The US Prison System: US Prison System’s Ineffectiveness

Background Information

The United States is the leading country in the world with the highest number of persons incarcerated in jails and prisons; and also the leading country with the highest number of prisons, most of which have been built over the last few decades (Parenti, 2008). In the United States, like many other countries worldwide, incarceration is the major method that is used as punishment for convicted persons, besides probation. The United States prison system is one of the oldest which is run and overseen both by the state government and the federal government. This means that states have responsibilities and duties to run prison facilities in their jurisdictions as well as budget and plan for the construction of new ones. By 2009, the total number of US federal prisons had exceeded the 115 mark, this is without counting the military prison facilities, state prison facilities and county jails among other forms of prisons that are usually outsourced by the governments from private companies (Lambert and Walsh, 2009). Despite a general reduction in crime rate over the years, the United States prison system has continued to grow to be one of the most massive worldwide with a record 7.3 million incarcerated persons in 2008 which continue to rise every day (Parenti, 2008).

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Since the start of early 1990, the crime rate in the United States dramatically dropped to the lowest ever recorded rates in the country and have since remained relatively low, a phenomenon that has been the subject of many research studies which sought to describe and explain the reasons behind this major drop in crime rate.

To date no single research study has advanced a convincing theory to explain this phenomenon, however, what is not in contention is that during the 1990 decade all forms of crimes, that ranged from homicides to shoplifting reduced by 40% across all cities in the country in what later come to be known as the “Great American Crime Decline” (Elsner, 2006). In other cities such as New York which were prone to even high crime rates before this period, the drop in crime rate was even more dramatic and reduced by a whopping 75% (Elsner, 2006). Despite this massive reduction in the crime rate that still remains about the same to date, the inmates population in the US prison system had ironically been increasing at an astronomical rate that currently surpasses the two million mark with others more than five million being on probation (, 2006).

So far there is no single factor that can directly be attributed to this paradoxical phenomenon, instead many research studies that have been written on the subject attempt to attribute this crime reduction to a range of factors or a combination of such factors. Hence, without substantive evidence of what might have led the US prison system to become one of the largest in the world and probably one of the most ineffective too in the wake of reduced crime rates, most policymakers would be unable to implement measures that would ideally rectify this anomaly. As such, the purpose of this research study is to critically explore the factors contributing to this contrasting growth of the United States prison system, challenges facing it, and examine its effectiveness in reigning in crime levels and rehabilitation. This research study intends to generate knowledge that can shape future policies in this area and recommend ways of overcoming the challenges that face the US prison system.


Consequently, the objectives of this study will be two, namely;

  1. Objective 1: To identify the major challenges facing the US prison system (which has made it become one of the largest and most ineffective monstrous correctional systems in the whole world, despite it being on a comparison basis the most well-funded prison system).
  2. Objective 2: to carefully examine whether the US prison system as a correctional institution is in any way effective in achieving the twin primary functions of correctional facilities; that of rehabilitation and crime deterrence.


In this research study, I hypothesize that the US prison system is largely ineffective because of poor government policies and inefficient legislation.

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Literature Review

While the great American crime decline was taking place in the 1990s, the government continued incarcerating peoples in prisons at even higher rates that were unprecedented in the country’s prison system. In the year 1990 up to 2008 for instance, the number of incarcerated persons in US prisons rose to an all time of 2.3 million from just about a million prisoners in 1990 while another approximately 5 million were on probation (Lambert and Walsh, 2009). The highest proportion of incarcerated persons including those on probation and parole involve drug related cases; most of this drug related cases has to do with possession, substance abuse and crimes from addiction which stands at 2 million out of the 7.3 million (Pendleton, 2009).

Perhaps then, the question is why many people continued to be sent to prisons during this period when crime rate statistics indicated it to be at its lowest. Indeed over the last two decades, the United States government rapidly expanded it prison facility and more than quadrupled its spending on prison system as shown in the chart below (, 2006).

