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Analysis of the United States Prison System

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In the past thirty years, the United States has moved into a “get tough on crime” era. This can be seen through many enactments and sentencing policies, that have been created since 1980. While crime rates overall have been going down, we have seen a massive increase in the U.S. prison populations, causing large financial and social burdens. This paper will analyze this increase, and the sentencing initiatives behind it.


Internationally, prison is the term used for the institutions that hold those who have been convicted of a serious offense. In the United States however, the term prison refers to the state and federal institutions where offenders are sent for a year or more, after sentencing. Most people use the terms ‘jail’ and ‘prison’ interchangeably, a jail however is a temporary holding cell where an offender is placed during trial. Below is a brief history of the development of the American penal system.

A. Solitary System

The Quakers first created the penitentiary as a means for offenders to repent their sins and eventually rejoin society. This idea led to the development of the first American prisons around 1790. These early prisons were based on silence and repenting, and in most cases run by religious personnel. This model was called the Solitary system, and quickly spread through Europe (Tonry).

B. Progressive reform era

By 1877, the second wave, known as the Progressive Reform Era, was underway. Prisons in this era were based on rehabilitation through educational efforts. Once inmates were deemed reformed they were released back into society. Although courts preached rehabilitation, little authority was placed over prison personal, and correctional facilities became brutal un-checked institutions. By the 1960’s and 1970’s, indeterminate sentencing was seen as a failure, and recidivism rates were shown to be high. The human rights movements and the racism that developed in prisons caused many racially surged riots to take place in prisons. The most notable riot was New York’s Attica riot in 1971. Prisons were seen as out of control, and by 1980 prisons in more than 40 states came under federal court control (Tonry).

C. The Return to Punishment

The United States current correctional era is known as the Return to Punishment. Prisons can no longer be seen as correctional institutions. Criminologist Hans Tochs called prisons “a human warehouse with a jungle like underground” (Samaha). In the 1980’s, crime became the main agenda of almost every politician, and the “get tough on crime” era began. Parole release was abolished by 15 states, conditions in prisons were made less comfortable, and treatment programs gave way to increase cost.


A. World Comparison

The number prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants of a nation measure prison population. There are many ways of making these measurements. Many statistics separate those in jail from those in prison. For the purposes of this paper we will consider all those being held in jail and prison because they are all a burden to the tax payers. To the side (figure1) you can see the massive increase in the United States incarceration rates since 1980.

People typically try to relate prison populations with crime rates. This has many flaws and drawbacks.

First of all, countries that are politically and socially similar can have large differences in their prison populations; for instance, Canada’s rate in 2002 was 103 and the United States was 709 (Christie). Russia is a country that is dramatically different than the United States, however they have been our closest competitors in prison population rates; in 2002, their rate was 640. Secondly when studying historical trends in prison rates increases and decreases have been shown to be linked to nation’s political movements, not crime rates (Christie)

From 1925-1972, incarceration rates fluctuated between 90 and 130 per 100,000 residents, which showed a relatively stable rate. Since 1972, however, the rates have increased every year (Renshaw). Patterns of imprisonment can be affected by a nation’s ideologies on punishments. Many European countries believe that crime is influenced by social conditions and inadequate socialization, and punishment is unlikely to affect crime rates. Because of this ideology only 1 to 3 % of prison sentences in Europe are for 2 years or longer, and their

incarceration rate is only 124 (Christie). United States

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