Addressing the Issues of U.S. Prisons

No doubt that the U. S. prison system has ballooned beyond anyone’s expectations, expanding from 500,000 prisoners in 1978 to nearly 2 million in 2001. The U. S. incarceration rate leads the world. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The yearly cost of operating U. S. prisons and jails is estimated at $40 billion and constitutes the nation’s largest, costliest program in human services (Marciniak, 2002, p. 10).

Taking into account its generally long sentences, and its massive increase in prison population (from 200,000 in 1970, to 800,000 in 1990, to 1. 7 million in 1997, to 2 million in 2001), the increase of prisoner population is quite alarming. Why should Americans be concerned about the overcrowding in prisons? Just take this case in Venezuela, which has some of the worst prison crowding problems in the world. Its thirty-three prisons, built to house 15,000 inmates, now hold more than 24,000.

In 1994, 274 inmates were killed by other inmates in Venezuelan jails. The system largely ignores all minimum standards of hygiene, medical care, and security. According to Joan Mariner of the Human Rights Watch in New York, “every aspect of the system is overloaded and not functioning (Times, 1998, p. A30). According to the Human Rights Watch, violence may be a factor in many prison deaths, but the most common causes of death are the spread of diseases and the subsequent lack of medical care that are promulgated by prison crowding.

As reported by some cases, inmates acquire HIV/AIDS as a result of sharing dirty needles or having sexual contact with other inmates; in other cases, inmates enter prison with the disease. In 1995, it was estimated that over 27,000 inmates in the U. S. prison system were infected with HIV or AIDS (Human Rights Watch Website, 1995). One of the more feasible options to alleviate the ballooning prison population would be appropriate rehabilitation programs for prisoners.

In fact, advances have occurred in many countries in the form of improved prison conditions and an increase in the different kinds of rehabilitation programs available to prevent the alarming increase and the costs of maintaining prisoners. For instance, German prisons are known for their extensive use of rehabilitation programs. In a study of five German prisons, it was determined that at least three features strongly support the rehabilitative philosophy: (1) unique environmental conditions, (2) extensive work and training opportunities, and (3) community integration programs (Dammer, 1996).

In the U. S. , nearly all states have established intermediate sanctions for certain types of offenses. Some of these alternatives are aimed at the offender: substance abuse treatment programs, sexual offender rehabilitation programs, work-release programs, and home surveillance. Other statutory alternatives, such as community service programs, day fines, and restitution centers, focus on restoring the community or the victim (Posner, 1998, p. 1947).

Fact is that many offender rehabilitation programs have failed to meet the objective of reducing recidivism. A study of prison rehabilitation published by Robert Martinson in Public Interest in 1974 became known as the “nothing works” report; many policy and decision-makers have been influenced by Martinson’s work. Martinson concluded that with few and isolated exceptions the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism (Murray, n. d. ).

Although proponents of biological theories that seek to explain crime by linking the social environment and human behavior as continuously mediated by the brain, sociological and psychological explanations for social deviance should also considered. As a consequence, many criminologists have concluded that while biological theories provides both a context for, and specific precursors to, social deviance, biological predispositions for behavior in most instances of human interaction are overshadowed by the role of volition, the mechanisms of human thought, and the undeniable influences of socialization and acculturation.

This is why prisons should move toward integrating rehabilitation programs into a more balanced corrections strategy, where lower risk inmates are transitioned successfully into the community, where they can move on with their lives and become productive citizens. And through adopting more realistic outcome measures for these programs, law enforcement agencies may help to bridge the wide gap between the public’s expectations for the justice system and what most practitioners recognize as the system’s actual capacity to control crime.


Dammer, H. R. (1996). Rehabilitation in German Prisons.Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 24(1–2): 1–10 Human Rights Watch Website. (1999). Insufficient Provision of Specialized Facilities for Seriously Ill Prisoners, Retrieved 22 Oct 2006 at http://www. hrw. org/reports/2003/usa1003/15. htm Kupers, T. A. Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis behind Bars and What We Must Do about It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999. Marciniak, E. (2002, January 25). Standing Room Only: What to Do about Prison Overcrowding. Commonweal, 129: 10. Murray, Iain. (n. d. ) American Experience of Rehabilitating Prisoners. Retrieved 22 Oct 2006 at www. civitas. org. uk/pdf/Rehab. pdf