“‘I’m beginning to believe that ‘U.S.A.’ stands for the Underprivileged Slaves of America,’ wrote a 20th-century prisoner from Mississippi in a letter detailing the daily violence he witnessed behind prison walls. His statement resounds with a long tradition of prisoners, particularly African-American prisoners, who have used the language and narrative of slavery to describe the conditions of their imprisonment.”  

~ Kim Gilmore, “Slavery and Prison: Understanding the Connections,” Social Justice, 2000[]Kim Gilmore, “Slavery and Prison: Understanding the Connections,” Social Justice 27, no. 3 (2000), 195-205, 195 (quoting Prison Slavery, edited by Barbara Esposito and Joe Wood (Washington, DC: Committee to Abolish Prison Slavery, 1982), which collects a number of prison narratives; in the letter at issue one incarcerated person had just observed another’s death due to guards’ failure to provide required medication to manage a seizure disorder).

"Daily degradations grind away at men's souls. As one prisoner explained, the [South Carolina] Corrections Department has reduced visits from family members, limited their ability to send food and there are now only 'two meals a day on weekends' . . . One man . . . sent pictures of the metal plates that prison officials put over the windows, meaning too little light and fresh air gets into this sweltering and filthy prison. Others have sent photos of the food they are served, which in contrast to the menu that the Department of Corrections posts publicly, looks barely nutritional. The men say it is sometimes moldy, and for those on lockdown, it is served erratically and cold." 

~Heather Anne Thompson, "How a South Carolina Prison Riot Really Went Down," New York Times, 2018.[]Thompson, "South Carolina Prison Riot," 2018.

Life in America’s prisons is dismal, and the brunt of these dismal conditions falls overwhelmingly on people of color and those who are socially and economically disadvantaged, the result of their systematic and historic economic and social exclusion from mainstream—predominantly white—American society.[]For more scholarship on the links between historical and modern policies, see Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 2010; Wacquant, “Rethinking Race and Imprisonment,” 2002; Loïc Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” Punishment & Society 3, no. 1 (2001), 95-134; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Austin Sarat and Charles J. Ogletree Jr., From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America (New York: NYU Press, 2006). Also see Ava DuVernay, Howard Barish, and Spencer Averick, 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay (2016).  Once in prison, their ties to that mainstream society are severed—often irreversibly—through prolonged separation from family and community. While behind bars, incarcerated people are subjected to degrading treatment, inhumane conditions, and abusive interactions—all of which result in substantial social, behavioral, and cognitive trauma that handicap them in their efforts to reintegrate into society upon release. In short, prison thwarts their chances for a successful and fulfilling life.

The underlying values of mass incarceration

Group Created with Sketch. Read more

While some advocates, organizations, and policymakers have focused on improving conditions within prison in recent years, the isolation of prison facilities and the staff who work within them make wholesale change a slow and difficult process.[]For example, in 2003, George W. Bush signed into federal law the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), S. 1435, 108th Congress (2003). The law requires corrections agencies to comply with minimum criteria to protect incarcerated people from sexual victimization and provides for federal oversight of implementation. Through separate federal contracts, the Bureau of Justice Assistance has also provided technical assistance to states implementing the law through the National PREA Resource Center, https://www.prearesourcecenter.org/. This combination of legislation, implementation assistance, and federal oversight in some ways creates the ideal conditions for compliance. Fifteen years of implementation, however, have not yet produced full compliance or protections across the country. In the last three years, allegations of sexual abuse within Delaware, Florida, and New Jersey women’s prisons have reached the media, and in two states, corrections officers have been charged with crimes in relation to allegations. Despite agency commitments to enforce the provisions of PREA, efforts to implement it with fidelity, and federal oversight, these agencies have not succeeded in changing the conditions in their prisons. This highlights the extreme difficulty of changing prison culture and conditions. Nick Muscavage, “Two Former Edna Mahan Inmates Suing State Department of Corrections,” mycentraljersey.com, March 11, 2018, https://perma.cc/37AH-XWPA; Cris Barrish, “Sex Behind Bars: Women Violated in Delaware Prison,” News Journal, July 31, 2015, https://perma.cc/X9BH-KD7M; and Julie Brown, “Bartered Sex, Corruption and Cover-Ups Behind Bars in Nation’s Largest Women’s Prison,” Miami Herald, December 13, 2015, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/special-reports/florida-prisons/article49175685.html. Changes to practices are introduced slowly and the implementation of new policies and practices is imperfect. Still, in recent years, some corrections agencies have sought to improve life behind bars, for instance by limiting their use of solitary confinement and increasing the number of in-prison postsecondary educational programs.[]Alison Shames, Jessa Wilcox, and Ram Subramanian, Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2015), 6-8, https://perma.cc/KC6D-C3UL; and Alex Boldin, Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative Update (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), https://perma.cc/B58C-Q6AL.  Despite these efforts, prison life by and large remains rife with deprivation, isolation, and violence.

