U.S. imprisoned population from 1980 to 2003 was not entirely a factor of violent crime, the rates have alternated from declining to constant throughout the period. Due to public policy changes, the prison population increases lengthening the sentences and more prison terms in conjunction with compulsory minimum sentencing and limiting the possibility of early release or option of parole. However, cases of non-violent crimes in Western Europe (similar to the US) are approximately equal, but cases of violent crimes are relatively lower; thus similar conditions for crime.

Fifth, there have been declining security levels in the United States. As societies grow and become more complex, crime rates are on the rise in areas of higher inequality. With the increased availability of guns added to the mix and the violent crime rate goes up. It’s not the rest of the world that doesn’t have as much crime, but it’s just grossly underreported and neglected due to lack of trained police, prison facilities, and even bribery. Some other factors that contribute matter in American society include a crumbling family structure, which creates a lot of undirected (and frequently unemployed) youth. Without jobs, the young men become dangerous leading to declining security levels hence more imprisonment and an increase in the number of prisons (Beckett and Bruce 40).

Sixth, an increase in unfavorable living conditions behind the prison walls resulting in serious mental illness which can make it considerably more difficult for justice-involved offenders to become productive and law-abiding (Cayley, 15) and also overpopulation translating to different life-threatening diseases some of which spread very fast because they are communicable. Some of the prisoners are affected by diseases like hepatitis C and the medical practitioners have to be outsourced such as correctional medical services. To counter the poor living conditions and stop the spread of illnesses, more prisons have to be constructed to reduce overcrowding. Increasing prison numbers can help indirectly improve sanitation (Christie 15).

Seventh, privatization of prisons in the United States has led to cost reduction and so they have an incentive to look for ways to save on costs especially when the posts must be manned for 24 hours; it, in turn, increases the number of prisons in an effort towards generating more profit. In his view, Cayley (22) believes that in order to relieve the burden of correctional facility management from the shoulders of government agencies, investors should be encouraged to invest in the construction of more private prisons. Prior to adopting the idea of private prisons, the implications for such values as legitimacy, safety, and justice should be weighed against the notion that they can generate gains inefficiency. Private prisons are also preferred because of the quality of facilities that provide a high quality of service hence making privatization a major cause of an increase in private prisons.

Eighth, Correspondence across the prison perimeter indirectly contributes to increasing prisons. As provided by law, prisoners keep communicating with friends and their family members in the outside world and this can lead to further lawlessness and promote a fast reintegration period back into society. In contravention to prison policies, communication via mail to inmates can accord them more time, or harsher punishment, hence overcrowding. Prisoners are also allowed to enroll in correspondence courses to increase their potential for successful reentry and for continuing their education upon the successful finish of jail term. These can encourage inmates to stay in prison so as to attain certificates from prisons hence leading to overpopulation which results in prison increase in the United States (Cayley 24).

Ninth, an increasing number of aging people means older prisoners are abandoned significantly segmenting the prison population. This leads to segments hence few older people enter the criminal justice system; as the needs of the elderly vary from those of the younger inmates. Nevertheless, the increase in the number of the elderly population results from the aging of the baby boom generation to the surprise of the system that was not modified nor sufficiently designed to accommodate the escalating numbers. Due to such a burst in population, the remaining option is building more prisons in the United States (Christie 22).

Tenth, their prisons escalate due to the increasing number of irresponsible youth. People are influenced by culture whereby they place money before anything else like the moral standards, welfare of others, and welfare of the society. Consequently, they end up engaging in unlawful deals like selling drugs, gambling, prostitution, and even violence, thus increasing the chances of being jailed. This culture breeds an irresponsible person who begets young ones who end up in single-parent homes or foster care so they grow up and end up into the long arms of the law since they did not have enough care and guidance (Wacquant 84).