Trend on Incarceration in US
Figure 1. Trend on Incarceration in US

In California State for instance, the number of new prisons that were built over a ten year period between 1984 when crime rate started dipping and 1994 totaled 21 facilities, it was by far the fastest growing sector of the country (, 2006). Currently the total cost of running the prison system in US has become monumental with States spending just about $60 billion dollars a year with additional funding being provided by the federal governments on prisons in their jurisdictions (Wolcott and Head, 2010).

In many of this State, spending on all forms of correctional facilities has become the major area that substantial amount of government funding is directed having even surpassed spending on education (Wolcott and Head, 2010).

With more correctional facilities being built to accommodate the ever increasing numbers of incarcerated persons in United States, the question of whether indeed the prison system is any more effective becomes even more apparent. More so, when crime rates are known to have significantly reduced despite the harsher laws to deter crime that has been implemented. It is on this backdrop that I am going to base my argument on the effectiveness of prison system in the United States. In order to fully understand how the correctional system of US works let us briefly discuss the prison structure that is in place.

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The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) categorizes and subdivides correctional facilities into various levels and categories based on various factors such as security, nature of inmates, nature of convictions and duration of imprisonment. So far there are nine categorizations of prison facilities and include: federal transfer centers, metropolitan transfer centre, US penitentiaries, federal correctional complex, federal detention centre, federal correctional institutions, federal medical centre and federal prison camps (Rivers and Anwyl, 2000). Generally they can be categorized into three groups, those that are used for housing general inmates serving average years with minimal fright risks such as federal prison camps and federal correctional institutions.

The other category is the high security prisons usually used for persons convicted of serious crimes and for longer periods collectively referred as Supermax such as US penitentiaries (Rivers and Anwyl, 2000). Finally there are prisons that are only used to house convicted persons that require medical or probably psychiatric care.

Based on security level, most prison facilities are categorized in one of the following groups: super maximum security, high security, medium security, low security, minimum security and community corrections facilities (Rivers and Anwyl, 2000). Even by any other standards, United States prison system is one of the most efficient, organized and largest anywhere in the world; all the more reasons why it should be the leading country that is most successful in attaining the two main functions of prisons: correctional and deterrent to crime (Parenti, 2008). Rather United States seems to be the hub of crimes or rather a country where punitive laws are the policy either by design or default. In early 1980, the United State adopted new policies of punishing convicted persons that were in general a notch higher in terms of harshness which meant offenders were sentenced to longer prison terms on average for any convicted crime (Parenti, 2008).

In what later come to be described as the “broken window theory” by James Wilson, the government adopted stiff laws for even the lesser crimes (Parenti, 2008). This approach was based on the school of thought that advocated for harsh penalties for lesser offenders in order to deter people from committing more serious crimes, in this policy many forms of drug related crimes carried lengthy imprisonment or life sentences. The result from this shift of imprisonment policy is perhaps the single major factor that has contributed to the current monstrous prison system of the United States. Indeed this fact is more asserted when you consider the rate of incarceration between 1980 after this policy shift to year 2000, when number of incarcerated persons increased by threefold during this period (Parenti, 2008).

By 2006, per capita incarceration rate in US stood at 737 persons for every 100,000, far higher than the average rates for most developed countries with the exceptions of Russia and China; in States such as Georgia “one in 13 adults was in the justice system” which was by far the highest at the time (Elsner, 2006; Lambert and Walsh, 2009). In fact the number of convicted persons in US at 2.2 million during this period was far much more than in China at 1.5 million prisoners with a population of 1 billion people (Elsner, 2006). Another way to look at it is that US accounted for 25% of all incarcerated persons anywhere in the world by 2006 while it only has 5% of the world population (Elsner, 2006) this trend has been sustained throughout 2009 when it rose again to 2.3 million and it is only in 2010 that the crime rate in US prison has started indicating signs of reducing (Lambert and Walsh, 2009). Whichever way you look at it, the shortcomings of the US prison system are made starker by these disproportion rates of incarcerated persons, not to mention the other number of persons that are on parole or probation which combined adds up to 7.4 million (Lambert and Walsh, 2009). However, the policy shift of the early 1980s is not the only factor that can be attributed to the current colossal nature of US prison system.

