The US Prison System’s Size and Costs Issues


The prison population and facilities in the United States have been increasing over the past decades. The rise in the prison population is attributed to changes in the political system regarding the way sentences are executed. In 1960, there was a rise in crime, and this resulted to increased social division and politicized crime. As a result, the sentencing practice changed from the indeterminate way of sentencing. Today, there are a lot of constraints on the part of the judges and parole officials. The circumstance in which the crime was committed is no longer given an emphasis during examination (International Centre for Prison Studies, 2009). These and the increased fight against the use of drugs have greatly contributed to the rise in the prison population. In United States, incarceration is the main form of punishment for the convicted individuals. Probation is also used on some occasions where the person can easily be reformed without risking the safety of other people in the society (Mauer, 2001). In the United States, the prison system is run by the state and federal government. They have the power to control these institutions in terms of planning, budgeting, and expansion. In 2009, the country had many prison facilities that exceeded the 115 mark with the exclusion of military prison facilities, state prison facilities, and county jails among other forms of prisons that are usually outsourced by the governments from private companies (Lambert and Walsh, 2009). The number is still growing despite the efforts established to reduce the rate of crime in the country. Most likely, this trend will go on as depicted by the jailing system and policies that have been established (Lynch, 2007).

The American prison system is so overcrowded that it has reached a breaking point. In this case, the federal government is looking for alternative ways of bringing the figures down. This can only be achieved by first analysing the factors that could have resulted to the increased growth (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention, 2012). Pointing out of the contributing factors gives a long term solution that will control such growth in the future.


Jails and prisons have been established to correct deviance in the society. In the United States, about 85% of the jails are operated by local, county governments while the rest is operated by large municipalities and the federal government. They are designated for people who are awaiting trials or hearings as the case for immigrants. Also, jails are used to house convicted people who are serving for less than a year. On the other hand, prisons offer a long term confinement for people who are serving for more than a year due to serious offences. However, these two terms will be used interchangeably to refer to any facility whether jail or prison (Wolcott & Head, 2010).

In the early nineteen nineties, crime rate in America dropped and remained relatively low. However, the number of people being convicted has been on the rise. This is not proportional to the crime rate and is attributed to changes in the jailing policy. As compared to the past, each criminal incarcerated today has committed a lesser offence. This means that the some crimes that were not penalized in the past get a greater punishment today. Less serious offences have been advanced in terms of sentence thereby increasing the number of people who are being incarcerated (Benson, 2010). The increased rate of crime has even been experienced in cities such as New York, which are known to experience very high crime rates. The rate of crime has reduced by 75%. This is a big change when compared to the state of the prisons that seem to grow as crimes decrease. This is an ironical situation because it is widely expected that the drop in the rate of crime should automatically lead to reduced numbers of prisoners (Elsner, 2006).

A nation’s true picture is realized when a person enters the inside of the jails. A nation cannot be judged by the treatment it gives to its highest citizens but how it treats the lowest citizens. Since 1990, the number of people sentenced to the US federal prisons has increased by 106% while those in state prisons have grown by 65%. As a result, the federal prisons operated at 27% above the recommended capacity while the state prisons where between 13-22% higher than the expected capacity. All the states were 100% capacity and higher; none was operating below the maximum recommended capacity. This has resulted to conflicting views on the treatments that can be regarded as cruel in the jails. Overcrowding itself is regarded as a form of human rights abuse even according to the international norms. The US should conform to the international standards of imprisonment. Exceeding the recommended capacities isolates the country from the rest of the international community (Chung, 2000).

In this respect, the study aims at critically exploring factors contributing to this contrasting growth in the United States prison system. It will outline reasons as to why the growth rate in the prison population is not proportional to the recorded decrease in crime rate. This will be further explained by analysing how the current policies have contributed to increased numbers of prisoners. This study will investigate whether the US prison system is effective in crime deterrence and rehabilitation. This will be achieved by highlighting the causes of increased prison population. The intention of this research study is to generate knowledge that can shape future policies in this area. The research will also recommend ways of overcoming the challenges that face the US prison system thus strengthening the ability to achieve its core mission.


The objectives of this study will be in two fold. First, the study will analyse and come up with reasons as to why the prison population has grown despite the reduction in crime rate. It will highlight the events and activities that have promoted this growth. Secondly, the study will analyse how these events, activities, and policies have influenced the US prison system to become the highest in terms of population. It will further discuss how this system has been challenged by the current situation in its effort to rehabilitate and deter crime.


