The United States Penal System
I have visited some of the best and the worst prison and have never seen signs of coddling, but I have seen the terrible results of the boredom and frustration of empty hours
and pointless existence.
-former United States Supreme Court Justice, Warren Burger
In a famous psychological study conducted in 1986, mental health researches held an experiment to see the community, things changed. The rats became stressed out, violent, and developed nervous twitches, as well as eating disorders (Cozzone 8).
God Bless America . . .
Every year, more people are arrested than the entire combined populations of our 13 least populous states.
America incarcerates five times as many people per capita
as Canada and 7 times as many as most European democracies.
America spends approximately 100 billion dollars a year on
the criminal justice system, up from 12 billion in 1972.
–Bureau of Justice Statistics
Many prominent government officials, government agencies, and non-profit organizations acknowledge that there is a serious problem with our penal system. There are many reasons and many possible solutions. Today, we will explore some possible solutions. Prison inmates are some of the most maladjusted people in society. Most inmates have had either too much discipline or not enough. They usually come from broken homes and have low self-esteem. Inmates are very insecure, causing them to be at war with themselves as well as with society (Szumski 20). Most inmates have not learned to follow everyday norms or strong moral values. Some believe, as do I, that if we want to rehabilitate criminals we must do more than just lock them up. For instance, we could develop programs that give them a chance to acquire job skills and a higher education, which will improve the chances that inmates will become productive citizens upon release. To be most effective, the programs must aim to change those who want to change, for those are the people who will change (or have a good chance). Inmates, when taught to be productive, are likely to develop the self-esteem essential to a normal, integrated personality (Szumski 21). These kinds of programs would provide essential skills, development of healthy habits, and replace the sense of hopelessness (Szumski 21) that many inmates have. Most of America’s correctional institutions lack programs of criminal rehabilitation. One can predict that a prisoner, after many years of incarceration without being educated, will have many more disadvantages upon their release back into society.
One of the major sociological theories of delinquency is differential association (Doob 169). The idea is that some people have learned their ways from undesirable people who they were forced to associate with and that this association warps their thinking and social attitudes. Differential association theory emphasizes that a person is more likely to become a criminal if the people who have the greatest influence upon them are criminals (Doob 169). In addition, sending a deviant person, who has been associated with criminal influences, to prison would just make the problem worse (Fox 61). Group counseling, group interaction, and other kinds of group activities can provide a corrective, positive experience that might help to offset the earlier delinquent association (Bennett 25).
One technique used to rehabilitate criminals is counseling. In general, there are two types of counseling, individual and group counseling. The aim of group counseling is to develop positive peer pressure that will influence its members. According to Lawrence Bennett, group problem solving has definite advantages over individual problem solving. One advantage is that a variety of solutions can be derived from the experiences of several people from different backgrounds. For instance, a group member might have already solved a problem that another member is experiencing and can offer valuable advice and solutions. Often, if a peer proposes a solution it carries more weight than if the counselor were to suggest it (Bennett 20-24). Ultimately, for the group to work it takes a dedicated counselor and dedicated group members (those with the desire to change) (Bennett 22).
Another technique used to rehabilitate criminals is a type of correctional center called a halfway house. The name comes from the fact that they are halfway between the community and the prison (Fox 60). The aim is to keep offenders in the community; thus, halfway houses are located in residential communities. The rationale behind halfway houses is that criminal activity originates in the community, so the community has a responsibility to try to correct it. Vernon Fox stresses that The best place for treatment is in the community; this prevents the breaking of all constructive social ties (Fox 61). Programs in halfway houses usually involve work release or study release, group therapy, and counseling. Most programs vary greatly depending on the administrators.
Generally, the purpose is to reintegrate members back into the community. There are three systems generally used in programs and in the process of reintegration: change by compliance, client-centered change, and change by credibility (Fox 73). The compliance model is designed to develop good work habits. The client-centered model focuses on a higher understanding of the person. The credibility model emphasizes making sound decisions and getting back into the community. These programs are designed to avoid institutions as much as possible (Fox 73).
California has the most people incarcerated in the entire world and has the largest population of female offenders (Chowchilla Women’s Prison) in the entire world. California also has the largest institution for the criminally insane (Atascadero) (Hickey 272). It should be evident, especially in California, that the penal system is not working as efficiently as it could and should. Locking people up is no longer effective in rehabilitating criminals (if it ever was effective). In conclusion, action must be taken to improve rehabilitation in America. Prison-alternative programs for non-violent and small crime offenders should be implemented or at least formally researched. Save prison for the hardcore, violent offenders because that is what prison is–a hardcore, violent place. Americans do not have the right to vote on prison and rehabilitation issues; instead, the government solely decides those issues. Implementation and improvements in job training, counseling, halfway houses, post-release programs, and community service, as programs of rehabilitation must be brought to the forefront by citizens. Millions of Americans must demand a change in the current system because nothing will change unless we do. There is plenty of evidence (thousands of research studies and crime rate comparisons) that supports a change. If we do not get involved and voice our opinions together and loudly, our crime problem could worsen beyond control.
Bennett, Lawrence. Counseling in Correctional Environments. New York: New York
University Press, 1978.
Cozzone, Chris. Welcome to Prison. 10 July 2000. .
Doob, Christopher. Sociology: An Introduction. California: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.
Fox, Vernon. Community-Based Corrections. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, 1977.
Hickey, Eric. Serial Murderers and Their Victims. 2nd ed. United States: Wadsworth Publishing
Szumski, Bonnie. America’s Prisons Opposing Viewpoints. California: Greenhaven Press, Inc.,