Purposes for prisons in the US justice system


An analysis of the purposes for prisons in the U.S. justice system.

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The corrections system in America has historically fluctuated between being dedicated to incapacitation, rehabilitation, and to being punitive in nature. They can serve all three of these functions at the same time. Current trends in criminal justice remain focused on punitive justice that fosters prison environments lacking rehabilitative services, but recent scholarship and public policy have indicated a slight shift towards the root concept of corrections as a rehabilitative process that simultaneously protects the public.

Prisons serve multiple, and potentially convergent purposes, theoretically: to rehabilitate the prisoner, to punish the prisoner by restricting liberties, and to protect public safety. Deterrence is an indirect purpose of prisons. Ancillary purposes of prisons in the United States justice system include profitability, too, as prison privatization has proved lucrative for the companies with a vested interest. Halfway houses, which can be broadly considered part of the rehabilitation segment of the criminal justice system, are usually privately run facilities (Dolnick, 2013).

During the colonial American era, the purpose of prisons was more like what jails do now: places to incapacitate a suspect until he or she awaited trial or punishment. Prisoners were not held as a part of their punishments. Prisons were ” among the first public buildings erected in the New World,” and were considered as essential as a cemetery in every town (Lynch, n.d.). However, colonial American prisons were not “houses of punishment,” as they would later evolve to be (Lynch, n.d). The concept of the prison as a locus of punishment and a place to segregate criminals from society is an idea that emerged after the American Revolution. The Revolution caused Americans to question the power of the state over the lives of individuals, including those accused of breaking the law. Due process and criminal justice models emerged that questioned the saliency of the death pentalty, which had been widely used during pre-Revolutionary times (Lynch, n.d.). Values, social norms, and political philosophies related to criminality also changed, and so too did the demographics of the nation. The transformations in American society during the early modern and modern eras led to a transformation of the physical form of prisons and also “their function and their place in American consciousness,” (Lynch, n.d.).

The Pennsylvania System and the Auburn System reveal the conflicting purposes of prisons in American society. The Pennsylvania System entailed mainly solitary confinement and evolved as a means to encourage personal guilt and repentance; it was called the Pennsylvania System because regional Quakers, who cultivated interest in the rehabilitative model of justice, supported this penal model. However, the Pennsylvania System was considered too costly to maintain in the long run (Abadinsky, 2008). This model continues to influence the American prison system, even if its methods have been considered unworthy. The Auburn System emerged as a response to the Pennsylvania System. The Auburn system “attempted to break the spirit of the inmate and utilized hard labor,” (Abadinsky, 2008). Chain gangs are examples of the Auburn prison model. Auburn prisons were “cheaper to construct and maintain” versus the Pennsylvania style prisons (Abadinsky, 2008). These were the predecessors of modern privatized prisons because Auburn style prisons used prisoner labor for profit (Abadinsky, 2008). From Auburn System prisons emerged the Big House system, which remains the model for many American prisons. Big House prisons did not necessarily use prison labor, but they were likewise not developed to promote rehabilitation.

The philosophy of behavioral “correction” as the prime goal of American prisons emerged during the middle of the twentieth century but it failed due to policies that included “indeterminate sentencing,” which was designed with the notion that the prisoner would be released when he was “corrected” (Abadinsky, 2008). This model has also fallen out of favor with policy makers. Because of the failure of the Corrections model, there was a strong backlash against the rehabilitative model of justice entirely. As Abadinsky (2008) points out, the American prison systems reverted to the Pennsylvania model, in which strict lockups, solitary confinement, and a “just desserts” policy reigned supreme. This “just desserts” system prevails, coupled with an increasing trend towards privatization.

An examination of current conditions in U.S. prisons.

Conditions in American prisons are grim. The United States incarcerates a greater proportion of its population than any other nation on the planet, and has the highest overall incarceration rate of any other nation on the planet. There are currently about 7.2 million persons in prison in the Untied States (Tecco, 2009). Prisons are overcrowded. Gangs and violence flourish inside prisons. Corrections officers have frequently been implicated in prisoner abuse (ACLU, 2013). Human Rights Watch (2013) reports “abusive, degrading and dangerous” conditions in American prisons. Prison privatization has been framed as a form of modern slavery, due to the fact that prisoner labor is contracted to the privately owned firms without the express consent of prisoners (ACLU, 2013).

