The Correctional System: Prison in the United States

Subject: Law
Pages: 3
Words: 816
Reading time:
3 min
Study level: College

Prisons in the US hold a large number of inmates. According to Sawyer and Wagner (2020), almost 1.3 million people are confined in state prisons; 226,000 are held in federal prisons and jails, and 631,000 are confined in local jails. Among state prisoners, 713,000 offenders are convicted of violent crimes, 227,000 property crimes, 191,000 drug offenses, and 153,000 public-order crimes (Sawyer & Wagner, 2020).

Sawyer and Wagner (2020) also report that 40% of incarcerated individuals are African Americans. White men make up 33% of inmates, and Hispanics constitute 21% (Siegel & Bartollas, 2018). As for the gender composition of inmates, most prisoners are males (Sawyer & Wagner, 2020). Among female prisoners, about half of them are white, and the incarceration rate for white women has increased (Siegel & Bartollas, 2018). Siegel and Bartollas (2018) also report that the number of incarcerated juveniles declined while the number of the elderly increased.

The operation of prisons requires much cost, which includes the cost of prosecution, healthcare, and judicial and legal costs. The overall cost of incarceration reaches $182 billion per year, with $80.7 billion spent annually on prisons, jails, probation, and parole (Wagner & Rabuy, 2017). The high cost of incarceration is one issue making the public advocate for criminal justice reform. Other issues are prison and jail overcrowding, incarcerating mentally ill individuals, and violence, including assaults, riots, and inmate suicide. Jail suicide, in particular, is responsible for more than half of all deaths of inmates (Siegel & Bartollas, 2018).

Prisons in the US can be state, federal, and private. Federal prisons fall under the jurisdiction of the subsidiary of the US Department of Justice called the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The BOP was created in 1930 to oversee 11 federal prisons (Siegel & Bartollas, 2018). Currently, it watches over 122 correctional institutions, a headquarters in Washington, DC, six regional offices, 22 residential reentry centers, and two centers for staff training (BOP, n.d.). Federal prisons hold offenders who have committed federal crimes, for example, bank robbery or drug trafficking. Inmates in federal prisons cannot be released on parole, so the average time served in federal prisons is longer than that in state prisons.

State prisons are under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Corrections. Each of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, has its own State Department of Corrections that oversees all correctional institutions in the state. Some states, such as Utah, Wyoming, and New Hampshire, have less than ten correctional institutions, while others, such as Texas and Florida, have more than 80 (Siegel & Bartollas, 2018). Inmates are confined in state prisons for offenses that do not fall under the federal jurisdiction, for example, the majority of violent crimes.

Private prisons are operated by private corporations, such as CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group Inc. These corporations have agreements with the government, according to which the government pays the corporation for each inmate, and the company provides inmates with clothing, food, and other living needs. Private prisons provide inmates with work programs and various psychological, educational, and medical services.

Correctional facilities include jails and prisons. Jails are small and operated mainly by local governments (Siegel & Bartollas, 2018). They keep offenders waiting for a sentence and those on short-term sentences that do not exceed one year (Siegel & Bartollas, 2018). In contrast, prisons are large and operated by state or federal governments (Siegel & Bartollas, 2018). They are designed for keeping offenders after sentencing, and individuals incarcerated there are usually sentenced to at least one year in prison.

There are also four types of prisons depending on their security level. They include minimum security, medium security, maximum security, and supermax (Siegel & Bartollas, 2018). Minimum-security prisons have the most relaxed perimeter security and often have no fences. Inmates there live in dormitories patrolled by officers and have communal sinks, showers, and toilets. Inmates are also allowed to go to classes or work at outside jobs. An example of a minimum-security prison is the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia.

Medium-security prisons, e.g., the Federal Correctional Institution at Phoenix, Arizona, are surrounded by fences and are equipped with security systems to monitor inmates’ movement. Inmates sleep in dormitories but spend most of the day out of their cells. In maximum-security prisons, such as the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, California, inmates live in individual cells and are allowed to be outside one hour a day. The locked cells are monitored by officers remotely.

If one inmate starts to threaten others, he/she can be isolated in a solitary cell for a set period. An example of a supermax prison is the ADX Florence in Colorado. In such facilities, very sophisticated security measures are taken. For example, any potential weapons, such as soap dishes, are removed, and prisons are equipped with multiple video cameras and electronically controlled gates.


Federal Bureau of Prisons [BOP]. (n.d.). Our locations. Web.

Sawyer, W., & Wagner, P. (2020). Mass incarceration: The whole pie 2020. Prison Policy Initiative. Web.

Siegel, L. J., & Bartollas, C. (2018). Corrections today (4th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Wagner, P. & Rabuy, B. (2017). Following the money of mass incarceration. Prison Policy Initiative. Web.