In this research, I hypothesize that the increased growth in the prison population does not imply an increase in crime rate. The rise has been triggered by other factors such as changes in policies and events. I also hypothesize that the government policies that have been established affect this system negatively. They are poor and inefficient in achieving the rehabilitation and crime deterrence goal. The conditions in the jails are not conducive to the prisoner’s life. The nation is not spared either because the resources directed to the prison system slow down other economic developments.

Literature Review

The evolution of US prison system

In the past, majority of the United States’ jails accommodated offenders awaiting trial; prisoners who were on transit; violators on probation and parole. This changed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and jails began accommodating a large number of offenders who were serving a term of more than a year (Carlson & Garrett, 2009). This resulted in increased tension and violence among the inmates as evidenced by the increased sexual assaults. This has resulted to ineffective rehabilitation and inadequate recreational facilities. The American Correctional Association (ACA) is an organization of correctional administrators who have founded a set of standards that define the conditions of confinement. However, this organization has not been effective in correcting the situations in jails. This is because facilities that do not meet the required standards are not sanctioned for failing in accreditation. Failing to take measures on these institutions only encourages them to continue admitting more prisoners thus the problem of overcrowding is not solved at all (Chung, 2000).

Trend on Incarceration in US.
Figure 1. Trend on Incarceration in US. Source: US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006.

At the end of the 20th century, sentences that required longer serving periods increased. This was brought about by the provisions of the mandatory three strikes. Another reason was the requirement that sentencing be done in truth. This meant that the bigger jails had to be converted into prisons to house more people who would serve for longer periods. The three strike provision required that individuals who committed a serious offence three times should be given a life sentence. This resulted in many people being convicted for life sentences and thus increased the prison population. The truth in sentencing sought to ensure that the sentence duration given in court is similar to the duration that the offenders served in prison (Carlson & Garrett, 2009).

Despite the fact that a decline in crime rate was taking place in the US, the government increased the number of people who were incarcerated and the rate kept on increasing. For instance, between 1990 and 2000, the number of prisoners rose to about a million to 2.3 million. Another estimated 5 million individuals are said to have been on probation during the same period. The difference in these figures is very big considering that the rate of crime had not showed a significant increase during this period. In fact, the criminal activities were low as compared to the past (Lambert and Walsh, 2009). The number of prisoners has increased due to the sentences given to drug offenders. In an effort to fight drug abuse, even the low level drug abusers who could be put on probation were given long sentences. When the three strike provision was applied, the number of prisoners serving life sentences increased at a very high rate. This is because most of the criminals were convicted for abusing drugs. It could have been avoided by simply addressing the low level drug abusers as people who were reforming and put them on probation. That way, the number of prisoners serving long sentences would be low (Pendleton, 2009).

Another reason for an increased prison population in the US is the nature of sentences that offenders are given. Some of the offences committed are not proportional to the sentences granted. For instance, the drug abusers put on life sentence due to the three strike provision was unreasonable. This is because such deviance is common and can be corrected by employing other correction means like rehabilitation. Introducing more rehabilitation centres other than prisons would have served better to eliminate the overcrowding that has been witnessed in the prisons. When the service duration given to prisoners is increased, that means that the offenders are bound to keep increasing. This is because the number of those completing their sentences is low. There was more entrance than exits (Mauer, 2001; Slevin, 2006).

Figure 2. Sentenced State and Federal Prisoners by Age, 1995- 2010. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoner Series, 1995 – 2010.

Year Total Percent Change in Total Age 55 or Older Percent Change in 55 or older
1995 1,085,369 32600
1996 1,138,984 4.9% n/a n/a
1997 1,195,498 5.0% 41070 n/a
1998 1,195,498 4.2% 42966 4.6%
1999 1,304,074 4.7% 43300 0.8%
2000 1,329,367 1.9% 44200 2.1%
2001 1,345,217 1.2% 40200 -9.0%
2002 1,380,516 2.6% 40800 1.5%
2003 1,380,516 2.0% 60300 47.8%
2004 1,380,516 1.8% 69900 15.9%
2005 1,462,866 2.0% 66500 -4.9%
2006 1,504,660 2.9% 80200 20.6%
2007 1,532,850 1.9% 76600 -4.5%
2008 1,547,742 1.0% 77800 1.6%
2009 1,550,196 0.2% 79100 1.7%
2010 1,543,206 -0.5% 124,400, 57.3%