Who is in prison?

Who ends up in America’s prisons is the result of decisions made by numerous actors in the criminal justice system. Legislators enact laws that define crimes and set sentence lengths. Police make arrests. Prosecutors negotiate plea deals. Once a person is convicted of a criminal offense—whether as a result of a jury trial or, more likely, by plea—the judge must determine the punishment. Generally, judges are statutorily permitted to impose sentences within a range of lengths and types, such as probation or prison. Those sentences aren’t always served in full. Historically, and in most states still, after a minimum amount of time served, people sentenced to prison may be paroled at the discretion of a parole board based on behavior, evidence of self-improvement, and other factors.[]Ram Subramanian and Ruth Delaney, Playbook for Change? States Reconsider Mandatory Sentences (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2014), 6, https://perma.cc/Z8KP-PP4G.  But between the 1970s and 1990s, the federal government and many state legislatures passed laws limiting judicial and parole board discretion.[] As of 2017, 16 states had abolished discretionary parole; of the other states, Colorado, Connecticut, and Mississippi had abolished discretionary parole and then reinstated it. Andres F. Rengifo and Don Stemen, “The Unintended Effects of Penal Reform: African American Presence, Incarceration, and the Abolition of Discretionary Parole in the United States,” Crime & Delinquency 61, no. 5 (2012), 719-41, 736. Also see Timothy A. Hughes, Doris James Wilson, and Allen J. Beck, Trends in State Parole, 1990-2000 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2001), https://perma.cc/M99Q-2VE3.  Policies in many jurisdictions shifted toward more structured and transparent sentencing schemes—meaning that the sentence for a crime was predetermined by law, and judges could do little to vary it. This generally resulted in longer sentences for all types of crimes.[]Subramanian and Delaney, Playbook for Change?, 2014, 6.  These new laws included sentencing guidelines, determinate sentences (fixed prison terms and no parole), and mandatory penalties (such as mandatory minimum sentences, automatic sentence enhancements, or habitual offender laws).[]Although estimates vary, there are approximately 17 states plus the District of Columbia with sentencing guidelines, of which 15 have what are characterized as “strong” robustly used systems (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and Washington). Florida and Tennessee have sentencing guidelines, but no longer have sentencing commissions. An eighteenth state—New Mexico—just established a commission with the mandate to develop guidelines in 2017. See Kelly Lyn Mitchell “State Sentencing Guidelines: A Garden Full of Variety,” Federal Probation 81, no. 2 (2017), 28-36, 28-29, http://www.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/81_2_5_0.pdf. Although many states retain indeterminate sentencing systems, this has not prevented some of them from adopting mandatory penalties as means of producing a “zone of hyper-determinacy” in sentencing for specified offenses. See Kevin R. Reitz, “The Disassembly and Reassembly of U.S. Sentencing Practices,” in Sentencing and Sanctions in Western Countries, edited by Michael Tonry and Richard Frase (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 229 & 231. Also see Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), National Assessment of Structured Sentencing (Washington, DC: BJA, 1996), 5-18. Regarding the roll out of mandatory penalties on the federal level, see for example Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, Public Law 98-473, 98 Stat. 1976; Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Public Law 99-570, 100 Stat. 3207; and Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Public Law 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796, https://www.congress.gov/bill/103rd-congress/house-bill/3355. On the state level, see for example Cal. Penal Code § 667 (West Supp. 1998).  Many jurisdictions also passed so-called “truth-in-sentencing” policies, which required individuals to serve a substantial portion of their sentences—often 85 percent—before they could be considered for release.[]Subramanian and Delaney, Playbook for Change?, 2014, 6. For information on truth-in-sentencing, see Paula Ditton and Doris James, Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons (Washington, DC: BJS, 1999), https://perma.cc/C4MY-Y8FS. Efforts on the state level were supported by the federal government. The federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorized incentives to states that enacted truth-in-sentencing statutes. See Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Public Law 103-322.  By the turn of the 21st century, longer sentences, combined with more aggressive policing strategies for quality-of-life and low-level drug crimes in many urban centers, resulted mostly in more people going to prison—and staying there for longer periods of time.[]For an in-depth discussion of the growth of incarceration, its impact in increasing racial disparities in imprisonment rates, and the policies and practices that contributed to this growth, see Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 33-103.

