The Effectiveness of American Prisons

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The prisons in America seem to cause more problems than assistance in today's society. The country's penal system is overcrowded, expensive, and some argue that is ineffective as well as inefficient. The costs to staff and support these facilities increase dramatically every year. Prisons, which are supposed to be correctional facilities, are currently filled with violence and hostility. These institutions are created to control crime by deterrence, incapacitating criminals, which protects society from potentially dangerous criminals, but it is hard to tell if this is being accomplished. The first problem that is constantly plaguing the penal system is the financial burden attached to the building, maintaining, and staffing of prisons. In the late 1960's, New York built prisons at a price of $2 million each. Since then, prices have risen dramatically. In 1990, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that each prisoner requires $15,496 to support. A prison containing 2,000 inmates costs over $31 million to operate on an annual basis. A new prison model, scheduled to be completed in the summer of 1996, was introduced in Niagara County. The new facility would cost less, be more durable than current prisons and more flexible to the fluctuating rates of prisoners. The extremely low cost to erect this new building would be $24.6 million. The state of the art facility would hold 224 inmates but only require five officers to supervise the entire facility, which would save approximately $164,000 compared to other standard prisons. Violence is a very big problem within the prison walls that is also a one sided problem. In 1992, federal and state prisons reported 66 murders and 10,181 inmate-inmate attacks according to Angela S. Maitland and Richard D. Sluder. The constant fear of attack can lead a prisoner to have serious mental problems. Inmates can suffer from indigestion, constipation, and headaches as some of the psychophisological effects. Other effects include feelings of helplessness, depression, and low self-image. Terry A. Kupers, M.D., noted in 1996 that 16-25% of the total California inmates had psychological problems that required a psychiatrist. The constant psychological stress can impair the individual physically. These people can suffer hypertension, asthma, ulcers, and colitis. The majority of the victims of these violent crimes are usually the young, small, weak, and new prisoners. Many of the victims have been convicted of non-violent crimes according to a study done by Angela S. Maitland and Richard D. Sluder. According to Maitland and Sluder, 54.7% of inmates in 1991 were 29 years old or younger who qualify as potential victims. Kupers noted that "Violence is omnipresent in prison." (1996, p. 190) Whether there is trouble between two or more inmates, or between one or more inmates and the prison staff, one of the main sources of this constant violence is gangs. Prison gangs have been around since the 1970's. Salvador Buentello included in his report that in 1992, there were 1,555 incidents (i.e. stabbings, fights, etc.) involving inmates, 5,598 assaults on staff members, and 52 inmate homicides. Buentello also noted that over 80% of the assaults and over 92% of the homicides were gang related. There were more homicides that occurred between 1984-1985 than occurred in the fifteen years previous to this study according to Buentello. Prison gangs are "exclusive and surreptitious groups of disruptive inmates who aim to control their environment by engaging in intimidating and threatening behaviors." (Harold W. Clarke, 1992, p.8) Clarke's report stated that these gangs, like the street gangs are usually formed along racial and ethnic lines and they usually have a geographic requirement to join. This last point is because many of these prison gangs survive out of prison. Some examples of gangs that matriculated from the prison to the streets are the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerilla Family, the Texas Syndicate, and La Nuestra Familia. While in prison, the gangs "engage in extortion and drug trafficking, intimidate weaker inmates and spark violent altercations." (Clarke, 1992, p. 12) The compilation of gangs in prison was catalyzed by two major court cases as noted in Buentello's report. The first was Lamar v. Coffield. This decision allowed inmates to integrate, which increased racial tension. To protect themselves, people of the same ethnic groups formed gangs to protect themselves. The second case, Ruiz v. Estelle eliminated the use of building tenders or inmate guards. The administration became more reactive, allowing gangs to form. Rehabilitation, as reducing "criminal activities by changing an offender's attitude and behavior." (Shichor, 1992, p. 19) This is one of the most important functions of the prisons. Unfortunately, the number of rehabilitated criminals has decreased dramatically over the past few years. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, in a 1991 survey, concluded that 81% of all inmates have served time prior to their current sentence. Going to prison can have two different effects on a person. One, the prisoner can develop a tougher personality as they live with criminals, or two, they can be intimidated and never want to go back. Paul Gendreau has done research on this topic and has noted that the best programs for rehabilitation are those that are quick, only lasting a few months, and firm. Inmates going through these successful programs are given rewards for things that they do well. Another big part of this process is the private consultation with a therapist. Those programs that did not work, according to Gendreau, resembled boot camps, in the respect that they were harsh and there was an open hatred and distrust of the criminals. These poorly run and ineffective programs planted more hatred than it removed. These programs did not help the criminals to rehabilitate and added to the increasing numbers of repeat offenders. Terry A. Kupers, M.D. noted that these programs have also made prisoners feel like they won't be able to function well when they are released. These prisoners deal with this stress in two ways according to Kupers, they either isolate themselves, or they thrash out and get themselves into even more trouble. W. Wesley Johnson, Katherine Bennett, and Timothy J. Flanagan have shown that criminals are not afraid of going to prison. In a report constructed by Steven Levitt in 1996, he stated that by incarcerating one additional prisoner, the numbers of crimes are reduced by approximately fifteen every year. The lack of fear has attributed to Shichor's beliefs that this problem results in low rehabilitation rates, and therefore should not be the goal of the prisons. The tougher the prison, the deterrence would be greater once the fear is instilled. Some other suggested possibilities as noted by Marylee N. Reynolds, Ph.D. in 1996, would be to revoke privileges such as exercise equipment, phone and television privileges, and music and art classes. An even harsher method of deterrence that has been addressed would be charging inmates to help society pay for their time in prison. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over one half the inmates in state prisons in 1995 were employed full time, and over two thirds were employed part time, this would allow this proposition to be seriously considered. Another problem with prisons are the terrible conditions and poor medical supervision that is provided. Health care has been a problem for many years. It got so out of control, that in 1972, a Health Advisory Committee was set up to advise the matters affecting the health of prisoners. This committee was broken up into sub-committees and gave advice on many different factors that could improve the situation. Alan Berkman, MD said in his 1995 report that 362 out of every 100,000 prisoners acquire AIDS once they enter the prison. This prison rate is 20 times the current national rate. Especially in today's society, this is a big problem. Berkman noted from his own personal experience that there is a lack of sufficient health care in prisons. He said in his 1995 report, "During my time in prison, I twice developed Hodgkin's Disease and became intimately familiar with the health care available to prisons." (Berkman, 1995, p. 1617) Unfortunately, AIDS is a big problem in today's society as well as today's prisons. In the early 1980's, prison physicians were unable to do anything with their lack of information on the new plague. Wardens were reluctant to let prisoners out after they had acquired the AIDS virus because the officials believed that prisoners would be dangerous to society. Prisoners who were known to be infected with the virus would not be isolated, but guards would wear gl

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