Examining Prisons Today

November 29, 2022

FROM: Vera
Reimagining Prisons Web Report
Full report here

Designed by Freepik

Designed by Freepik


Life in America’s prisons is dismal, and the brunt of these dismal conditions falls overwhelmingly on people of color and those who are socially and economically disadvantaged, the result of their systematic and historic economic and social exclusion from mainstream—predominantly white—American society.  Once in prison, their ties to that mainstream society are severed—often irreversibly—through prolonged separation from family and community. While behind bars, incarcerated people are subjected to degrading treatment, inhumane conditions, and abusive interactions—all of which result in substantial social, behavioral, and cognitive trauma that handicap them in their efforts to reintegrate into society upon release. In short, prison thwarts their chances for a successful and fulfilling life.

While some advocates, organizations, and policymakers have focused on improving conditions within prison in recent years, the isolation of prison facilities and the staff who work within them make wholesale change a slow and difficult process. Changes to practices are introduced slowly and the implementation of new policies and practices is imperfect. Still, in recent years, some corrections agencies have sought to improve life behind bars, for instance by limiting their use of solitary confinement and increasing the number of in-prison postsecondary educational programs.  Despite these efforts, prison life by and large remains rife with deprivation, isolation, and violence.

Who ends up in America’s prisons is the result of decisions made by numerous actors in the criminal justice system. Legislators enact laws that define crimes and set sentence lengths. Police make arrests. Prosecutors negotiate plea deals. Once a person is convicted of a criminal offense—whether as a result of a jury trial or, more likely, by plea—the judge must determine the punishment. Generally, judges are statutorily permitted to impose sentences within a range of lengths and types, such as probation or prison. Those sentences aren’t always served in full. Historically, and in most states still, after a minimum amount of time served, people sentenced to prison may be paroled at the discretion of a parole board based on behavior, evidence of self-improvement, and other factors.  But between the 1970s and 1990s, the federal government and many state legislatures passed laws limiting judicial and parole board discretion.  Policies in many jurisdictions shifted toward more structured and transparent sentencing schemes—meaning that the sentence for a crime was predetermined by law, and judges could do little to vary it. This generally resulted in longer sentences for all types of crimes.  These new laws included sentencing guidelines, determinate sentences (fixed prison terms and no parole), and mandatory penalties (such as mandatory minimum sentences, automatic sentence enhancements, or habitual offender laws)  Many jurisdictions also passed so-called “truth-in-sentencing” policies, which required individuals to serve a substantial portion of their sentences—often 85 percent—before they could be considered for release.  By the turn of the 21st century, longer sentences, combined with more aggressive policing strategies for quality-of-life and low-level drug crimes in many urban centers, resulted mostly in more people going to prison—and staying there for longer periods of time.

These people are disproportionately Americans of color. This is most visible in the number of black Americans behind bars, although other groups—such as Latino and Native American people—are also overrepresented in prison in comparison with their presence in the general population.  Today, black men and women make up just 13 percent of the country’s population, but they represent more than 35 percent of those incarcerated in American prisons—making black Americans the largest racial or ethnic group in state or federal prisons.

Other groups of people with characteristics that put them in the minority of American society—such as their sexual orientation or gender identity—are also admitted to prison at disproportionate rates. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual men and women go to prison at three times the rate of their heterosexual counterparts.  When women are examined alone, that rate jumps to eight to 10 times.  In addition, transgender and gender nonconforming men and women report spending time in jail or prison at rates double to quadruple the rates of the general population.

The people who enter prison today are also characterized by social and economic vulnerability.

The prison experience in America today is harsh, restrictive, and dehumanizing. No matter what the underlying purpose for imprisonment—retribution, incapacitation, and/or deterrence—prison by its very nature is intended to remove people from society and subject them to state control. That control is all-encompassing—the prison dictates the size, look, and feel of a person’s living space; the necessities a person can obtain (such as food, clothing, and medical care); and the activities a person can participate in, be they social, work, or educational.

In reinforcing state control, prison policies and practices are designed to diminish the self and weaken the individual. Prison life largely emphasizes two things:

  • the loss of each incarcerated person’s sense of self, autonomy, and capacity to control his or her own destiny; and
  • the inculcation of a carceral identity—one reinforced by the strict social arrangements inside prisons and the power imbalance between corrections officers and incarcerated people.

People carry the prison experience and the identities they developed under prison duress with them as they return home, and this impacts their future success, their communities, and their loved ones.  For many, they remain branded as a criminal—both in their own minds and by society. Elements of the current prison experience contribute to these results, including the architecture of prison facilities, overcrowding within them, and the use of solitary confinement. The experience of incarceration is further marked by a lack of basic necessities, meaningful activities, and connections with the outside world. All of this is compounded by the trauma of the prison experience itself and the loss of the incarcerated person’s constitutional rights.