Black American Overrepresented

These people are disproportionately Americans of color. This is most visible in the number of black Americans behind bars, although other groups—such as Latino and Native American people—are also overrepresented in prison in comparison with their presence in the general population.[]In 2015, there were 1,745 black people, and 820 Hispanic people, in state and federal prisons per 100,000 U.S. residents, compared to 312 white people. E. Ann Carson and Elizabeth Anderson, Prisoners in 2015 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2016), 8, https://perma.cc/273U-4PPN. Native American people are admitted to prison more than four times as often as white people. Christopher Hartney and Linh Vuong, Created Equal: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System (Oakland, CA: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2009), https://perma.cc/7HWH-BXYA.  Today, black men and women make up just 13 percent of the country’s population, but they represent more than 35 percent of those incarcerated in American prisons—making black Americans the largest racial or ethnic group in state or federal prisons.[]State and federal prisons incarcerate 523,000 black (35.4 percent), 499,400 white (33.8 percent), and 319,400 Hispanic people (21.6 percent). The Bureau of Justice Statistics does not report regular figures on incarcerated members of other races or ethnicities. See Carson and Anderson, Prisoners in 2015, 2016, 6. White people who do not identify as Hispanic or Latino make up 61.3 percent of the U.S. population; Hispanic/Latino people make up 17.8 percent, and black or African American people make up 13.3 percent. See U.S. Census Bureau, “U.S. Census QuickFacts,” https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US#viewtop.

Other groups of people with characteristics that put them in the minority of American society—such as their sexual orientation or gender identity—are also admitted to prison at disproportionate rates. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual men and women go to prison at three times the rate of their heterosexual counterparts.[]Ilan H. Meyer, Andrew R. Flores, Lara Stemple, et al., “Incarceration Rates and Traits of Sexual Minorities in the United States: National Inmate Survey, 2011–2012,” American Journal of Public Health 107, no. 2 (2017), 267-73, https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303576. For incarceration rates of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people generally, see Center for American Progress (CAP) and Movement Advancement Project (MAP), Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People (Washington, DC: CAP/MAP, 2016), 3, https://perma.cc/PR6N-THLY.  When women are examined alone, that rate jumps to eight to 10 times.[]Meyer, Flores, Stemple, et al., “Incarceration Rates and Traits of Sexual Minorities,” 2017, 234-40.  In addition, transgender and gender nonconforming men and women report spending time in jail or prison at rates double to quadruple the rates of the general population.[]These rates are 21 percent for transgender women and 10 percent for transgender men, as compared to 5 percent of all people nationally. Jaime M. Grant, Lisa A. Mottet, and Justin Tanis, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011), 163. Also see CAP/MAP, Unjust, 2016, 3.

