Prison System Research Paper Starter

Prison System

(Research Starters)

The paper begins by analyzing the demographics of the U.S. prison population and outlining the rise of the prison system as well as policies of expansion in various states. The paper then makes a thorough analysis of the various ways that private business or corporations benefit from the prison system and examines the way in which crime has been politicized to the benefit of politicians and big business. The paper concludes with some suggestions toward prison system reform.

Keywords Corrections Corporation of America (CCA); Fortune 500 Companies; Pell Grant Program; Pew Charitable Trusts; Prison Industrial Complex (PIC); Three Strikes You're Out; Wackenhut Corrections Corporation; War on Drugs; Zero Tolerance Policy

The Prison System


Growth of the Prison System

President Richard Nixon began a War on Drugs during his presidency with a formal announcement. Ronald Reagan first developed harsh drug policies at the state level as governor of California, after which he became U.S. president and significantly expanded Nixon's War on Drugs as a federal policy. Smith and Hattery point out that the U.S. government's War on Drugs instituted four major policy changes that directly increased the prison population:

• Longer sentences;

• Mandatory minimums;

• Some drug offenses were moved from the misdemeanor category to the felony category; and

• The institution of the "Three Strikes You're Out" policy [CCL1](Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 5).

California demonstrates what became a national trend in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that caused America to far outstrip other countries for incarcerations. California governors of the 1980s and 1990s strongly encouraged more prison construction and helped set a national trend, while the California legislature enacted more than 400 pieces of legislation that increased criminal penalties, and thereby ensured that the state would need even more prisons (Simon, 2007, p. 494). California continued its trend for increasing the number of prisons into the early 2000s. Saskal (2006) reports that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008 called for the issuance of $8.7 billion of lease revenue bonds to expand the capacity of California's overfilled prison system. About that time, there were several lawsuits pending over poor and overcrowded conditions in the system, and federal judges were close to intervening (Saskal, 2006, p. 1). By 2006, the number of inmates in California prisons had peaked at 173,942 (Carson & Golinelli, 2013), and Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in response (“Schwarzeneggar v. Plata,” 2010). Poor health conditions led to lawsuits that eventually went before the Supreme Court, which ruled that they constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that prisoner release was necessary to remedy the situation (“Schwarzeneggar v. Plata,” 2010). Subsequently, under Governor Jerry Brown’s California Public Safety Realignment program, the state has sought to better align the incarceration rate with the rate of violent crime, giving nonviolent criminals alternative sentences such as mental health treatment, drug rehabilitation programs, community service, or house arrest with GPS tracking (“The Challenges of ‘Realignment,’” 2012). As a result, the prison population decreased to 134,211 in 2012, a drop of nearly 10 percent from the preceding year. Nonetheless, prison crowding continued, and the Brown administration looked to prisons run by private corporations GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America to further alleviate the problem without releasing additional prisoners (St. John, 2013). In many ways, California’s history of high incarceration rates and attempts to rectify its problems exemplify the state of the prison system in the United States, as we will see below.

The end result of our change to a punitive approach to crime—and particularly our severe laws on nonviolent crimes such as drug sales or use—is that the U.S. far outstrips every other country in the world in per capita incarcerations. The U.S. incarcerates a much higher proportion of its population than Russia or even China, a country that Smith and Hattery (2007) note has incarceration practices that are "frequently the target of investigations and reports by human rights watch groups such as Amnesty International" (p. 275).

In addition, Frederickson (2008) observes that "the costs of the American penal system are astonishing." Klein and Soltas (2013) note that the average inmate in a federal prison cost twenty-one thousand dollars per year in 2013, and that by 2010, the federal prison system is projected to account for 30 percent of the Justice Department’s budget. Thus, we can expect much more tax money to go into the burgeoning U.S. prison system.


Since our prison population has been rapidly increasing since the early 1990s, it seems logical that the cause would be an increase in the number of violent crimes, but there has not been an increase in violent crimes. In fact, there has been a significant decrease . The rate of violent crime dropped steadily from a high of 757.7 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1992 to a low of 429.4 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009 (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2010). Clear gives us yet more specific information about the tenuous relationship between incarceration figures and crime rates:

…a 500 percent generation-long growth in imprisonment has had little impact on crime. Broadly speaking, crime rates are about what they were in 1973, though they have fluctuated dramatically over the 33-year time span since then. Beginning in 1973, crime rates went up into the early 1980s, went down for a few years at the end of that decade, went back up again, and then experienced a lengthy downward trend starting in the late 1990s. Prison populations, on the other hand, have risen every year since 1990 (Clear, 2007, p. 613).

As noted above, one of the biggest reasons for the increase is our harsh approach to nonviolent crimes—especially our punitive laws on drug distribution, sales, and use. The Pew analysts have determined that the phenomenal growth "is being fueled by mandatory minimum sentences that have stretched prison terms for many criminals, declines in inmates granted parole and other policies that states have passed in recent years to crack down on crime" (Johnson, 2007, para. 2). The Pew report specifically cites harsher drug laws as one of the main factors in increasing the nation's prison population (Johnson, 2007, para. 14).

