chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
April 01, 2002

Behind Bars in America

by Joanne Mariner

Judging simply by the numbers, one might expect that the subject of incarceration in the United States would be too big to be ignored. Some two million adults are behind bars, and over $40 billion a year is budgeted toward keeping them there. But despite the enormous human and financial costs, there is little public debate over the country’s imprisonment policies, certainly much less than that accorded education, health care, and other serious issues of the day.

Recently, although with little fanfare, the country seems to have reached a turning point in its reliance on incarceration. For the past more than two decades, inmate populations across the United States have risen steadily. But in late 2000, according to the most recent official figures, the overall number of state prisoners began to decrease. Indeed, several states showed substantial reductions in the numbers of people they imprisoned, marking an important change from past years.

There are other signs, as well, that the country is taking at least tentative steps toward a new approach to incarceration. In recent years, if the topic was discussed publicly at all, incarceration meant little more than long-term incapacitation and wholesale punishment. "Three strikes" laws, mandatory minimums, and "no frills" prisons were the order of the day.

Now, although talk of rehabilitation still sounds incongruous, the pendulum may have begun to swing away from the harshest forms of imprisonment. Public animosity toward prisoners, encouraged by opportunistic politicians, probably reached its peak in the mid-1990s. At present, with so many "tough" sentencing laws having been passed, so many prisons built, and so many people incarcerated, the flaws in this punitive approach are becoming more obvious.

Accordingly, it seems like a good moment to examine the state of the nation’s prisons and jails. Where did we end up, after this more than two decades-long incarceration boom? In this article, I identify a few of the most serious problems that face aspiring prison reformers.

Two Million People

By any measure, the United States has an unprecedentedly large population of prisoners. In sheer numbers, its two million prisoners represent the largest known inmate population in the world, dwarfing that of most other countries. In terms of per capita rate of incarceration, the United States also ranks higher than almost every other country. Most European countries, for example, imprison fewer than 100 people per 100,000 residents, a rate more than seven times lower than that of the United States.

The racial make-up of the U.S. prisoner population also merits scrutiny. The inmate population is heavily weighted toward ethnic and racial minorities, particularly African Americans. Overall, African Americans make up some 44 percent of the prisoner population, while whites constitute 40 percent and Hispanics 15 percent (other minorities fill out the remainder). Relative to their proportions in the U.S. population as a whole, black males are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as Hispanic males and seven times as likely as white males.

Mentally ill people are overrepresented among inmates as well, leading some experts to view the nation’s prisons and jails as its default mental health care system. According to government figures, there are almost five times more mentally ill people behind bars in the United States than in state mental hospitals. Nearly 16 percent of all inmates are mentally ill, a much higher rate of mental illness than is found outside of the incarceration context.

Overcrowded and Overwhelmed Facilities

The enormous increases in prisoner numbers have led to impressive growth in state and local incarceration budgets, but still not enough to support the operation of high quality facilities. Prisons in this country are, in general, overcrowded, understaffed, and lacking in services. On this front, moreover, their problems appear to be worsening.

The country’s overall prison capacity has expanded significantly as a result of new prison construction, but construction has not kept pace with the growth in inmate numbers. Many state prison systems squeeze in many more prisoners than they were designed to hold, and some, like Alabama’s, are bursting at the seams. Although the degree of overcrowding varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, state prison systems are operating at an average of 15 percent above capacity, while the federal prisons are operating at 31 percent above their recommended capacity.

In general, corrections officials lack the funds necessary to recruit, train, and retain adequate numbers of staff, let alone to provide inmates with work, training, educational, or substance abuse treatment programs. High turnover in many prison systems—Texas being one of the most glaring examples—leads to chronic staff shortages. Besides working in a difficult and stressful job, correctional officers in many states are quite poorly paid, and thus likely to quit their jobs as soon as alternative opportunities present themselves.

The insufficient staff numbers and lack of programs are even more glaring now than in the past, as the recession has begun to have a negative impact on prison and jail conditions. Last year, for example, the Washington corrections department eliminated its law libraries, library staff, and college-level vocational education programs. The Arizona corrections department, similarly, cut inmate education, substance abuse treatment, and religion programs. According to the Corrections Professional, an industry publication, every state corrections department in the country was facing a reduced budget at the start of 2002.

Violence and Sexual Abuse

Violence, particularly by other inmates, but also by guards, is endemic to U.S. prisons and jails. In 1999, the most recent year for which data are available, more than 31,000 inmates were assaulted while incarcerated, a quarter of them receiving injuries that required medical attention. According to a U.S. Department of Justice study, 10 percent of state inmates reported they had been injured in a fight while in prison.

Rape is common and is a psychologically and physically devastating form of violence among inmates. Certain prisoners are targeted for sexual exploitation upon entering a penal facility, particularly those who are young, small, physically weak, white, gay, first offenders, or convicted of a sexual offense against a minor. In extreme cases, prisoners become the "slaves" of their rapists, even being "sold" or "rented" to other prisoners. Although no conclusive national data exist showing the prevalence of prisoner-on-prisoner rape, the most recent statistical survey showed that 21 percent of inmates in seven prisons had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sex since entering prison. Some rapes are extremely violent, leaving victims beaten, injured, and, in the most extreme cases, dead. Staff frequently ignore or even react hostilely to inmates’ complaints of rape, and generally fail to implement reasonable prevention and punishment measures.