The people who enter prison today are also characterized by social and economic vulnerability. 

  1. People in prison report substantially lower incomes prior to incarceration than their non-incarcerated counterparts. Before going to prison, incarcerated people earn incomes that are 41 percent lower than people who do not go to prison.[]Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf, Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the Pre-Incarceration Incomes of the Imprisoned (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2015), https://perma.cc/4TYQ-ZTVH.

  2. Nearly 75 percent of those in state prison, and 60 percent of those in federal prison, have no high school credential—and only about a third of those without it successfully obtain one during their prison terms.[]Caroline Wolfe Harlow, Education and Correctional Populations (Washington, DC: BJS, 2003, 3) https://perma.cc/VQ2E-K8WQ.

  3. More than half of incarcerated individuals report mental illness: 56 percent of people in state prisons and 45 percent of people in federal prisons report mental illness, with the more severe measure of "serious mental illness" reported at rates three to four times that of the general population. The likelihood of mental illness of any degree is more prevalent among incarcerated women and youth.[]Doris James and Lauren Glaze, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates (Washington, DC: BJS, 2006), 1, https://perma.cc/7K44-CUCM. According to James and Glaze, 15 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons and 10 percent of those incarcerated in federal prisons reported at least one symptom of a psychotic disorder. Meanwhile, in 2016, there were an estimated 10.4 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with a serious mental illness. This number represented 4.2 percent of all U.S. adults. See National Institute of Mental Health, "Mental Illness," https://perma.cc/NN5E-T5ZA. Also see generally Seth Prins, "Prevalence of Mental Illnesses in U.S. State Prisons: A Systematic Review," Psychiatry Services 65, no. 7 (2014), 862-72, 863 & figure 2, https://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/appi.ps.201300166.

  4. Incarcerated people also report high rates of past trauma and victimization.[]Although the most recent national survey of victimization among people in prison is nearly 20 years old, its findings show that incarcerated people experienced child abuse at twice the rate of the general population, a rate that increases if victimization beyond childhood is included. A survey published in 1999 found that 14 percent of all men in prison and 36 percent of women in state prison had been abused as children. Women experienced higher rates of victimization, including into adulthood. Among women in state prisons, 57 percent had experienced physical or sexual abuse—or both—in their lifetimes, as compared to 16 percent of men. See Caroline Wolfe Harlow, Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers (Washington, DC: BJS, 1999), 2, https://perma.cc/GA82-6SW7. Trauma occurs when a person witnesses an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury to the self or others that involves fear, helplessness, or horror. Bruce Western, “Lifetimes of Violence in a Sample of Released Prisoners,” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 1, no. 2 (2015), 14-30, 20-21 & figure 2 (discussing how, empirically, formerly incarcerated people have been surrounded by serious violence since early  childhood), https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/brucewestern/files/lifetimes_of_violence_in_a_sample_of_released_prisoners.pdf. More recent localized studies of incarcerated persons have revealed similarly high rates of victimization and more detailed accounts of experiences likely to be considered trauma. One study of incarcerated people in Massachusetts found that more than 40 percent had witnessed the killing of another person in childhood, in addition to experiencing or witnessing serious violence. Ibid. (discussing how, empirically, formerly incarcerated people have been surrounded by serious violence since early childhood). Also see Nena Messina and Christine Grella, “Childhood Trauma and Women's Health Outcomes in a California Prison Population,” American Journal of Public Health 96, no. 10 (2006), 1842-48, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1586137/.  Indeed, the profiles of those who are convicted of crimes and those who are victims of crimes parallel—they are, in many respects, two sides of the same coin.[]See generally Abbe Smith, “The ‘Monster’ in All of Us: When Victims Become Perpetrators,” Suffolk University Law Review 38, no. 2 (2005), 367-94, https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1218&context=facpub.  (See “Listening to victims.”)