Immigration is another factor that is attributed to the increased numbers of prisoners. This is because it has contributed to increased population hence greater cases of deviant activities. When this is coupled with the new provisions of sentencing, then the number of people being incarcerated also increases. Cases of high population also imply higher chances of crimes being committed, especially the crime of drug abuse that has contributed to the high numbers (Mauer, 2001). Close to immigration is the issue of communities that earn low incomes. For instance, low level offences like prostitution have contributed to a large number of people serving sentences in jail. Unlike before when offences like prostitution were given shorter sentences, today this offence is given a longer period. This means that the longer the sentence period, the more the number of people serving minor offences. This is made worse due to the notion that the bails given are unaffordable to these people. Once convicted, they do not have another option apart from serving their sentences to completion. This affects both the numbers and cost of supporting the increased number of prisoners (Wolcott & Head, 2010).

The criminal offender record indicator was established to protect the privacy of people who have criminal records. However, this organization has advanced such that it no longer protects this privacy, but has given this information to the public. Today, many people including business owners, landlords, institutions for education, and potential employers among others have this information. This has complicated the situation for people who leave jail to obtain jobs or other sources of income. They opt for criminal activities that land them to the prisons again. When this happens repeatedly, they are given longer sentences thereby increasing this population. Supplying the criminal record information to the society denies reformed ex-prisoners from gaining a decent source of income that only serves to worsen the situation. If the privacy of these individuals is maintained, these people are likely to advance in life and leave criminal activities (Zhang, Maxwell & Vaughn, 2009). Minimum sentencing has been made mandatory, and prisoners who have proved to be reformed cannot be freed before a given duration is complete. This has resulted to crowded prisons, and this could easily be avoided by observing prisoners and releasing those fit to interact with other people in the society (Zhang, Maxwell & Vaughn, 2009).

Some acts that have had people convicted and sent to prison can be regarded as trivial. In the past, such acts were punished through probation. However, they have been criminalized in modern times. This has resulted to greater numbers of people in jails and prisons. When the number of criminal offences is increased by the raised classification of criminal activities, the number of offenders also increases. This makes the rate of imprisonment un-proportional to the rate of criminal activities. Parole officers have also encouraged people to be sent back to prison for minor offences. Instead of impeding re-entry of these people in the prison, they support it and sent many of them back. This may not serve to reduce the rate of criminal activities, but just increase the number of people in the prisons. Therefore, the denial of parole does not serve to reduce the rate of criminal activities. The situation can be improved by granting the reformed people paroles so that they can begin developing their lives and leave criminal activities (Fox, 2008).

The court system has also been identified as contributing factor to the unreasonable sentences given to offenders. The public defenders are burdened by the increased court cases. The pay is not proportional to the work load and thus they cannot file a vigorous defence. When the number of activities termed as criminal is increased, the cases also increase, and this leads to increased sentences. “Zero tolerance” policies have also contributed to the increased court cases that have overwhelmed the court system. Today, the number of students being denied chances to continue with their high school education has increased as compared to the past. Rebellious students were offered chances to enrol after school detention programs or suspensions. Now, they are suspended from school for longer durations and worse still, in other cases, they are expelled. Since lack of high school qualifications decreases the chances of getting a decent livelihood, high school dropouts are attracted to crime. Membership in labour unions also gave rise to increased demonstrations and violence that resulted in many of the demonstrators being imprisoned (Rivers and Anwyl, 2000).

The US Policy on crime

Criminalizing trivial offences and giving severe punishments for lesser crimes was meant to discourage people from engaging in criminal activities. However, this did not give the expected results, but served to increase the prison population. This is because the crimes that were given other forms of punishment other than imprisonment saw people get sentenced to serve prison terms. The jails were no longer served short term sentences, but also those who served longer sentences. Considering that the sentences granted were longer than usual, these offenders did not replace those leaving, but just increased the population. The people who left these prisons developed post-incarceration syndrome in which the ex-prisoners felt that they were not useful to the society. This was as a result of the harsh conditions in the jails. Not only did they experience physical abuse, but also verbal abuse. This became embedded in their minds. Once freed, these individuals became social misfits. They became helpless and engaged in criminal activities. This resulted to recidivism where the released prisoners ended up in prison once they were released. It could have been better if the low level offenders were subjected to other forms of punishment other than prisons. This way, they are not likely to suffer from psychological issues that promote deviance (Parenti, 2008; Wolcott & Head, 2010).