Other factors that contribute to increasing prisons in the U.S. include increasing criticism, unemployment, and high prison costs. Due to increasing criticism, Mears acknowledges the society’s views on punishment in the US, hold a rather puritanical view of good people and bad people and punishment due; hence imprisonment takes place without rehabilitating for longer times especially, for smaller crimes (255). Unfortunately, this breeds a new generation of ‘hardened’ criminals that feel criticized and abandoned hence prefer to permanently remain in jail with fellow criminals increasing the number of prisoners hence increasing prison number.

Additionally, increasing unemployment among ex-convicts poses more danger than good. Once out of jail, it’s hard to get a legal job and this bunch of people who are poor, who are likely to remain poor, resort to dealing in drugs or taking them. When caught, the lawbreakers receive harsher sentences than are often appropriate and when they get out of jail the choice is usually either poverty or going back to drugs which will lead them into prisons again hence, the cycle continues as the number of prisons increase (Cayley 42).

Lastly, high prison Costs have recently contributed to the number of prisons being established. Statistically, prisons are home to approximately 500,000 people in jail with pending trial cases because of the annual unaffordable $9 billion bail costs; 62 percent of which are awaiting trial despite their local residence. This incapability leads to overcrowding and an increasing number of inmates, hence increasing prisons.


A far as prison population is concerned; prison privatization is the leading factor behind the number of prisons in the United States. In comparison to public prisons, private services can lower recidivism rates and ensure cost-saving without altering the quality-of-service delivery. In fact, prison costs continue to increase and the same applies to budgets.

To decide on who qualifies to serve their time in private-operated prisons, the type of inmate in prison must carefully and appropriately be determined. In order to reduce the prison population due to providing accost saving, perhaps private prisons can opt to return the criminal justice model which can return the system to a balance between punishment and rehabilitation. However private prisons with government support and regulation can do better.

In counteracting illegal business in the prison industry, Beckett and Bruce (50) believe stringent rules should be enacted to minimize unnecessary prisons opening. By considering this it will help curb unnecessary imprisonment because the owners can be looking for the slightest chance to put an individual behind bars so that they can be charged with offenses to get money out of it. A more comprehensive system within the Department of Corrections should be implemented to address the issues of mentally ill offenders, one that’s a sole focus is not on incarceration, but rather management and treatment through community programs and services. As is the case with drug and alcohol abuse treatment for offenders, there are societal benefits from such programs because by treating mentally ill offenders, society may benefit through reduced recidivism and improvements in social outcomes, such as education and employment among justice-involved populations (Christie 23).

Overall, while correcting the problems that the state currently faces, it is important to remain focused on the foundation of public safety and community well-being. Regardless, whatever the solution may be one thing is clear; change is necessary, and that change must occur swiftly.

Works cited

Beckett, Katherine and Bruce, Western. “Governing Social Marginality: Welfare, Incarceration and the Transformation of State Policy” in David Garland(ed) Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences. London: Sage, 2001:35-50.

Cayley, David. “Introduction” and “The Expanding Prison” The Expand-ing Prison. New York: Anansi Press, 1998:1-11; 15-42.

Christie, Nils. “Efficiency and Decency”; “The Eye of God (chapters 1- 2) in Crime Control as Industry: Towards. Gulags, Western Style. Third Edition, London: Routledge, 1993/2000: 13-23.

Mauer, Marc. “The Causes and Consequences of Prison Growth in the United States” in Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences’: Da-vid Garland (ed.) London: Sage, 2001:4-14.

Mears, Daniel, P. Mental Health Needs and Services in the Criminal Justice System, 4 HOUS. J. L. & POL’Y 255, 255 (2004).

Simon, Jonathan. “Fear and Loathing in Late Modernity: reflections on the Cultural Sources of Mass Imprisonment in the United States” in David Garland (ed.) Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences. London: Sage Publications, 2001. 56-67.

Wacquant, Loic. “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Mesh” in David Garland (ed.) Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences. London: Sage Publications, 2001:82-120.

Zimring, Franklin E. “Imprisonment Rates and the New Politics of Criminal Punishment” in David Garland (ed.) Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences London: Sage, 2001:145-149.