  5. More than half of the people in state prisons meet the criteria for drug dependence or abuse, as compared to approximately five percent of the total general population age 18 or older.[]Jennifer Bronson, Jessica Stroop, Stephanie Zimmer, and Marcus Berzofsky, Drug Use, Dependence, and Abuse Among State Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2007-2009 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2017), 1, https://perma.cc/R695-VZLY.

  6. Nearly 32 percent of people in prison report having hearing, vision, cognitive, or ambulatory disabilities, as compared to approximately 11 percent of the general public.[]For rates of disability among incarcerated people, see Jennifer Bronson, Laura M. Maruschak, and Marcus Berzofsky, Disabilities Among Prison and Jail Inmates, 2011–12 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2015), 3, https://perma.cc/C89G-MDJF. For rates in the United States population see Matthew W. Brault, Americans with Disabilities: 2010 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), https://perma.cc/2ZA8-PNVR.

The prison experience

"[The correctional facility], like countless other penal facilities across the country, is overcrowded and the men held inside have been trying to bring attention to the inhumane conditions they live under for a long time now. But this facility, again like so many others, is far, far away from where most of the prisoner families live as well as far from the media's gaze. People on the outside can't see the 'spoiled food, severe overcrowding, indifference to inmate grievances' that the men inside have been enduring. They don't know the extent of the gang problem plaguing the prison, and how desperately prisoners have been asking for help, because prison management manipulates its own data—for example . . . assaults on prisoners are written up as 'mutual fights' in order to make them seem better, less predatory, to legislators in the state capitol." 

~Heather Ann Thompson, "Prisons Are Erupting and Why it Matters," Daily Beast, 2016[]Heather Ann Thompson, "Prisons Are Erupting and Why it Matters," Daily Beast, October 21, 2016, https://perma.cc/RAA7-SGTV.  

"The cell was so small that I could stand in one place and touch both walls simultaneously. The ceiling was so low that I could reach up and touch the hot light fixture. My bed took up the length of the cell, and there was no other furniture at all. . . . The walls were solid steel and painted all white. . . . Shortly after I arrived, the prison staff began construction, adding more bars and other security measures to the cell while I was within it. . . . It is hard to describe the horror I experienced during this construction process. As they built new walls around me it felts like I was being buried alive. . . . Due to the unchanging bright artificial lights and not having a wristwatch or clock, I couldn't tell if it was day or night. Frequently, I would fall asleep and when I woke up I would not know if I had slept for five minutes or five hours, and would have no idea of what day or time of day it was. . . . I now know that I was housed there for about four years, but I would have believed it was a decade if that is what I was told. It seemed eternal and endless and immeasurable." 

~Thomas Silverstein, describing his experience in solitary confinement to Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, in "Five Unforgettable Stories From Inside Solitary Confinement," Solitary Watch, 2017[]James Casella and James Ridgeway, "Five Unforgettable Stories From Inside Solitary Confinement," Solitary Watch, November 27, 2017 (quoting Thomas Silverstein describing his experience in solitary confinement) https://perma.cc/Y8R3-KCSQ.

The prison experience in America today is harsh, restrictive, and dehumanizing. No matter what the underlying purpose for imprisonment—retribution, incapacitation, and/or deterrence—prison by its very nature is intended to remove people from society and subject them to state control. That control is all-encompassing—the prison dictates the size, look, and feel of a person’s living space; the necessities a person can obtain (such as food, clothing, and medical care); and the activities a person can participate in, be they social, work, or educational.[]Erving Goffman, “Characteristics of Total Institutions,” in The Prison: Studies in Institutional Organization and Change, edited by Donald R. Cressey (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), 15-64, https://perma.cc/P8CK-LVN8; and Gresham Sykes, The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958). Also see Victor Hassine, Life Without Parole: Living and Dying in Prison Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 7 (“To fully understand the prison experience requires a personal awareness of how bricks, mortar, steel, and the endless enforcement of rules and regulations animate a prison into a living, breathing entity designed to manipulate its inhabitants. . . . Prison designers and managers have developed a precise and universal alphabet of fear that is carefully assembled and arranged – bricks, steel, uniforms, colors, odors, shapes, and management style – to effectively control the conduct of whole prison populations”).