While the United States legislations on prison terms and crimes in general was being positioned to be more stiff for all types of offenders, the public mentality changed as well influenced by the government advocacy that called for stiff penalties as a way of reducing crime rate that had spiraled out of control during this period. With the public now in support of the government new policy on crimes, the stage was now set for government impunity on discharging longer imprisonment terms without any checks in the system. In this new arrangement, the public repeatedly called the government to take up measures to tame the rising crime while legislators and the government policy makers were all too eager to continue amending laws towards this end.

Currently more than half of all imprisoned persons in United States are first time offenders, most of whom are imprisoned for crimes that do not involve homicides or drug related (Slevin, 2006). In a research study that sought to compare data on incarceration rates of various countries, United States was found to be six times more inclined to imprison any types of offenders compared to other equally developed nations in Europe (Slevin, 2006). The research study applied the Peace Scale of Punitiveness, a form of a scale that used qualitative and quantitative data to determine the relative rate of incarceration in a country (, 2006).

For instance, an offender in California who has been previously convicted twice for burglary would easily get a life sentence in the third time, in what is referred as the “three strikes and you are out” law (Parenti, 2008). The current US prison system continues to be fuelled by the public misinformed approach to crime reduction that perfectly serves the needs of the government in what has now come to be a glaring symptom of deep rooted society problems. Indeed the current prison system has little to do with crime control, or in that case rehabilitation of convicted persons as we have so far seen; in any case, if it was in anyway effective the crime rate would drop and less people would be incarcerated. During the 1980 decade, various research studies done by both private bodies and government attempted to determine the impact of increasing incarceration rates on the trend of crime rates. Many studies had at the time forecasted the implication of increasing incarceration rates by concluding that crime reduction would be achieved by up to 10% for almost all major crimes, but we now know that these findings were very optimistic if the current data is anything to go by (Parenti, 2008). Nevertheless, the government has been aware that increasing incarceration rate would hardly reduce the country crime rate which has kept on increasing ever since 1980 when increasing incarceration become the official policy.

Yet, more resources and funding continue to be directed towards this social program at the expense of other known programs that can significantly reduce the rate of crime. To compare the contrast in government funding, consider the fact that one in six government employees works in US prison system which gulps up excess of $60 billion per year just from the government funding alone (Struckman and Sickmund, 2000).

Further analysis indicates that 1 in every 3 persons of black origin was either on parole, probation or imprisoned with other research studies indicating that more than 30% of black Americans will be imprisoned at one time during their lifetime (Elsener, 2006). At the most extreme end, black persons are disproportionally incarcerated at higher rates than whites as is the case in West Virginia where Blacks persons are 17 times more incarcerated than their white counterparts (Elsener, 2006). The same case goes for persons of Hispanics origin who comes a distant second in terms of rate of incarceration (Elsener, 2006).

Since prison system is the major area of funding that most states spend on, the implication is that government has over the years cut back spending on equally more important programs such as education. In fact there is evidence that the government systematically continued to channel more funds towards an ever increasing prison system since 1980s while gradually reducing and almost abandoning other vital social programs that could have been instrumental in crime prevention and rehabilitation (Herzing and Burch, 2003). The result is the current prison system, which incidentally serves as the first line strategy of reducing crime, which is almost the only strategy of reducing crime in US.

In the ten year period leading up to 1994, when the government was rapidly expanding the prison system, California built twenty one fully fledged prison facilities while only one University was built during this period (, 2006). Over the 1980 and 1990 decade the prison system continued to receive increased funding year in year out while funding for other social programs remained dismal. For instance during this period in California, education funding increased by 15% on average while prison system funding was being increased at 209% per year (, 2006). Other social programs such as poverty reduction programs, convict rehabilitation programs, healthcare programs and urban development program seems to have collapsed largely because of adequate resource allocation (Henderson, 2010).

