American Prison System Reforms

American Prison System Reforms


Incarceration/ imprisonment is the primary form of rehabilitation and punishment awarded to offenders in the United States. The United States has the highest number of prisoners in the world accounting to approximately 25% of the total number of world prisoners, and this costs the government an approximate 80 billion dollars per year. It also has the highest number of its citizens in prison. However, there is also a good number of non-citizens in the prisons who have been arrested for crimes committed in the country (Walmsley, 2014). The level of recidivism is also very high as an approximate 23% of those that have a record of imprisonment stay out of prison; the rest are arrested for a repeat offense (Rosansky, 2010). This is such a high rate, and the government is carrying out different strategies to try and reduce the recidivism levels. One of the strategies is the prison reform system to try and bring changes where there are shortcomings and hence reduce the level of repeat arrest.

Recidivism is proof that the imprisonment process does nothing to rehabilitate individuals and reduce their tendency to committing crimes. Also, there may be issues with previously convicted offenders integrating back to the society once released; this might push them back into the offense. The criminal justice agencies should, therefore, come up with more effective programs that facilitate both the rehabilitation and integration back to the community of released offenders. Reasons that contribute to difficulties in integration include the low literacy levels, lack of skills necessary for interaction, lack of vocational job skills and criminal history. It has been shown that criminal offenders have a high rate of recidivism compared to civil offenders. Other socio-economic factors include sex, age, and employment level. Males have a high rate of repeat offenses compared to women, the price of repeat arrests decreases as the age increases and lack of employment is continuously an issue of imprisonment (Frantzen, San Miguel, &Kwak, 2011).

The central question in this study is, “do the American prison system reform reduce recidivism rates?” The research questions that are aimed at helping achieve answers to this question include:

  1. What factors constitute the high rate of recidivism in the American prison system?
  2. Is it possible to reduce the rate of recidivism in the American prison system?
  3. What measures does the federal prison take to reduce recidivism in the American prison system?

To answer the three supporting questions above and ultimately answer the core question, three relevant hypotheses have been developed:

H1- There are no factors which contribute to the high rates of recidivism in the American prison system.

H2- It is not possible to reduce the rate of recidivism in the American prison system.

H3-The American prison system reforms will not have an impact on the recidivism rates.

The research purpose of this study is to:

  1. To identify the measures taken by the prisons to reduce recidivism.
  2. To determine what the prisons can do to reduce the rate of recidivism.
  3. To find out the factors that constitute the high rate of recidivism.
  4. To determine whether it is possible to reduce the recidivism rate.

This research study is significant since recidivism is a significant problem that needs to be tackled. The society we live in needs to be free from violence and those put in correctional facilities deserve to have better lives after being released. The study aims to identify whether the correctional facilities have an impact on reducing the rate of recidivism. The study is therefore important as it will provide solutions and measures to be taken to reduce the rate of recidivism, and to promote a better society.

Literature Review

History of the American prison system reform

The Prison system in the United States has seen many changes over the years. In the early 1700s, imprisonment was under inhumane conditions, and this worsened for repeat offenders, third-time offenders were to be hanged. Overcrowding began to be seen in the 1860s due to long sentences given to violent criminal offenders. A study carried out by Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight during this period showed that the prison system was not aiming at reforming the prisoners, but instead, it was just punishing them. They came up with a proposal whose central idea was an educational program in the prison system; the National Congress endorsed this. Prisoners who performed well in their education could be released early Meskell, 1998).

The 20th century saw the introduction of medicine to the prison system. This is whereby psychiatrists aimed to understand the reasons why offenders were committing crimes and look for a cure for it. However, this did not bear many results since the recommendations made were no different from those that had been previously made (Walker, 1980). During this period, the probation system was also introduced to help deal with the menace. However, the probation officers had insufficient training with a large number of probationers. This made it difficult to monitor them, and suspension of the probation was made without following the proper procedure (Teague, 2011).

Thomas Mott Osborne introduced the mutual welfare league in 1913 in Auburn that comprised of 49 elected prisoners as committee members. This was a system of internal self-rule in the Sing Sing prison which was supported by both the prisoners and the prison wardens. He also eliminated the prison uniform and introduced recreational activities and movies. Progressive reforms were characterized by the emergence of prisons with an average of 2500 prisoners, run under professional management. This led to the elimination of inhumane punishments that had existed in the prison system before (Davidson, 1995).