In reinforcing state control, prison policies and practices are designed to diminish the self and weaken the individual. Prison life largely emphasizes two things: 

  • the loss of each incarcerated person’s sense of self, autonomy, and capacity to control his or her own destiny; and
  • the inculcation of a carceral identity—one reinforced by the strict social arrangements inside prisons and the power imbalance between corrections officers and incarcerated people.[]Erving Goffman termed these “mortification processes.” See Goffman, “Total Institutions,” 1961, 15-64. Also see John Irwin and Barbara Owen, “Harm and the Contemporary Prison,” in The Effects of Imprisonment, edited by Alison Liebling and Shad Maruna (New York: Routledge, 2011), 94-117; and Sykes, The Society of Captives, 1958 (arguing that imprisonment is synonymous with deprivations, specifically the loss of goods and services, personal relationships, security, and autonomy).

People carry the prison experience and the identities they developed under prison duress with them as they return home, and this impacts their future success, their communities, and their loved ones.[]Irwin and Owen, “Harm and the Contemporary Prison,” 2011.  For many, they remain branded as a criminal—both in their own minds and by society. Elements of the current prison experience contribute to these results, including the architecture of prison facilities, overcrowding within them, and the use of solitary confinement. The experience of incarceration is further marked by a lack of basic necessities, meaningful activities, and connections with the outside world. All of this is compounded by the trauma of the prison experience itself and the loss of the incarcerated person’s constitutional rights. These features of the American prison experience are detailed in the subsections that follow.

Prison design and physical layout

By their very design and aesthetics, the physical buildings and layout of American prisons cultivate feelings of institutionalization, immobilization, and lack of control among the people who live there.[]See Philip Hancock and Yvonne Jewkes, “Architectures of Incarceration: The Spatial Pains of Imprisonment,” Punishment & Society 13, no. 5 (2011), 611-29, 617. Noting that Sykes in The Society of Captives, 1958, 7-8, recognized the physical compression induced by typical prison environments served a further function—the concomitant psychological compression of incarcerated people—the authors argued that “such compression is not only experienced as a pain, a deprivation, a restriction, but . . . also leads to the production of an institutionalized mode of subjectivity; one congruent with the demands of docility and dependency continually placed upon the prison population.”  A typical cell is a small cement and brick box—the size of a typical parking space—with a metal or cement bed (sometimes a bunk bed) covered with a thin mattress, an open metal sink and toilet, perhaps a fixed metal desk, and a small window that is often sealed shut.[]The American Correctional Association publishes standards detailing the size and minimum furnishings of detention rooms or cells. In 1981, as the prison construction boom was well underway, people held in single occupant cells were to be provided with 60 square feet of space if confined for fewer than 10 hours per day; otherwise they were entitled to 70 square feet. Temporary holding facilities might give an incarcerated person as few as 50 square feet. Little distinction in cell size is made between restrictive housing and ordinary facilities; the expected difference is not in the cell, but in the amount of time spent outside of it and the activities available. American Correctional Association, Standards for Adult Local Detention Facilities (Second Edition) (College Park, MD: American Correctional Association, 1981), 30-34, https://perma.cc/3N7W-UPNU. For a survey of current conditions, see for example Joanna Weschler and Theodore Zang, Prison Conditions in the United States (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1991), https://perma.cc/SL4K-53B6. Also see Jamie Fellner, Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997), https://perma.cc/B7UK-7ZF9; and Jamie Fellner, Red Onion State Prison: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), https://perma.cc/3BLA-WJRZ.  Other interior spaces are similarly utilitarian in nature, with hard fixtures and fittings, cinder blocks, and little color, ornamentation, or natural light.[]Hancock and Jewkes, “Architectures of Incarceration,” 2011.[/foonote] Because the spaces are designed to maximize control of people’s movement, they are configured in highly segmented and rigid ways—with clearly delineated boundaries that are reinforced through gates, locks, bars, and Plexiglas or Lexan.[] Ibid.  These common prison architectural designs do not encourage positive individual or group experiences.[]Ibid., 620-21 & 626; and Megan Fowler, The Human Factor in Prison Design: Contrasting Prison Architecture in the United States and Scandinavia (paper presented at Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Annual Meeting, March 19-21, 2015), https://perma.cc/LA5A-8MTR.  Even recreation spaces are designed in this way—with little or no access to green spaces, often as covered cages, sometimes outdoors, but too often simply as another indoor space, such as a gymnasium.[]Fellner, Cold Storage, 1997.  In Madrid v. Gomez—a case challenging the constitutionality of conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison in California—the court remarked that the sight of incarcerated people in the facility’s barren exercise pens created an image “hauntingly similar to that of caged felines pacing in a zoo.”[]See Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1229 (N.D. Cal. 1995), https://perma.cc/27A3-227W.  

