Imprisonment as punishment for crimes was first used during the sixteenth century in Europe. Prior to that, criminal correction usually consisted of enslavement or swift physical punishment such as whipping or execution. Prison was conceived as a more humane response to criminal behavior. When Europeans established colonies in America in the seventeenth century they continued the practice of imprisoning those convicted of crimes.
During the colonial era, the number of Americans in prison made up a small, barely noticeable segment of the population. That situation has changed dramatically, however. According to statistics from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice, if incarceration rates continue unchanged, 1 out of every 20 Americans alive today will be imprisoned at some time in their lives.
This rate of incarceration has increased quite recently. In 1980, 139 of every 100,000 Americans were incarcerated; in 1996, that number had nearly quadrupled to 427 per 100,000, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. This is due in part to new crime laws such as “three strikes and you’re out” and tougher sentencing for drug-related offenses.
More focus on punishment
The “get tough on crime” stance that many politicians have adopted is finding its way into America’s corrections system as the prison population continues to grow. The people are tired of crime, and some politicians note this and respond by advocating harsher treatment of convicted criminals. Some political leaders contend that inmates forfeit most or all of their rights the moment they enter prison and therefore are subject to measures designed to punish rather than rehabilitate. As Michigan state senator Phil Hoffman (R.) says, “We’re a baby-sitting service for adults who have raped us, robbed us and murdered us.”
In an atmosphere in which the focus is increasingly on punishment, legislators and the public are becoming fed up with prisoners living in what some characterize as resort-like facilities with privileges such as cable TV, weightlifting rooms, free education, and libraries. Many Americans would like to reduce or eliminate such prison amenities to cut down on prison spending and redirect that money toward fighting and preventing crime.
In addition to generally reducing inmates’ privileges, many states have also developed “super-max” prisons, designed to house the most troublesome prisoners. In these facilities, prisoners spend 23 hours a day locked alone in their cells. They are allowed no contact with other prisoners and minimal contact with guards. They are offered no educational or vocational training and usually no television or reading material. Supporters of “super-max” prisons say they are necessary tools to punish otherwise incorrigible prisoners. In that same vein, officials in many prisons where violence is prevalent have acquired shock devices for control of violent or uncooperative prisoners.
Another popular idea among tough-on-crime policymakers has been putting able-bodied prisoners to work for private contractors. The money earned by the correctional institutions under such arrangements can be used to offset prison costs. A fringe benefit is that prisoners also learn skills they can use after being released. But not every prison-work program imparts such skills to inmates. In some states, chain gangs have been reinstated to provide a source of laborers, as well as to drive home the point that prison life is not pleasant.
Concerns about abuses
However, there is another side to the treatment of inmates. Supporters of prisoners’ rights contend that harsher punishment and stricter discipline has led to a system rife with human rights violations. In 1998, for example, Amnesty International released a report on prison conditions in the United States titled Rights for All. The report cites numerous examples of human rights violations ranging from physical to sexual to psychological abuse of prisoners. Sexual abuse of the growing number of women inmates is a major focus of pro-prisoner groups. Amnesty International’s research indicates that nearly every woman incarcerated today has been sexually abused in some way during her imprisonment.
Those who are critical of get-tough-on-prisoners measures are also concerned about the use of shock devices for the control of prisoners. Critics contend that the potential for abuse is too great with a device that can deliver a 50,000-volt shock from 300 feet away, as stun belts can. Some observers note that studies have not yet ruled out the possibility of long-term damage on prisoners corrected with these devices.
In addition to being concerned about physical abuse, advocates of inmates’ rights believe that privileges for prisoners are important. These individuals argue that prisoners who are denied recreation, learning, or hot meals will only become angrier, more violent, and more likely to commit another crime after their release. Prisoners’ rights advocates also decry “super-max” prisons for the same reasons, believing that the treatment prisoners receive in these facilities only makes them more savage and less inclined towards rehabilitation.
Health care in prisons is also a concern for inmates’ rights advocates, who contend that changes need to be made in most prison health care systems to accommodate the needs of elderly or terminally ill prisoners. The current priorities of security and cost control, some contend, should not prevent inmates from receiving care comparable to what is available to members of the community outside the prison’s walls.
The differing opinions on how prisons should treat their inmates parallels society’s deeper concern of how to control and eliminate crime. The contributors to At Issue: How Should Prisons Treat Inmates? consider whether “supermax” prisons are humane and effective; what kinds of amenities and privileges prisoners should have, if any; whether or not shock devices are an acceptable means of discipline; the end-of-life care that prisoners receive; sexual abuse of women prisoners; the legitimacy of chain gangs; and the benefits of prison labor. The authors confront these issues in an attempt to dissect and understand the numerous legal, ethical and moral concerns involved in how prisons treat inmates.