The Prison Population

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 1.57 million Americans were serving prison sentences in local, state, and federal prisons in 2012 (Carson & Golinelli, 2013). According to the nonprofit organization the Sentencing Project (2013a), African Americans constituted 38 percent of all prisoners in 2011, and only roughly 7 percent (91,590 of the estimated 1,341,804 sentenced prisoners) that year were female (Carson & Golinelli, 2013). If we examine the statistics by gender, then African American men represent the majority of the male prison population. Yet African Americans comprised only 13 percent of the total U.S. population in 2012, according to the US Census Bureau (2012). This seems a clear indication that something about American culture—a combination of its socioeconomic, legislative, and judicial systems—is causing a significant disproportion in our prison population.

Spear (2006) observes that the United States incarcerates a disproportionately large number of poor and uneducated Americans; thus, nearly all of the prisoners are from poor and uneducated backgrounds, and many of them are African Americans. The Sentencing Project (2013b) also reports that African American men have a one in three chance of being incarcerated during their lifetimes, as compared to a one in six chance for Latino men and a one in seventeen chance for Caucasian men. Spear observes that the "mentally disturbed, lacking support in the community, gravitate toward the prison system, where they will find little help" (2006, p. 22). Clear (2007) observes that people who go to prison "come disproportionately from a handful of neighborhoods, impoverished places where schools are bad, the labor market weak, and housing inadequate" (p. 615). He then concludes that the “social effects of incarceration are hyperconcentrated among young, poor, black men and urban black communities” (Clear, 2007).

Smith and Hattery offer another interesting statistic and comparison. They point out that, in 2006, 450,000 of the more than 2 million inmates were serving sentences in state and federal prisons for nonviolent drug offenses. They also point out that this number (450,000) represents more prisoners than the European Union had in prison for all crimes combined—and the EU had a larger population than the U.S., by 100 million people (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 6). Smith and Hattery note that African American males represented only 9% of the prison population in the 1970s, but after harsher drug law sentencing came into effect, the population climbed to 62% representation by the mid-2000s (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 22).

The U.S. jail and prison population has continued to rise sharply. Spear and other researchers concur that a "get-tough" legal approach to the distribution and use of illicit drugs is the primary cause for the increase. Spear notes that many of the prisoners who are there for drug offenses actually have no record of violent offenses; that there are other expanding groups in the prison population. The rise of "tough-on-crime" laws has allowed far more juveniles to be tried in an adult court at much younger ages than previously, and according to the Sentencing Project, these adult sentences that are imposed on minors are "unduly severe." As discussed below, the conditions in juvenile prisons are also unduly severe. Spear notes that the female prison population has also increased significantly and comments that this situation usually leaves their children with a family member or the children end up as wards of the state. This of course weakens or perhaps destroys the family structure of the imprisoned (Spear, 2006, p. 23). To summarize, the prison population is mostly poor and uneducated, predominantly African American, and increasingly consisting of women, children, and the mentally disturbed; and the biggest cause of this increase are the changes in drug laws.

Further Insights

The Prison Industrial Complex

The private business sector benefits in various ways from increased incarcerations, and this should be examined more closely. Smith and Hattery note that many Fortune 500 companies have taken advantage of the cheap labor resources available through prison populations. The use of prison labor allows corporations to save significantly on labor costs and thereby increase their profits "much like plantations, ship builders, and other industries did during the 200 plus years of slavery in the United States" (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 11). Smith and Hattery aptly refer to the prison system as the "prison industrial complex (PIC)," and they argue that the capitalist economy and the prison system that characterizes the PIC create a symbiotic system. Prisons only make money when the prison beds are occupied, and "the more prisons provide labor for corporations, the more prisons will be built." Their conclusion is alarming. They propose that "the PIC and its attendant industries contribute to the increased rates of incarceration in the US and the continued exploitation of labor, primarily African American labor" (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 11). It makes basic economic sense that, when there are empty prison cells, the prison loses money, and "prisons beds"—as industry insiders refer to their economic units—need full capacity for optimal profit. The authors argue that the PIC is a self-perpetuating system:

We must impose harsher and longer sentences and we must continue to funnel inmates into prisons… and this funnel is not being filled with white collar offenders such as Bernie Ebbs (WorldCom), Ken Lay (Enron), or Martha Stewart, but rather by vulnerable, unempowered populations, primarily young, poor, African American men (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 13).

A change in inmate labor regulations has created a system wherein inmate labor is increasingly subcontracted for a variety of business sectors. Subcontracting companies act as middlemen for many of the largest companies in the United States. The middlemen subcontracting companies that are hired by America's largest companies use prison labor for telemarketing, call service, manufacturing, packaging, and distributing their products, though in some cases there is no middleman and the companies directly outsource to prison labor. Smith and Hattery note that, although Americans are unaware of it, every day they are the beneficiaries of the work done by ten to fifteen prison laborers, and Americans use about thirty products daily that were produced, packaged, or sold out of a prison (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 17). The authors also make an astute observation on the ultimate reach of this economic system by observing "prison industries have truly infiltrated the global market" (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 283).

Corporations pay prisoners a subminimum wage (between 23 cents and 1.15 dollars per hour in 2001) and make enormous profits on prison labor (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 13; Fox, 2012). Additional advantages to the use of prison labor, besides the obvious advantage of paying very low wages, are that companies who use prison labor do not have to provide health insurance or vacation benefits, and they need not be concerned about severance pay or layoffs (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 14; Fox, 2012). They can conveniently increase the number of prison workers during peak sales periods and send them back to their cells whenever sales decline (Smith & Hattery, 2007, p. 19).

Although big companies pay prison workers much less than they pay for workers on the outside, they are not actually reducing the markup to the consumer; of course, they retain...

(The entire section is 6284 words.)