During the 1950s, there was a wave of riots among prisoners due to the problems they faced in prison. Some of them included the poor quality of food, lack of medical care facilities, poor hygiene and use of excessive force by the guards. These were recognized as basic rights by the court system during the next decade. The 1950s additionally saw the change in the name of the American Prison Association to the American Correctional Association. This was aimed at pointing out the rehabilitative nature of the prison system rather than the punitive nature that people had gotten used to McKelvey, 1977).

During the 1960s, there was a reduction in the rate of crime, but this did not translate to lower numbers of prisoners. The numbers instead kept rising steadily. This was mainly because of the elimination of lenient imprisonment policies that were implemented in the late 1960s and 1970s. Sentencing commissions were set up which helped in establishing sentencing guidelines for different crimes. The most recent reform was by the Koch family foundations and other organizations whose main aim is to fight the criminalization and incarceration of individuals from minority and low-income communities. They also aim to ease the integration of released prisoners by providing employment and preventing asset forfeiture which denies the individuals access to the property they owned before incarceration (Emsellem&Ziedenberg, 2015).

Reasons for recidivism

Prison gangs are among the reasons why the rate of recidivism is high in America. They develop as a result of the problems faced by prisoners during the period of their incarceration. The gangs take up the role of providing security and management to the prisons. Those that are incarcerated are forced to join the gangs to be protected (Jacobs, 1975).

In most cases, the government and the prison system is aware of the gangs and in some instances, they offer them protection. This is because they reduce the workload of the prison wardens and also the operational costs incurred by the government. In this case, prison does not rehabilitate the offenders; it provides grounds to thrive and control even the street gangs from inside the prison. The possibility of these individuals being arrested again once they are released is very high (Skarbek& Freire, 2017).

Mass incarceration is seen in the American prison system where a majority of the prisoners are from Black Americans. The black Americans have been prejudiced as being more affiliated to crime, and therefore they are arrested more. The fact that they mostly live in poor neighborhoods has accelerated the situation. This has created a perception among the Black Americans that they are prone to crime and this drives many of them to crime. When arrested, they associate more with the prison system since a majority of the prisoners are from their community. When released, there are increased chances of recidivism since they fit in the prisons (Frost & Clear, 2018).

Imprisonment is under similar conditions regardless of the crimes that have been committed, and this is except for minor offenders who are detained in juvenile detention centers. Some individuals are conditioned to crime, and it is difficult to change them: This forms the majority of repeat offenders. However, there are first time offenders who carried out an offense without the knowledge or by mistake. Imprisoning these two can increase the chances of the second individual becoming a repeat offender because of the interaction they have while incarcerated. Imprisonment of hard-core criminals should be separate from the others to reduce recidivism levels (Singh et al., 2012).

The duration of incarceration also has an impact on the rate of recidivism. During imprisonment offenders learn the rules of the antisocial subculture from other inmates, thus the longer the imprisonment, the higher the chances of reoffending. The longer a person is set aside from society, the weaker his or her social bond becomes. These bonds can either be interpersonal, economic relationships or even workplace bonds. When these bonds are weakened, the offender finds it difficult to integrate back to society. They are therefore more likely to commit new crimes when they are freed from prison (Noguera, 2003).

Modern American prison system reforms

One of the reasons for modern-day prison reforms is to reduce the rate of recidivism. In addition to social stigma, those that have been released are faced with an approximate 480,000 legal barriers which make it difficult for them to get employed, housing and many other basic human needs and other things for them to be productive members of the society. The prison reforms have seen the equipping of prisoners with special skills, character development and education necessary for survival and success upon release; and this is achieved through prison programming which has had a tremendous impact on the recidivism rates.

Mental health is an issue of concern all over the world. Being imprisoned has been shown to hurt mental health due to factors such as overcrowding, violence, solitude, insecurity about the future, poor health, and many others. Prisons have also been used as dumping grounds for people with mental disorders. Introducing mental healthcare in prisons will help in reducing their occurrence and suicides among the prisoners (Jordan, 2011). Addressing these problems helps the prisoners to be better suited for the outside life once they are released. Better adjustment after release reduces the likelihood of recidivism. A study carried out on the impact of the provision of mental health in prisons showed a reduction in the number of misconduct incidents by 22% (Wilson et al., 2011). This shows that it has an impact on behavior which is a form of character development.

