In the United States of America, prisoners are undoubtedly a political problem. This is not necessarily the case in other countries with smaller prison populations and more widespread agreement on questions of crime and punishment. It may not have been so even in America before rates of incarceration increased sharply in the 1980s. Prisoners always present a problem to society, but it is not primarily a political problem as long as there is general agreement among all major political factions on how the issues which surround them should be handled. However, with a prison population of over 2 million in the United States, the largest in the world by some distance, several issues around prisons automatically become politically controversial, including the following:
- Should prisons be run for profit by the private sector and, if so, under what conditions?
- What type of crimes should carry a prison sentence? Would a non-custodial sentence with electronic tagging be more appropriate for non-violent crimes?
- Does the criminal justice system discriminate against certain racial or other minority groups?
- Do certain political policies, such as the “war on drugs” increase the prison population? Is it legitimate to pursue particular political policies just because they tend to decrease the prison population, or to jettison other policies because they increase it?
There are many more issues of a similar type, some of which might be relevant in any society where imprisonment is used as a punishment or method of rehabilitation (indeed, the purposes of prison remain a source of political controversy). All these issues become more pressing as the prison population increases, however.