Unlike in the past when going to prison suggested extreme deviance; nowadays, it is common for young men. Imprisonment has become a predictable experience. This is as a result of the mass imprisonment that has been experienced in the past decades. This has made the young people become less weary of imprisonment leading to increased cases of deviance and criminal activities (Clear, Cole & Reisig, 2013). According to statistics, the number of people incarcerated is about 2.1 million. Those on probation also exceed the recommended number (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012). These figures have made the young people view imprisonment as a normal part of life. Such an attitude only serves to increase the rate of crime, and this result to multiplication of the numbers in the prisons.

Proportion of persons incarcerated in US prisons.
Figure 3: Proportion of persons incarcerated in US prisons. Source: US Census Bureau (2012).

Privatization of the prisons has become an emerging business in which the business owners seek to recruit as many people as possible (Langan and Levin, 2002). It is no longer a corrective institution, but a place where people invest to make profits. Traditionally, prisons were meant to correct deviance, and this was treated as a last option. However, this has changed. Today, private institutions look forward to recruiting as many prisoners as possible. The prisons are overcrowded and do not offer adequate services to the inmates. The prisoners are likely to find themselves in the prisons after release because they do not gain enough skills and guidance to sustain them once they are freed (Andrew, 2007). It is evident that the interests of the public prison facilities and the private ones are the complete opposite. The private ones are profit oriented and thus concentrate on cutting down cost. This is at the expense of the prisoners as they end up living in poor conditions. The corrective services offered are also poor and may not benefit the prisoners in the long run. This congestion leads to the abuse of human rights (Pozen, 2003; Smith, 1993). Running prisons privately is a practice that dates back to the colonization period. The English colonists brought convicted felonies into the United States by promising them pardon only if they agreed to be their slaves. The United States adopted this practice because it gave them the opportunity to handle many convicts at no extra cost (Austin and Coventry, 2001).

Notably, the privatization of prisons was introduced so that public prisons could be decongested. This was based on the assumption that longer prison sentences would discourage nationals from engaging in deviant activities (Shapiro, 2011). This has not been the case as it did not decongest the existing prisons, but provided room to accommodate more prisoners. Cutting down cost was also another factor that has not been achieved through privatization of prisons. As the prison facilities increased, the number of prisoners also increased (Moore, 1998). The assumption that the private, prison facilities would offer superior services was wrong. This is because they also became crowded and could not support the increasing number of prisoners adequately (Chan, 1994; Garofalo, 2008; Cooper and Williams, 2005).

As outlined in the data analysis, the issue of national recidivism has not amounted to any significant changes in recidivism. There has been an increase in prison facilities through privatization. However, the quality of services offered is poor. The prisons are overcrowded and deprived of a decent life (Dixon, Kouzmin & Korac-Kakbadse, 1996; Taylor and Warrack, 1998; Farabee & Knight, 2002). The policies, which have been established to discourage crime, are the major causes of increased incarceration. It has increased the rate of prison admissions while those released are limited (Central Intelligence Agency, 2012).


The prison population in the US has grown at a very alarming rate (Holleman, McChesney, Foster & Jonna, 2009). In order to establish the reason as to why more prisoners are being admitted than released in the US prisons, I have largely relied on secondary data. Qualitative data from secondary sources will be obtained from files and reports. This will be carried out through literature review focusing on reported figures and comparisons of prison populations for different progressive years. Therefore, the research design to be used will be both the qualitative and quantitative methods. These are the most convenient for measuring, summarizing, and analysing the data obtained. Given that the objective of this research study is to establish why the prison numbers have increased, the past data records are useful in comparing the situation in present and the past. The descriptive design of research is the most applicable in establishing the causes of the present trends in imprisonment.

The approach towards this study is not only descriptive, but also explanatory. This is because it compares the prison population in the past and present. It also seeks to explain the disparities obtained from the comparison of these figures to explain why the prison population is on the increase. Developmental research design will also be used to establish the incarceration patterns in the past and compare them with the present ones. It will employ the causal comparative research design to bring out the already existing causes of increased prison population, which have existed but have not been discovered. Therefore, it will be deductive in nature since the data and information will be obtained from past records to explain the present condition. The information provided by other researchers will be used to evaluate the data obtained to establish the reasons as to why more people are being incarcerated. Meaningful knowledge will be obtained through the analysis and evaluation of the data obtained from the existing literature and theories.