A review of programs that seek to reduce recidivism in modern prisons.

Programs that seek to reduce recidivism in modern prisons include prisoner re-entry programs. Re-entry programs are critical for reducing recidivism because they provide a structured means whereby former inmates can find work and social networks that prevent poverty and some of the social strains that could lead one to return to criminal behaviors. Prisoner re-entry programs include transitional housing, vocational development, and substance abuse counseling. Dolnick (2013) points out that traditional halfway house services are failing to reduce rates of recidivism and in fact may be leading to increased rates of recidivism: “inmates who spent time in these facilities were more likely to return to crime than inmates who were released directly to the street,” (Dolnick, 2013). Research from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections shows that 67% of halfway house residents versus 60% of those who did not spend time in a halfway house reoffended (Dolnick, 2013). Many halfway houses are “as large as prisons,” and foster drug use, drug dealing, and a host of illegal activities and violence (Dolnick, 2013). With a greater emphasis on filling up beds than on actual programs to help re-integrate former inmates into the community, halfway house models are being called into question and need to be reformed.

Because a third of all inmates “were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time they committed the crime for which they were convicted,” drug rehabilitation programs are critical to reduced recidivism rates (Morris, 2010). Drug rehabilitation programs can lead to an estimated 31% reduction in recidivism (Morris, 2010). However, drug rehabilitation programs are underdeveloped and underused by the criminal justice system in general. Likewise, educational and employment programs designed to help former inmates transition back to the community are underdeveloped. There are few systematic social networking measures to help prisoners become re-integrated with family and community.

A discussion about rehabilitative programs in prisons.

The Florida Department of Corrections (n.d.) is one of many states offering rehabilitative programs in prisons with the express aim of helping prisoners and reducing recidivism. Results of the program show that “inmates who complete programs are more successful after release than those who do not complete programs,” (Florida Department of Corrections, n.d.). Academic programs help inmates who were unable to complete a high school or higher education to do so while in prison. Earning the degree and learning can empower the prisoner to ensure access to well-paying and personally rewarding jobs in a legitimate labor market. The inmates in Florida who participated in the high school diploma equivalency program were far less likely to recidivate than those who did not receive any degree. Likewise, vocational program participants were “14.6% less likely to recidivate than those who do not complete a program,” (Florida Department of Corrections, n.d.). Alternatives to vocational programs are MBA level courses offered by non-profit organizations. These MBA-type programs are designed to stimulate the innate entrepreneurial nature of gang leaders and drug dealers, allowing them to channel that energy into the legitimate job sectors (Tecco, 2009). Substance abuse programs in prison identify the causal factors of many crimes that are committed and offer alternatives to imprisonment for persons who have substance abuse issues. Yoga, art therapy, theater, and music therapy are some of the methods by which prisoners with mental health issues can find access to the services they need (Tecco 2009).

Tecco (2009) presents a list of creative approaches to rehabilitation that are being practiced nationwide. In Kansas, prisoners are working with homeless puppies. The purpose of the program is to help prisoners “rediscover their humanity,” while the prisoners help to train the dogs for future use as service animals (Tecco 2009). The program therefore offers a return on investment.

An analysis of re-introduction to society programs, or the lack thereof.

One of the greatest needs in criminal justice is a robust program of prisoner re-introduction. The United States Department of Justice (2013) places the number of prisoners released each week into the community at 10,000. “For the communities to which most former prisoners return (communities which are often impoverished and disenfranchised neighborhoods with few social supports and persistently high crime rates), the release of ex-offenders represents a variety of challenges,” (United States Department of Justice, 2013). The Department of Justice currently supports faith-based prisoner re-entry programs throughout the United States. Prisoner re-introduction to society programs vary from state to state and county to county, leading to a lack of consistency in program availability, accessibility, quality, and implementation. There are no guidelines or rules by which to administer prisoner re-introduction programs, and no clear mandate for such programs.

Most communities lack comprehensive prisoner re-entry programs. Moreover, prisoner re-entry programs are sporadically designed, developed, and enforced. For reentry strategies to work, they must take into account socio-economic variables, issues like population migration, and the need to stimulate legitimate entrepreneurial activities in communities that are too impoverished to support their members.

