In an article from New York Times, James Gilligan wrote, “If any other institutions in America were as unsuccessful in achieving their ostensible purpose as our prisons are, we would shut them down tomorrow.” Since the “Tough on Crime” movement of the late 20th century, American prisons have been bursting with prisoners. Imprisoning more of its citizens than any other country in the world, the United States has been infamously deemed the world’s leading jailer. Representing just 5% of the world’s population, we hold 25% of the world’s inmates, according to the ACLU. Prison Policy Initiative states, “The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails, as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”

With this many citizens behind bars, you would think America would be working to solve and prevent the issue, starting with current prisoners. However, little is being done to solve this major problem.  Responses to crime that rely simply on punishment, as suggested by the “Tough on Crime” movement, have failed to make our communities safer. Instead, they have produced an expanding prison system.

In an article by Claire Gordon of Yale University (you can view my personal annotations through the hyperlink), Ms. Gordon writes, “The idea that the prison system makes us safer is based on two principles. The first is that the threat of incarceration deters crime in the first place. The second is that criminals are isolated from society and rehabilitated, so that on release they won’t offend again. But the current prison system has failed to fulfill either of these postulates,” as suggested by current crime data. According to the FBI’s crime statistics, overall violent crime rose by 4.1%. About two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years, and three-quarters (76.6%) were arrested within 5 years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A penal system relying on punishment alone is clearly not the answer, and rehabilitation must be implemented as well if we truly want to make America safer and more successful for all, including former criminals. Unfortunately, we are neglecting that area, as well.

In order for the society we all desire, the American criminal justice system needs serious reform, specifically in the area of rehabilitating. In an article about juvenile detention centers’ rehabilitation programs, The New York Times’ R. Daniel Okonkwo states, “Prisons cannot provide the rigorous rehabilitation that the juvenile justice system affords youth. Prisons generally do not require that correctional officers receive appropriate training to deal with youth populations, nor do they offer training on the social, emotional or psychological needs of young people… Prison does not teach those skills that youth need to be functioning members of society, like how to resolve conflict without violence, how to get what you want through hard work rather than just taking it and how to work with others.” This is contrary to the ultimate goal of rehabilitation — learning to resolve conflict in healthy ways and become an active member of society.

Many inmates also have disabilities and deep-seeded troubles that go untreated. In her article, Ms. Gordon wrote, “The prison system is the way our society deals with the poor, drug-addicted, homeless and mentally ill. Sixty percent of inmates are illiterate. 60 to 80 percent have a history of substance abuse. Two hundred thousand suffer serious mental illness.” In order for inmates to have a successful return into society, these hardships must be addressed and handled with proper care. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case.

First, for example, a recent study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than half of all prison and jail inmates have a mental health problem compared with 11 percent of the general population, yet only one in three prison inmates and one in six jail inmates receive any form of mental health treatment. Second, suicide is the third leading cause of death in suicide, following natural causes and AIDS. Responsibility for suicide prevention in corrections has traditionally been placed squarely on mental health staff, but experience has shown that their efforts may be doomed to fail in the absence of adequate support and involvement of administrators and custodial staff. Third, prisoners are especially susceptible to returning to past demons, such as drugs, gangs, or alcohol, that led them to prison in the first place, which is why rehabilitation is so important. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law writes, “While in prison, most inmates receive minimal medical treatment for substance abuse, except for detoxification. Long-term relapse prevention is limited to self-help groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, and therapeutic communities.” Evidently, the solutions being offered are not aiding with long-term help for inmates.

America has a major problem on its hands, and sadly, one that is extremely overlooked. Mass incarceration rates paired with ineffective rehabilitation methods creates a destructive cycle. Lack of successful rehabilitation in prison system is not only failing its inmates, but also failing the rest of society in creating a secure, successful nation.


Copyright © 2018 Beth. All Rights Reserved.

  1. […] Crimes Against Humanity: American Prisons’ Ineffectiveness on Rehabilitating Criminals by Beth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. […]

  2. Mary 11 months ago

    Hi Beth, I am fascinated by your topic because it is so disturbing about American culture. We focus on treatment rather than prevention, in many areas of life. Your comment about how most inmates are mentally ill is something that caught my attention, because if anything those people need more attention and more qualified people taking care of them and teaching them how to be rehabilitated. This article is titled, America’s prisons are failing, here’s how to make them work, and will be beneficial I think to you,

  3. Isaac 11 months ago

    this is a really important issue, and I’m glad you chose it. I agree that there are too many people imprisoned in the US. We are too focused on punitive measures, and like you said, rehabilitation becomes an after thought. While prisons are a necessary part of society, they are clearly not doing their job. However, tangible solutions are hard to come by. Here is a link that can help with that brainstorming process:

  4. Isa 11 months ago

    This was a really interesting essay that you have written. I knew there were problems within our prison system, but wasn’t sure how bad they truly were. I agree that there needs to be a difference made, but I’m not sure where to start in that process. I am providing you with an article that has 10 ways to change the prison system.
    Great job, I am excited to hear more.

  5. Heather 11 months ago

    Beth, I really enjoyed reading your piece. I don’t know very much about the criminal justice system in the United States and now i feel like everyone should know this. I agree that we need to fix this problem, it’s not okay for so many people to be in prison not learning or bettering themselves. I loved the evidence you used to support your claim. Great job!

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