For this study, sampling of the data was not necessary because it was obtained from the US Bureau of statistics records and various reports and publications that contain most of the statistics used in this study. This will further be compared with similar reports and statistics from other countries to ensure that the study’s objective is addressed adequately. Since this study is also directed at providing knowledge on how the current situation can be avoided in future, literature review will also form an integral part of this knowledge generation. In conclusion, the data obtained will be organized, and an analysis made to provide meaningful trends that are useful in explaining the turn of events observed in the past. This will consequently generate knowledge to explain these events. This can be applied to improve the present situation.

Ethical Issues

Ethics form an integral part of any research study that is carried out (Gilgun, Daly & Handel, 1997). For this case, there was no direct contact with the respondents who would need confidentiality and privacy. The data was obtained from websites, reports, and publications that are publicly available. Therefore, the study adopts the ethics previously applied in generating this information. In this case, there was no primary data used in this study. Thus, there were no ethical considerations that were observed.

Data Analysis

This study’s main objective is to establish the causes of the increased prison population in the United States. This will help in accessing the effectiveness of the prison system. It will serve the purpose of validating or disregarding the fact that the crime rate is not the sole reason for the high number of prisoners.

Trend in incarceration rates in US prisons (1920-2006).
Figure 4: Trend in incarceration rates in US prisons (1920-2006). Source: US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006.

From this figure, it is evident that the rate of incarceration changed abruptly from the 1980s and kept rising steadily up to 2000 and beyond. This can also be compared with the figure below to establish the similarity in the data provided.

Trend in incarceration rates in US prisons per 100,000 (1925-2007).
Figure 5: Trend in incarceration rates in US prisons per 100,000 (1925-2007). Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Both figures indicate that the change in the rate of incarceration in the past is different from the recent one. This implies that there could have been a driving force as to why the trend changed from the 1980s and shot up at once. In between 1980 and 2000, the rate at which people were incarcerated was seven times more as compared to the period before the 1980s. The difference in the two decades is incomparable. It is obvious that there was no smooth transition for the era before the 1980s and thereafter. This observation leads to an important concern for this study. The increased rate of incarceration is triggered by factors that did not exist in the past. There are reasons as to why the number of prisoners increased abruptly to unacceptable levels. From this observation, it is obvious that the lengthened prison sentences, increased incarceration rates for the growing numbers of offences, and denial of parole have contributed to the situation. This is because the incarceration rate does not match the crime rate that was witnessed during this period. While the crimes committed remain similar in numbers and nature, the number of people incarcerated has increased.

Annual change in total number of prison and jail inmates in custody and prison inmates in custody, 2000-2006.
Figure 6. Annual change in total number of prison and jail inmates in custody and prison inmates in custody, 2000-2006. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin..

From the figure above, it is clear that the number of people in jails increased at the same rate as the number of the people in prison. This means that, as the total number of people who were serving long term sentences was increasing, those serving short term sentences also increased. Therefore, when the trivial offences were being criminalized, the other offences were also upgraded to warrant severe sentences. Jails are no longer serving the people on short term sentences below one year only, but also longer sentences. This is due to the increased sentences on the offences that attract jail terms. It means that the same offences committed during the past warrant people to stay in jails for longer. This is different from the past when these offences were punished with short sentences. Essentially, these offences are now attracting longer sentences in the jails.

For serious crimes, the sentences are lengthened and thus the number of people in the prisons keeps accumulating. This is because very few are being released. Therefore, the jail population increases as the prison population increases. The number of people in jails has been raised by the trivial offences that have been criminalized. The prisons can no longer support the growing numbers. Therefore, some of the population has been extended to serve for longer sentences in jails. This is contrary to the initial function of prisons, which acted as a place for people serving a sentence that is less than a year.

US serious crime rate (violent crimes and homicides) per 100,000 over the years (1960-2007)..
Figure 7: US serious crime rate (violent crimes and homicides) per 100,000 over the years (1960-2007). Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

According to the figure above, crime rate increased rapidly from the 1960s up to the 1980s. After the 1980s, this rate slowed down and continued with the same trend even in the 21st century. It is ironic that the rate of incarceration increased in the 1980s when the criminal activities had started stabilising. From this observation, it is implied that other factors excluding crime rate led to the high rate of incarceration. The US is at par with other developed countries such as Russia and China in terms of crime rate. However, the country is way ahead in terms of incarceration. This raises concern as to whether the US policies on crime are efficient in reducing crime (Clear, Cole & Reisig, 2013). Notably, it is true that most of the people in the prisons are serving for less serious offences given that the rate of crime in serious offences has decreased. The prison system is not effective because it keeps increasing the prison population despite the supposed tough measures on the offenders. If the rehabilitation process was effective, then it is expected that the number of prisoners would be decreasing as crime rate decreased.

The results of the tougher punishment introduced on crimes should be reflected through reduced numbers of prisoners. On the contrary, the tough measures introduced served to attract more people into the prisons. This implies that the tough measures introduced are not effective because they have resulted in increased costs of maintaining the prison population. Given that the crime rate has decreased, it would be sensible if this was promoted further by introducing other forms of corrective measures on trivial offences. This is because the number of individuals sentenced for lesser offences keeps growing while those who have committed more serious offences decrease.

A comparison of countries globally based on their incarceration rates.
Figure 8: A comparison of countries globally based on their incarceration rates. Source: World Prison Population List (8th edition) 2009.

The US is leading globally with the highest incarceration rates of about 750 people per every 100,000. When compared to other developed nations like Russia and China, the US rate is much higher. Therefore, its incarceration rate cannot be attributed to the crime rate, but the sentencing system. About 25% of all prisoners are incarcerated in the US. This is a big percentage given that other countries like India have a bigger population than the US. When compared to Russia at 19%, the US is leading with a big gap (World Prison Population List, 2009). From this analysis, the rate of incarceration in the US cannot be compared to the rate in other nations that are equally developed or the developing ones. If the US crime rate is similar to that of other developed nations like China, then it is also expected that the incarceration rate should be similar. This is because incarceration is determined by the rate of criminal activities in any given country. The fact that the US incarceration rate is the opposite of the crime rate indicates that its prison system is failing in its policies and sentencing procedures.

Trend in cost of incarceration in US prisons (1987-2007).
Figure 8: Trend in cost of incarceration in US prisons (1987-2007). Source: National Association of State Budget Officers (2012).

The cost incurred on incarceration has been rising steadily from the year 1987 and continued rising even in the late 2000s. This means that the prison facilities’ budgets kept increasing to support the growing number of prisoners and expansion. When compared to 1987, there was a 125% increase in the amount of funds directed towards the prisons in 2007. This implies that there was no standard allocation of prison funds in the country. This was determined by the increasing numbers in the prison population. Such a trend raises issues of concern as to whether the US will support its prison system in the future if the same trend continues.

Comparison of percentage increase on spending between prisons and education system in US for a span of 20 years (1987-2007).
Fig 9: Comparison of percentage increase on spending between prisons and education system in US for a span of 20 years (1987-2007).

The increasing number of prisoners in jails and prisons has increased the costs in the prison system. The prisons’ fund allocation has increased by 127% while that for education increased by 21%. This is very ironical given that lower levels of education contribute towards the increased deviance. Such a comparison indicates that neglecting education can lead to an increase in the rate of deviance. If the opposite was practised, probably the rate of crime would be lower. The crime rate has decreased over the recent past. However, significant attention should be focussed on the education system because it empowers young people to be self reliant and innovative. This way, there will be limited cases of deviance. Therefore, the number of people being incarcerated for less serious crimes will decrease.

Direct comparison of national spending between correctional services and the education system.
Figure 10: Direct comparison of national spending between correctional services and the education system.

From the above figure, government spending is slowly diverting its attention from more productive system like education towards correction. While the amount directed towards education rises at a very low rate, the amount spent on correction rises rapidly. This should not be the case because education should be used as a tool to fight crime. For instance, the funds allocated for the prisons could be directed towards educating the youth on drugs. Since a majority of the people in the jail are convicted for drug use, this could be turned around by allocating more funds on drug education.

State Prison rate of recidivism compared against the release rate.
Figure 11: State Prison rate of recidivism compared against the release rate.
Bales, Bedard, Quinn, Ensley & Holley (2005).
Source: Bales, Bedard, Quinn, Ensley & Holley (2005).

From the above table, the recidivism rate for each state was used to determine the national rate. The difference between the two periods given is small and is given as 2.1%. This indicates that the number of prisoner released was approximately 0.5 million as observed during this survey (Lanza-Kaduce, et al, 1999).

California and Utah registered the highest rates of recidivism. This is attributed to the harsh and controversial laws that the two states practice (Henderson, 2010). If the prison system was effective, then the number of people being readmitted into the prisons would be decreasing. The overcrowding experienced in the prisons make rehabilitation in effective. If the number of prisoners was kept at the minimal, there would be adequate attention on the corrective activities, and this would discourage recidivism.


The effects of prison privatization on incarceration rates

Given that the private prison facilities are profit oriented, the main aim of imprisonment has been overlooked. The business owners are seeking to accommodate as many prisoners as possible for them to maximise their profits. The correctional activities are not effective, and this explains why the rate of recidivism is growing (Andrew, 2007; Maguire, et al, 1985; Chomsky, 1999; Glenda, 2010). For instance, the Corrections Corporation of America is regarded as the biggest private prison institution accommodating more than 75,000 people as at 2008. The institution has been expanding to accommodate more prisoners every year. This is an outrageous number, and the chances of the prisoners accessing quality services are limited (CCA, 2008). This only serves to maximise the institutions profits while neglecting the corrective services sought for the prisoners. This also encourages recidivism because the private prisoners will also be willing to take the ex-prisoners back and continue doing business (Andrew, 2007; Zuckerman, 2008). Since the rate of incarceration increased, there have been no positive results in terms of crime reduction. The private prison facilities are not result-oriented, but are driven by the booming business (Matuszak, 2008; Maguire, et al, 1985).

Prison privatization is one of the reasons as to why the rate of incarceration has grown. This form of capitalization has been treated as a form of maximising profits for the private institutions and in other sectors. Some companies have been known to cut down their costs by outsourcing their labour needs from the prisoners (Davis, 2009; Andrew, 2007; Schichor, 1995). Given that very trivial offences have been upgraded to become punishable in prisons, a lot of people have been executed in the US. For instance, organizing labour unions is limited, strikes are unheard of, and most of the benefits associated with employees have been scraped off due to the availability of labour from prisoners. This issue has saved some companies a lot of labour costs, and this raises a concern as to whether the driving force for prison privatization is the benefits that the labour market obtains (Davis, 2009). It is also likely that the correction and rehabilitation of prisoners will be ignored. This is to ensure that the prisoner numbers continue increasing for the sake of the beneficiary’s business growth (Chan, 1994; Herzing & Burch, 2003).

Prison privatization has been justified in that some of the money obtained from prison labour can be used to fund the development of these facilities. This is said to ease tax payers of the burden of funding the prison facilities (Logan, 1990). While this may be true, the main aim of incarceration is not to obtain cheap labour, but to offer corrective services to prisoners and reduce the rate of crime. This has not been achieved; therefore, privatization of prisons is not a solution to crime. It acts as a catalyst to the increment of criminal activities and deviance (Garofalo, 2008; White, 1999). Thus, it can be concluded that the US prison system has encouraged other interests of imprisonment to deter it from its core objective. It is no longer correcting prisoners and deterring crime (Herzing & Burch, 2003).

An explanation to US’s increased incarceration rates

Based on the progress observed in the funding of the prison facilities and the education system, there is a close relationship between the two. First, as the rate at which higher education programs is funded decreases, the rate at which the prison system is funded increases. This is a bad sign in that the two sectors may end up getting unequal attention from the government in terms of funding. This is a wrong turn because the level education influences the rate of crime experienced in any given nation. For example, in the US, lack of high school qualification is like a qualification to imprisonment. This is because people with a lower level of education are likely to lack skills that will give them a decent source of livelihood. They are likely to engage in deviant behaviours and criminal activities. However, if education is promoted further, it will empower young people to become responsible nationals and thus provide a long term solution towards minimising crime (Fox, 2008).

In the 1980s, the US changed its policy on the sentences administered to offenders. The sentences were increased and this resulted in insignificant releases and more administration. The issue of three strikes made the situation worse because the people who committed crimes repeatedly were given life sentences. In the years between 1992 and 2001, prisoners who were more than 50 years of age increased by more than 173% (Fox, 2008). As evident in the data analysis, recidivism is on the rise and is one of the major contributing factors in the long sentences being handed to offenders. Repeat crimes gain longer sentences thus majority of the people in the jails are serving longer terms. Very few are being released and thus the population keeps rising. This could easily be avoided by employing other approaches like probation for less serious crimes. This could also be achieved by granting sentences that are long enough for the offender to learn and reform. This way, the number of those leaving the jails will increase and the administration decrease (Struckman & Sickmund, 2000).