Current approaches to protect the public upon a prisoner’s release.

Protecting the public upon a prisoner’s release is a primary goal that must be considered alongside prisoner re-entry programs. The Department of Justice’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS, 2006) reveals the ways law enforcement engaged in community policing programs protect the public upon prisoners’ release. Most prisoners return to the community in “major counties and cities” with large populations (COPS, 2006). Because of the concentrated numbers of releases in specific areas, there are “opportunities for place-based strategic reentry efforts, including enhanced services and supervision in a given area,” (COPS, 2006, p. 10). Working with the residents of the community, law enforcement officials can help citizens to participate in criminal justice by ensuring the safety of their own communities and enabling the organic growth of healthy neighborhoods. Because arrest frequencies are up to 40% higher for re-offenders than for new offenders, law enforcement officials at the community level are playing a role in protecting the public upon prisoners’ release whether they realize it or not, and whether the programs are organized or not. To protect the public, law enforcement agencies depend on public trust. Increasing that trust and public perceptions of law enforcement legitimacy are the most significant factors in effective community policing.

Law enforcement is working with policy makers to garner awareness and support for the needs of communities receiving large numbers of released prisoners. Community policing organizations are partnering with local community organizations, which can provide advocacy and outreach services that prevent recidivism. Key among the types of services designed specifically for reentry prisoners include drug rehabilitation, job counseling, and education.

New proposals to help protect the public and ensure that a prison does not re-offend upon release.

An astonishing 67% of American prisoners are rearrested within 3 years of being released (Tecco, 2009). New proposals are clearly needed, to help protect the public and ensure that a prisoner does not reoffend. The recidivism prevention strategy must be comprehensive and include interventions at the level of crime prevention, criminal corrections, and prisoner reentry. Only a comprehensive and multi-pronged strategy can genuinely reduce prisoner recidivism.

Creative sentencing is one way to simultaneously reduce the total number of incarcerated individuals and reduce the rate of recidivism. Prisons are already overcrowded and are presenting a host of ethical issues that are being largely unattended to by lawmakers. Creative sentencing reduces the pressures placed upon prisons, which are not equipped to provide rehabilitation services to the number of prisoners currently in need. Therefore, community-based rehabilitation services are recommended for non-violent offenders. Drug policies need to change, too, and responses to the problems associated with drug trafficking and drug usage must be more informed and sensible. Trafficking foments underground markets and criminal networks, which could be dismantled more readily if there were feasible means by which economically disenfranchised people could participate in the labor market. Communities that are impoverished and underserved breed crime, which is why a prevention strategy must include a comprehensive community improvement policy.


Abadinsky, A. (2008). Probation and Parole: Theory and Practice. 10th edition. Prentice Hall. Excerpts online: http://wps.prenhall.com/chet_abadinsky_probation_10/81/20953/5364166.cw/-/5364234/index.html

ACLU (2013). Prison conditions. Retrieved online: http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/prison-conditions

COPS (2006). Prisoner reentry and community policing. Retrieved online: http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/e12051219.pdf

Dolnick, S. (2013). Pennsylvania Study Finds Halfway Houses Don’t Reduce Recidivism. The New York Times. 24 Mar, 2013.

Florida Department of Corrections (n.d.). Academic, vocational, and substance abuse program impacts. Retrieved online: http://www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/recidivismprog/execsum.html

Human Rights Watch (2013). Prison and detention conditions. Retrieved online: http://www.hrw.org/united-states/us-program/prison-and-detention-conditions

Lynch, J. (n..d). Cruel and unusual: Prisons and prison reform. Colonial Williamsburg. Retrieved online: http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/summer11/prison.cfm

Morris, K. (2010). Programs to reduce recidivism among prison inmates. among prison inmates. Yahoo Voices Retrieved online: http://voices.yahoo.com/programs-reduce-recidivism-among-prison-inmates-7388344.html?cat=17

Tecco, H. (2009). Prison programs take innovative approach to reducing recidivism. Huffington Post. Oct 19, 2013. Retrieved online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/halle-tecco/prison-programs-take-inno_b_326020.html

United States Department of Justice (2013). Prisoners and prisoner re-entry. Retrieved online: http://www.justice.gov/archive/fbci/progmenu_reentry.html

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