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How Atrocious Prisons Conditions Make Us All Less Safe

The American prison system seems designed to ensure that people return to incarceration instead of successfully reentering society.

  • Shon Hopwood
August 9, 2021
View the entire Punitive Excess series

This essay is part of the Bren­nan Center’s series examin­ing the punit­ive excess that has come to define Amer­ica’s crim­inal legal system.

Imagine one of those dysto­pian movies in which some char­ac­ter inhab­its a world marked by dehu­man­iz­a­tion and a continual state of fear, neglect, and phys­ical viol­ence — The Hunger Games, for instance, or Mad Max. Now imagine that the people living in those worlds return to ours to become your neigh­bors. After such brutal trau­mat­iz­a­tion, is it any wonder that they might struggle to obtain stable hous­ing or employ­ment, manage mental illness, deal with conflict, or become a better spouse or parent?

This is no fantasy world. Amer­ican pris­ons cage millions of human beings in condi­tions similar to those movies. Of the more than 1.5 million people incar­cer­ated in Amer­ican pris­ons in 2019, more than 95 percent will be released back into the community at some point, at a rate of around 600,000 people each year. Given those numbers, we should ensure that those in our pris­ons come home better off, not worse — for their sake, but for soci­ety’s as well.

Yet our pris­ons fail miser­ably at prepar­ing people for a law-abid­ing and success­ful life after release. A long-term study of recidiv­ism rates of people released from state pris­ons from 2005 to 2014 found that 68 percent were arres­ted within three years and 83 percent were arres­ted within nine years follow­ing their release. And evid­ence confirms the great irony of our Amer­ican crim­inal justice system: the longer someone spends in “correc­tions,” the less likely they are to stay out of jail or prison after their release. The data tells us that people are spend­ing more time in pris­ons and the longest prison terms just keep getting longer, and thus our system of mass incar­cer­a­tion all but assures high rates of recidiv­ism.

It is not diffi­cult to under­stand why our pris­ons largely fail at prepar­ing people to return to soci­ety success­fully. Amer­ican pris­ons are danger­ous. Most are under­staffed and over­pop­u­lated. Because of inad­equate super­vi­sion, people in our pris­ons are exposed to incred­ible amounts of viol­ence, includ­ing sexual viol­ence. As just one example, in 2019 the Depart­ment of Justice’s Civil Rights Divi­sion concluded that Alabama’s prison system failed to protect pris­on­ers from astound­ing levels of homicide and rape. In a single week, there were four stabbings (one that involved a death), three sexual assaults, several beat­ings, and one person’s bed set on fire as he slept.

Our pris­ons are so viol­ent that they mean­ing­fully impact the rehab­il­it­a­tion efforts for those inside them. There is an ever-present fear of viol­ence in our gladi­ator-style pris­ons, where people have no protec­tion from it. Incar­cer­ated people who frequently witness viol­ence and feel help­less to protect against it can exper­i­ence post-trau­matic stress symp­toms — such as anxi­ety, depres­sion, para­noia, and diffi­culty with emotional regu­la­tion — that last years after their release from custody. Because escal­at­ing conflict is the norm for those serving time in Amer­ican pris­ons (often provok­ing viol­ence as a self-defense mech­an­ism), when they face conflict after being released, they are ill-equipped to handle it in a product­ive way. If the number of people impacted by prison viol­ence was small, this situ­ation would still be unjust and inhu­mane. But when more than 113 million Amer­ic­ans have had a close family member in jail or prison, the social costs can be cata­clys­mic.

Part of the reason our pris­ons are so viol­ent is due to the idle­ness that occurs in them. As prison systems expan­ded over the last four decades, many states rejec­ted the role of rehab­il­it­a­tion and reduced the number of avail­able rehab­il­it­a­tion and educa­tional programs. In Flor­ida, which is the nation’s third largest prison system, there are virtu­ally no educa­tion programs for pris­on­ers, even though research shows that those programs reduce viol­ence in prison and the recidiv­ism rate for those released from prison.