Corrections authorities in some prisons and jails are directly implicated in abuses, beating inmates, stunning them with electronic devices, or even raping them. In Florida last year, an inmate died after being kept for a day in a restraining chair that immobilized him. In Virginia last year, prison officials suspended the use of the Ultron II stun gun, which delivers 50,000 volts of electricity, after an autopsy implicated the weapon in the death of Lawrence Frazier the previous year. Frazier, an insulin dependent inmate at Wallens Ridge State Prison, began struggling with corrections officers at a moment when his blood sugar was dangerously low. The officers stunned him three times with the Ultron II stun device and then placed him in restraints. Frazier lapsed into a coma and died several days later.

In some instances, entire state prison systems are pervaded with abuse. A March 1999 federal court decision concluded, for example, that the frequency of "wholly unnecessary physical aggression" perpetrated by guards in Texas prisons reflected the "culture of sadistic and malicious violence" found there.

The problem of custodial sexual misconduct last year—generally male guards sexually abusing female inmates—remains all too common. In recent years, however, many states have enacted laws criminalizing such misconduct and corrections departments have adopted programs to address this problem. Nonetheless, the investigation and prosecution of such cases are frequently hampered by lack of commitment or resources.

Super-maximum Security Confinement

Reliance on super-maximum security forms of confinement increased dramatically during the 1990s, as part of the trend toward "tougher," more punitive forms of incarceration. Inmates in such facilities endure twenty-three-hour-per-day lockdown, extreme social isolation, reduced environmental stimulation, and an increased likelihood of physical abuse by guards.

Last year, class action lawsuits challenged allegedly abusive conditions in super-maximum security prisons in Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia. A suit filed on behalf of Connecticut inmates housed at Virginia’s Wallens Ridge State Prison alleged that excessive force was endemic to the facility. According to the inmates’ legal counsel, prison records revealed that over a single nineteen-month period guards shocked the Connecticut prisoners with stun weapons thirty-three times, and placed them in five-point restraints seventy-nine times. Over the course of a year, thirty-seven Connecticut inmates were hit by rubber rounds fired by guards.

Wisconsin prisoners filed a suit last year challenging conditions in that state’s two-year-old ultrahigh security prison in Boscobel. Among the conditions described in the complaint were round-the-clock confinement for all but a few hours a week in small windowless cells, exercise limited to solitary activity in tiny, unheated rooms that lacked exercise equipment, and twenty-four-hour video surveillance that allowed female guards to watch male inmates shower and urinate. Those confined at the facility included eight inmates under the age of eighteen.

Mentally ill inmates were also held at Boscobel, a problem that drew judicial scrutiny. Plaintiffs claimed that the conditions of social isolation, idleness, and limited sensory stimulus aggravated the symptoms of mentally ill inmates. In October, a federal judge ordered the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to remove five seriously mentally ill inmates from the prison, to arrange for an independent psychiatric examination of all inmates with certain characteristics suggesting mental illness, and to remove from the prison any inmate revealed to be seriously mentally ill.

Closed to Scrutiny

There is little effective monitoring of conditions in U.S. prisons and jails. Unlike some countries, the United States has no official prison monitoring body. Responsibility for outside oversight of detention conditions varies from state to state, with some jurisdictions having few, if any, monitoring mechanisms. The American Correctional Association, a private nonprofit organization, administers a voluntary accreditation program for U.S. prisons and jails under which conditions and policies are evaluated, yet the majority of state and local penal facilities choose not to participate in this scheme. Some states have inspector generals or other outside monitors who visit penal institutions, while others have investigatory bodies within corrections departments that operate with a degree of independence. These states are the exception, however, while a lack of oversight is the rule.

Local jails, even more than state correctional facilities, tend to escape outside oversight. Some states have established state jail standards by which to evaluate the conditions in their jails, but compliance with such standards is largely unenforced.

The lack of comprehensive and effective outside monitoring mechanisms has meant that the federal judiciary has become, however reluctantly, a sort of default national prison oversight body. But over the past decade, even as the inmate population has grown, judicial monitoring of prison abuses has declined in effectiveness. The 1996 passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act has, in particular, made it much more difficult for inmates to secure legal remedies for abuses.

Future Reforms?

It is difficult to imagine that any country could house such an enormous number of inmates in decent conditions. Yet, as this brief overview is meant to suggest, much could be done to improve the treatment of our nation’s prisoners. Overcrowding should be alleviated; guard abuses should be investigated and punished; programs should be added; sufficient staff should be hired. Perhaps, however, the most effective first step toward reform would be to reduce the size of inmate populations by reducing reliance on strict drug sentencing and "three strikes" laws.

But an even more necessary first step, of course, is to engage in a public discussion of the country’s incarceration policies.

Joanne Mariner

Joanne Mariner is deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. She has inspected prisons around the world, including U.S. state and federal prisons. The views expressed in her article are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.