Getty Images 564024245 Copy

Many American prisons are housing the maximum number of people they can hold—or more. In 2015, 27 states and the federal government operated their prisons near or above 100 percent capacity.[]Carson and Anderson, Prisoners in 2015, 2016, 27.  Because of the sheer number of people corrections staff must manage, overcrowding can cause reductions in opportunities for rehabilitative programming and lead to limits on out-of-cell time, recreation, meal times, visitation, and access to staff. Moreover, in overcrowded conditions, individuals experience extreme deprivation of privacy—they may be forced to sleep dozens to a room in dayrooms, classrooms, or gymnasiums; receive inadequate medical care; be subject to victimization at higher rates; and commit suicide at higher rates.[]John Gibbons, Nicholas Katzenbach, and the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, Confronting Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2006), 23-27, https://perma.cc/X78Q-TVEU; and Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 181. Also see Craig Haney, The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2002), 78, https://perma.cc/ML33-CDNY.  In Brown v. Plata, the Supreme Court found that overcrowding in California prisons was the “primary cause” of suffering and deaths among those incarcerated, stemming from the “grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care.”[]Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493, 502 (2011), https://perma.cc/7VE6-LM2D.

Solitary Confinement 

Tens of thousands of people in U.S. prisons are now held in solitary confinement either as punishment for rule breaking or, for a small number, as a preventive safety measure. The precise number of people held in these conditions on any given day is not known, but estimates range from 80,000 to 100,000, and there are indications that the use of such housing has grown substantially in recent years—perhaps by as much as 42 percent between 1995 and 2005.[]Association of State Correctional Administrators, Time-In-Cell: The ASCA-Liman 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison (New Haven, CT: Yale Law School, 2015), 2-3, https://perma.cc/B3S7-K2ES; and Shames, Wilcox, and Subramanian, Solitary Confinement: Misconceptions and Alternatives, 2015, 6.  Conditions for people held in solitary are dire. Although conditions can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and even from facility to facility, people held in solitary often are forced to live in cramped cells for 22 to 24 hours per day. They typically cannot participate in programming or other group activities and may be barred from access to reading materials.[]For a description of the conditions faced in solitary confinement, see Shames, Wilcox, and Subramanian, Solitary Confinement, 2015, 8-12.  There is often little or no natural light and artificial lights may be left on day and night.[]Ibid., 8.  Long-term isolation also takes a mental and emotional toll: it has been shown to create or exacerbate mental illness and physical health problems, from which some people never recover.[]See Sasha Abramsky and Jamie Fellner, Ill-Equipped: US Prisons and Offenders With Mental Illness (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003), 151-53, https://perma.cc/U2HK-9VVG; and David Lovell, “Patterns of Disturbed Behavior in a Supermax Population,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 3, no. 8 (2008), 985-1004, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247745192_Patterns_of_Disturbed_Behavior_in_a_Supermax_Population.  Nor does solitary enhance safety. Incarcerated people may take on the expected behaviors of the security levels to which they are assigned. Researchers have discussed this as evidence that labeling theory (the theory that individual behavior is influenced by the social expectations of others) applies to prison classification.