The initiative to fight the use of drugs is a positive one towards reducing the crime rate. However, the sentences granted are not efficient in terms of correction and cost. These offences amounted to a big portion of the prisoners and especially those on life sentences due to the repetition of such offences. Similarly, this could be avoided by offering rehabilitation centres for drug abusers rather than sending them to jail. The nature of sentences made for jails changed and people were made to serve a jail term of more than a year. Drug abuse contributed to the increased prison population which prompted the prison system extend the maximum period spent in jail to more than a year (Fox, 2008).

The irony of the US prison system

As observed from the data in figure 6, serious crimes have not been on the rise. In contrast, they have been reducing since the 1980s. This means that the majority of the prisoners are serving for different reasons rather than the serious crimes such as violence and homicides. This is linked to the upgrading of the crimes to attract more severe punishment than before (Liptak, 2008; Pettit & Western, 2004). Besides this, the US sentencing system is different from other countries. Whereas non violent crimes receive short sentences in other nations, the US offenders are given long terms to discourage crime. The rate of criminal activities is not solved by longer sentences, and it has served to multiply the number of the people in the prisons (Mauer, 2001).

It is uncertain whether the US prison system is effective given that more prison facilities are being introduced, yet the rate of incarceration keeps rising. The punishment has been increased to become more severe in an effort to discourage crime, yet crime rate has not decreased. It is evident that the US prison system has suffered its current situation due to a mere politicization of its activities, which do not add value to its objectives (Holleman, McChesney, Foster & Jonna, 2009).

US prisons rate of recidivism as a cause for increased prison population

Recidivism is a good aspect for measuring whether the prison system has achieved its objective of correcting and deterring crime. In the case of the US, recidivism is the main source of the prison population. The majority of prisoners are serving for the second or third time in jail. This is ironical given that sending an individual to prison means that the individual will be rehabilitated to come out more responsible and less prone to committing crimes. This is not the case because the ex-prisoners keep going back to the prison due to recidivism. It means that the former sentences did not serve to improve them. Therefore, the prison system is not effective in rehabilitating prisoners as depicted by the rate of recidivism (Lanza-Kaduce & Maggard, 2001; Fauntroy, 2009). Lack of proper guidance and correction while prisoners are serving in the prisons is a cause for the increased prison population. Given that the prisons are so crowded that the rehabilitation and the recreational facilities cannot serve all the prisoners, the corrective procedures are deemed to be ineffective. The situation only becomes worse because the prisoners engage in violence among themselves. They become increasingly prone to criminal activities (Pew Center on the States, 2011). This can be avoided by ensuring that prisoners are equipped with skills and counselling that will enable them to become productive citizens once free. This is only possible if the numbers in the prisons are kept at minimal levels. Overcrowding strains the facilities and services offered in prisons (Beck and Shipley, 1989; Mauer, 2001; Mckean & Ransford, 2004).


The high prison population in the United States has been due to other aspects rather than the crime rate. The rate of crime in the US has been decreasing as the rate of incarceration increased. This should not be the case because it is expected that when the rate of crime decreases, the number of people being send to the prison also decreases. Factors such as changes in the sentencing policies have greatly influenced the situation in the prison system. Sentences have been lengthened and minor offences criminalized to make the punishment significantly severe. This was meant to discourage crime, but this has not been the case. The policies have only contributed towards increasing the number of prisoners while the rate of crime remains the same. Lengthening of sentences, denial of parole and criminalization of offences serve to increase the number of prisoners while those being realised keeps diminishing. This has forced the government to allocate more resources to the prison system, and this will lead to neglecting of other beneficial economic development activities. Privatization of prison facilities has deteriorated the situation further because the system is no longer for correction and rehabilitation, but a profit oriented institution. If the trend continues, then the prison system is likely to have a population that it cannot support. The rate of crime will remain the same while a lot of funds get wasted in the name of crime reduction. Since crime has become less rampant beginning from the 1980s, it is advisable that some of the policies that promote unnecessary incarceration should be dropped. This will ensure that the prison system rehabilitates and deters crime and this may reduce the rate of crime at a lower cost. The prison system has isolated the US from the international community because it does not adhere to the internationally accepted standards of imprisonment.

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