Our Prisons, Our Prisoners
DOI link for Our Prisons, Our Prisoners
Our Prisons, Our Prisoners book
This chapter looks at the reality of incarceration in America, and how conditions of confinement may constitute cruel punishment, regardless of the justification for the sentence. The discussion begins with establishing public responsibility for the actual conditions of inmate life in prison. Because the state sends offenders to prison in the name of the public, and because inmates have almost all aspects of their physical life controlled by the state while incarcerated, the public has obligations to consider the long-term effects of incarceration on inmates. A profile of who goes to prison with respect to basic socioeconomic status, education, race, gender, mental health and substance abuse sets the context for the rest of the discussion.
What is the purpose of incarceration? The ideological debate over penal purpose has long been waged between the need to punish—inflict pain on offenders because of their offenses—or offender reformation, also called rehabilitation. In recent years, punishment has clearly been the dominant force in the ideological arena in the United States. Yet a third value generally prevails in the running of institutions—security—usually defined narrowly as keeping inmates from escaping and correctional staff safe. A working alliance between punishment and security interests has insured that offender reform has received little attention or resources until relatively recently.
The problem of cruelty in incarceration is then considered in the use of solitary confinement. The modern growth in the use of solitary for disciplinary purposes in many prisons and prison systems is detailed, along with its rationale. The effects of solitary on inmates demonstrate the cruelty of its use over a prolonged period of time. Sexual violence suffered by the incarcerated is explored as another form of cruelty in incarceration. The harms of such violence are serious, compounded by the inability of inmates to choose their own living situations. Patterns of victimization in the wake of the Prison Rape Elimination Act are considered. The need for cultural change among those who run prisons is detailed.