It is not just the viol­ence that is harm­ful. How Amer­ican pris­ons are designed negat­ively impacts the abil­ity of people to be self-reli­ant after their release. Pris­ons create social isol­a­tion by taking people from their communit­ies and placing them behind razor wire, in locked cages. Through strict author­it­ari­an­ism, rules, and control, pris­ons lessen personal autonomy and increase insti­tu­tional depend­ence. This ensures that people learn to rely upon the free room and board only a prison can offer, thus render­ing them less able to cope with economic demands upon release.

The loca­tion of our pris­ons also causes harm. Many pris­ons are located far away from cities and hundreds of miles from pris­on­ers’ famil­ies. Consequently, family rela­tion­ships deteri­or­ate, impact­ing both pris­on­ers and their loved ones. Just this past Mother’s Day, more than 150,000 imprisoned moth­ers spent the day apart from their chil­dren. As chil­dren with an incar­cer­ated parent run greater risks of health and psycho­lo­gical prob­lems, lower economic well­being, and decreased educa­tional attain­ment, the aggrav­at­ing effect of impris­on­ment far from one’s family is obvi­ous.

The ill-considered loca­tion of pris­ons also increases the like­li­hood of inad­equate atten­tion paid to people with seri­ous mental issues, who are widely present in our pris­ons. Pris­ons in remote and rural areas fail to hire and retain mental health profes­sion­als, and due to a lack of such resources, misdia­gnosis of seri­ous mental health issues is more likely. And not only is the treat­ment of such pris­on­ers inad­equate, but false negat­ive determ­in­a­tions can also make it more diffi­cult for them to receive disab­il­ity bene­fits or treat­ment once released.

Pris­ons tend to rinse away the parts that make us human. They continue to use solit­ary confine­ment as a mech­an­ism for deal­ing with idle­ness and miscon­duct, despite stud­ies show­ing that it creates or exacer­bates mental illness. Our pris­ons also foster an envir­on­ment that values dehu­man­iz­a­tion and cruelty. At the federal prison in which I served for more than a decade, I watched correc­tional officers hand­cuff and then kick a friend of mine who had a soft­ball-sized hernia protrud­ing from his stom­ach. Because he was asking for medical atten­tion, they treated him like a dog. There was little empathy in that place. And for over 10 years of my life, when those in author­ity addressed me, it was with the label “inmate.” The message every day, both expli­citly and impli­citly, was that I was unworthy of respect and dignity. Such an envir­on­ment leads people to have a dimin­ished sense of self-worth and personal value, affect­ing a person’s abil­ity to empath­ize with others. The abil­ity to empath­ize is a vital step towards rehab­il­it­a­tion, and when our pris­ons fail to rehab­il­it­ate, public safety ulti­mately suffers.

In sum, if you were to design a system to perpetu­ate intergen­er­a­tional cycles of viol­ence and impris­on­ment in communit­ies already over­burdened by crim­inal justice involve­ment, then the Amer­ican prison system is what you would create. It routinely and persist­ently fails to produce the fair and just outcomes that will make us all safer.

So what can be done to fix our pris­ons? One of the reas­ons why our prison systems are so immune to change is because the worst of prison abuses occur behind closed doors, away from public view. Few prison systems have the inde­pend­ent over­sight and trans­par­ency needed to ensure that they imple­ment the best policies or comply with consti­tu­tional protec­tions such as the Eighth Amend­ment prohib­i­tion on cruel and unusual punish­ment.

There is no reason why our pris­ons should not be modeled on the prin­ciple of human dignity, which respects the worth of every human being. If you trans­lated that into policy, it would mean that people in prison would be protec­ted from phys­ical, sexual, and emotional abuse and would be provided with adequate mental health and medical treat­ment. It would mean prison systems would foster inter­per­sonal rela­tion­ships by placing people in facil­it­ies close to their loved ones and allow­ing ample in-person, phone, and video visit­a­tion. It would mean provid­ing train­ing on how to become better citizens, spouses, and parents. And it would mean offer­ing educa­tional and voca­tional programs designed to provide job skills for reentry, and beha­vi­oral programs designed to create empathy and autonomy, thereby prepar­ing former pris­on­ers to lead law-abid­ing and success­ful lives.

Shon Hopwood is a lawyer and asso­ci­ate professor of law at Geor­getown Univer­sity Law Center. He served over 10 years in federal prison and is the author of Law Man: Memoir of Jail­house Lawyer.