What the government and policy makers seemed to have failed is to realize the significant impact that proper implementation of these social programs would have made towards the reduction of crime rate, for instance the number of black persons imprisoned anywhere in United States is four times higher than those enrolled in college institutions (Henderson, 2010). Proper education program would have reversed this trend and thereby reduce proportion of black people ending up in prison facilities. In fact most of this social programs such as poverty reduction and drug rehabilitation programs would greatly have reduced the proportion of persons incarcerated in these prisons given that there is evidence that poverty levels and education are correlated with high crime rates.

One of the renowned research study that investigated the relationship between the impact of schooling and crime rate later in life and which have been cited in many other studies is the Perry program which has evidence that early education does indeed reduce the predisposition of later life criminal life (Wolcott and Head, 2010). It was a form of a cohort study that was done in 1960s which basically enrolled pupils from black and low-income neighborhoods in schools. These pupils were divided in groups and followed for many years with intention of determining their chances of engaging in criminal activity in their adult life in comparison with other group of youths that were not schooled in their early years (Wolcott and Head, 2010). The findings of the study indicated that indeed the youths that were enrolled in Perry program were on average only 20% likely to engage in criminal activities compared to their companions.

Current research studies indicates positive correlation between quality of social programs such as poverty eradication programs, rehabilitation programs and education institutions among others with high crime rates in a society (Wolcott and Head, 2010). This is because the underlying characteristics for most of these social programs have to do with promoting social factors that have now been known to be major determinant of crime rates in a society. Inequality in all its forms is a major causal factor that significantly contributes to crime rates in any given society (Wolcott and Head, 2010).


I propose to use a research design that incorporates both qualitative and quantitative techniques. A combination of these two research approaches will enable literature review and summarization of relevant data on key variables of interest that must be measured and analyzed during the data analysis process.

Since the objective of this research study is to investigate the effectiveness of US prison system and factors challenging it, through use of already available research, then the most appropriate research design for this research study is historical research design.

Additionally, because this is a desk-based review study, there will be no need for sampling of data or use of questioners for that matter; as such, the data for this research will be obtained from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics website which contains most of the figures that I need for the study. I will also obtain similar statistics from other countries for comparison purposes that will enable me research the objectives of this research study. Finally the data obtained will be organized and then summarized with statistical programs such as access, excel or SPSS.

Ethical Issues

Since this research study that I intend to undertake is basically a form of desk-review study I don’t anticipate any ethical issues in conducting this research study; more so, since the study will not entail interaction with any study subjects. The only possible ethical consideration that might be involved in this research study is my need to openly disclose and be honest in my intention when requesting for particular data from relevant government departments when there is need to do so and when the data is not readily available online.


Elsner, A. 2006. Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons. Washington, DC: FT Press

Glenda, O. 2010. America’s Prison System: Corporate Organized Crime Runs the System of Human Trafficking for Profit. Web.

Henderson, C. 2010. Modern Prison System: Their organization and regulation in Various Countries of Europe and America. New York: Nabu Press.

Herzing, R. and Burch, M. 2003. Challenging the Prison Industrial Complex. Web.

Lambert, L. & Walsh, E. 2009. Cost of locking up Americans too high: Pew study. Web.

Parenti, C. 2008. LockDown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. Washington: Verso.

Pendleton, C. 2009. How Does the US Prison System Work?

Slevin, P. 2006. US Prison Study Faults System and the Public. The Washington Post, P.A4.

Struckman, C. & Sickmund, D. 2000. Solution to America Prison Crisis. The Prison Journal 80 (4): 379–390.

Rivers, J. & Anwyl, R. 2000. Juvenile Assessment Centres: Strengths, Weaknesses and Potential. The Prison Journal, 80(1). 96-113. 2006. U.S has the Most Prisoners in the World.

Wolcott, D. & Head, T. 2010. Crime and Punishment in America. New York: Facts on File.

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