[]See Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 194-95; Lawrence L. Bench and Terry D. Allen, “Investigating the Stigma of Prison Classification: An Experimental Design,” Prison Journal 83, no. 4 (2003), 367-82; and John L. Worrall and Robert G. Morris, “Inmate Custody Levels and Prison Rule Violations,” Prison Journal 91, no. 2 (2011), 131-57.  This suggests that restrictive housing units can actually create or escalate behavioral issues and violence among incarcerated people, rather than contain or reduce them.[]See for example, Kate King, Benjamin Steiner, and Stephanie Ritchie Breach, “Violence in the Supermax: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,” Prison Journal 88, no. 1 (2008), 161-63, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249707618_Violence_in_the_Supermax_A_Self-Fulfilling_Prophecy; and Chad S. Briggs, Jody L. Sundt, and Thomas C. Castellano, “The Effect of Supermaximum Security Prisons on Aggregate Levels of Institutional Violence,” Criminology 41, no. 4 (2003), 1341-76, 1342 (finding that the effectiveness of supermaximum-security confinement as a mechanism to enhance prison safety remains largely speculative and that the implementation of supermaximum security in the locations studied was associated with a temporary increase in assaults against staff).

Getty Images 921230866 Copy
Basic necessities

Although prisons are constitutionally required to provide their residents with basic necessities—from hygiene to clothing, food, and medical care—many do so in ways that make prison more taxing and dehumanizing.[]The U.S. Supreme Court has held, for example, that the government must provide people living in prison with medical care, adequate nutrition, a safe environment, and an acceptable standard of sanitation. See Rex D. Glensy, “The Right to Dignity,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 43, no. 1 (2011), 65-142, 112 (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103-04 (1976) (medical care); Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 315-16 (1982) (safety); and Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 686-87 (1978) (lengthy deprivation of nutrition and sanitation issues including overcrowding)).  For example, the hygienic supplies prisons provide to all residents can be limited in volume and poor in quality, with reports of people running out of toilet paper and other basic necessities—including sanitary pads and tampons.[]For reports on the lack of toilet paper, see Taylor Elizabeth Eldridge, “The Big Business of Prisoner Care Packages,” The Marshall Project, December 12, 2017, https://perma.cc/D5L2-LHLG; and Mary Ellen Klas, “Florida Prisons Have Toilet Paper, But They’re Not Supplying It to Some Inmates,” Miami Herald, July 19, 2017, https://perma.cc/8JGB-8X4T. Access to menstrual hygiene products is a widespread problem. See Zoe Greenberg, “In Jail, Pads and Tampons as Bargaining Chips,” New York Times, April 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/20/nyregion/pads-tampons-new-york-womens-prisons.html; and Chandra Bozelko, “Prisons that Withhold Menstrual Pads Humiliate Women and Violate Basic Rights, Guardian, June 12, 2015, https://perma.cc/9FMW-Y4T9. Things may be changing soon. The Dignity Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate to improve the treatment of people held in federal prisons, mandates making tampons and sanitary napkins available to incarcerated people free of charge. S. 1524, 115th Congress (2017-2018), https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/1524/text. In August 2017, the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued guidance on a new requirement to provide free sanitary products to incarcerated persons at all federal facilities. