Prison Essay

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A prison is both a physical container and an institution. A prison contains people, typically those who have violated criminal law and have been sentenced to a period of incarceration. Prisons, also called “penitentiaries” and “correctional facilities,” are distinguished from jails in the United States by length of confinement: jails incapacitate those who are charged with but not yet convicted of criminal offense or who are serving shorter sentences, typically one year or less. Prison and jail, along with probation, constitute the corrections component of the criminal justice system. Prisons have also been used as tools of governments seeking to incapacitate critics of their practices, hence the term political prisoners.

Originally used to hold persons before trial, the prison as a penal institution—that is, the modern prison—came into existence by the end of the 18th century. As such, it denies inmates a range of basic personal rights and privileges. Restrictions on prisoners can extend from solitary confinement, in which access to space outside one’s cell is held to an hour or less per day, to restrictions on one’s movement, as in the case of people who serve sentences in their homes—house arrest—but may be required to wear an electronic sensor attached to their ankle.

Prisons fall into several classifications, depending on the level of custody required for inmates. In the United States there are minimum, medium, maximum, and super-maximum security prisons, with more intensive control and security at each higher level. Prisons and jails also separate male and female inmates. States and local jails maintain separate facilities for juvenile offenders; there are no juvenile federal facilities. For the most serious crimes, prosecutors may sentence youth to prisons as adults.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, as of February 2005, the rate of incarceration in prison and jail—737 inmates per 100,000 population— ranks the United States as the nation most likely to use imprisonment, with a rate of imprisonment 6 to 8 times higher than other industrial democracies. Following a period of explosive growth in the prison population dating back to the implementation of mandatory, structured, and determinant sentencing policies in the late 1970s, as of 2006, more than 7 million people in the United States were under some form of correctional supervision, including probation, prison, jail, and parole. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2,385,213 people were incarcerated by the United States at the end of 2006, including prisoners in federal, state, and territorial prisons; local jails; military and juvenile facilities; facilities of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and jails in Indian country.

U.S. prisons and jails incarcerate black and Latino/a people in numbers disproportionate to their presence in the U.S. population. African/black Americans constituted 12.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2006 American Community Survey; whites made up 73.9 percent of the population and Hispanics or Latinos/as of any race, 14.8 percent. At the end of 2006, 42 percent of inmates in prison were black; white inmates were 33 percent, and Hispanics 21 percent. The over-representation of blacks and Latinos/as in jails is similar to prison: whites are 44.3 percent of the 2005 jail population, blacks 38.9 percent, and Hispanics 15 percent.

The BJS estimates that 32 percent of black males will be incarcerated in prison at some point in their lifetime, compared to 17 percent of Hispanic males and 5.9 percent of white males. Males are an overwhelming majority in prisons and jails, yet the rate of incarceration of females in the United States has increased dramatically in the past 30 years. According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice, the number of women serving sentences of more than a year grew by 757 percent between 1977 and 2004. Women currently make up 7 percent of all U.S. inmates.

The Logic of Incarceration: Punishment, Correction, or Incapacitation Prevailing theories about human behavior, the causes of crime, and ideology about how to address criminal behavior have always influenced how and why society uses prisons. Prisons are intended to meet a variety of social goals, including incapacitation, deterrence, discipline, punishment or retribution, and rehabilitation or reformation.

The logic of incapacitation is simple on its face: if we contain people who would otherwise be engaging in criminal behavior, we will reduce the crime rate and improve public safety. Known as the “incapacitation effect,” the theory holds that by reducing opportunity—particularly during an individual’s prime crime years—crime will be reduced. Research evidence on this effect is inconclusive; there is also little evidence that incarceration deters future criminality. In terms of deterrence, the argument is that the threat of punishment, in this case, of incarceration, will dissuade people from engaging in criminal behavior in the first place. However, evidence suggests that the more incarceration experiences one has, the more likely one is to recidivate.

The notion that the punishment should fit the crime, sometimes known as retributive justice or lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”), is best understood as an attempt to retaliate with a punishment matching the level and quality of an offense.

In 1974, a now-infamous report by New York sociologist Robert Martinson asked the question “What works?” about prison reform. Because his answer to that question was “Nothing,” and in keeping with surveys that failed to find rehabilitation programs that successfully prevented recidivism, rehabilitation came under attack and public policy took a turn toward rational choice theory, which argues that criminals are rational actors who decide to engage in criminal behavior. Consequently, authorities dramatically reduced programs meant to reform offenders, including education in prisons.

Some social theorists are particularly critical of prison as actually a tool to warehouse people who otherwise lack a place in a capitalist economy. Incarcerated persons often suffer from both mental illness and poverty before prison; these theorists thus suggest that prison is simply a means to discipline a population that cannot and will not labor. Recent efforts at restorative justice—which seeks to involve victims of crime as well as the community of people impacted by wrongdoing—and alternatives to incarceration—which include community courts and programs that divert offenders from prison and jail—have shown some promising results.

Prison as a Social Problem

In keeping with the arguments of Marxist-influenced scholars, some maintain that prison is used as a stopgap measure to deal with social problems that society and government have failed to adequately address, such as racism, poverty, and mental illness. In this view, as Ted Conover noted in his compelling journalistic work on his year spent as a corrections officer at New York’s infamous Sing Sing, prison itself has become a social problem.

According to the most recent survey of inmates in prisons and jails, jail inmates report the highest rate of mental health problems (60 percent), followed by state (49 percent) and federal prisoners (40 percent). Partly as a result of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill and the lack of community mental health services, some say prison has become a de facto mental health system.

Prisons are often built in areas with high unemployment rates, and work in prison then becomes a major feature of the regional economy. The privatization of prisons has led many to question whether punishment should be profitable and left to the workings of the market. Prison labor has been another area of debate, with corporations criticized for exploiting the labor of prisoners, and prison officials supportive of any activity that occupies the time and attention of inmates.

Some theorists have gone beyond consideration of prison as a social problem and beyond the host of social problems that occur within prisons. Historian Mike Davis is credited with first using the phrase “prison industrial complex” to describe the collection of interests, mainly political and economic, that have fueled the expansion of U.S. prisons regardless of their efficacy or cost-effectiveness in preventing and reducing crime.


  1. Conover, Ted. 2001. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. New York: Vintage Books.
  2. Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.
  3. Mauer, Marc and Meda Chesney-Lind, eds. 2003. Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment. New York: New Press.
  4. Morris, Norval and David J. Rothman, eds. 1998. The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Sabol, William J. 2007. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2006. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved March 28, 2017 (
  6. Schlosser, Eric. 1998. “The Prison Industrial Complex.” Atlantic Monthly, December, 51-77.

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