Drug treatment has also been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism among Americans. A study showed that among the State prisoners, 50% are either drug abusers or drug dependents (Beillergeon, 2010). Provision of drug treatment in the prisons is therefore necessary. It provides societal benefits since inmates that abuse drugs have high recidivism levels. This treatment should be followed by community-based aftercare for those prisoners that have been released. A study carried out in one California prison demonstrated that substance abuse treatment led to a significant reduction (48%) in the rate of reincarceration (Mitchelle, Wilson, Layton McKenzie, 2012).

The former United States president, Barack Obama, had plans of making prison reforms his legacy. During his tenure, there was a prison reform bill which was aimed at removing the three strike law which calls for mandatory life sentencing, give judges the power to make their sentencing rather than following the mandatory sentencing guidelines and reduce solitary confinements in juvenile facilities. During his tenure, there was a release of 6000 inmates which led to a reduction in the number of inmates in the American prisons. Securing employment for them also led to a further decrease in the rate of recidivism (Obama, 2016).

Educational and vocational classes is a program introduced to the prisons as part of prison reforms. A majority of the prisoners are illiterate and therefore do not possess the necessary skills to acquire meaningful employment once they are released. Inmates are provided with high school and college education together with vocational training to gain useful skills. Research carried out on this topic has shown that 43% of the inmates that acquire education in prison are less likely to return to their criminal lies. There is a reduction of 16% for those that are to reincarcerated. Prisoner misconduct is also reduced by 4% while their employment rate increases by 13% (Esperian, 2010).

Maintaining a relationship with family members and friends is the key to successful reentry to society. There are approximately 2.7 million children with parents who were primary caretakers in prison. Many prisoners do not get visited by their relations mostly because of the distance and the policies surrounding the visitation. Prison reforms aim at achieving positive change through the creation of policies which ensure that prisoners remain connected to their families and friends: This can be attained by considering the distance from family and friends for every prison placement and the expansion of prison rights. Through this program, there will be a noticeable reduction in recidivism due to natural and successful integration into the community (Mears et al., 2012).

The establishment of correctional facilities is intended to reform and protect the community members. Wrongdoers are expected to enter prison, comprehend what they did was wrong, change their behavior and come into the society as better persons (Benson, 2003). From the history of the prison system, imprisonment was meant to punish wrongdoing rather than rehabilitate and change an individual. Coupled with policies in the criminal justice system, these led to a high rate of recidivism. The government is carrying out prison reforms aimed at reducing the rate of recidivism and consequently protecting society in general. These include the provision of mental healthcare, increased visitation rights, prison education programs and many more.


The research will adopt a mixed approach which includes qualitative and quantitative methods. The quantitative approach involves the collection of data so that the information can be quantified and subjected to statistical treatment. A qualitative approach will be used to describe life experiences and derive meaning from the findings.

The study will adopt a descriptive research design and a survey design as it will deal with people’s views.  The sampling technique to be used will be the probability sampling since each element chosen had a known probability of being selected. Simple random sampling will be used to give everyone the chance to participate in the study without any bias.

Primary data will be collected using questionnaires and interviews in 100 state prisons.  Secondary data will be collected by reviewing other cases studies done on the same topic.  This will enable the researcher to make comparisons between the studies and come up with new conclusions based on the gaps of the research. The interview will contain both open-ended and multiple choice questions. The open questions will enable the respondent to give their views while asking questions and raising issues to enrich the findings. The questionnaires will provide anonymity to get a high response rate.

Data control strategies include piloting, validity, and reliability. Pilot studies are a smaller version of the main study. The pilot study will be conducted to ensure that the ideas and methods behind the research study are sound and will give results that can be acceptable. To ensure validity, interviews, and questionnaires will be used. This means that the data collected can be relied upon and can be used to provide solutions to the problem at hand. Reliability is a way of assessing the quality of the measurement procedure that is used to collect data. The data from the pilot study will be used to determine the reliability of the study.

Data collected will be analyzed effectively to extract the necessary information required. The data will be observed, which involves identifying the kind of data that is collected and the errors that are in it. Complete questionnaires will be compiled together and will be edited for completeness and consistency.



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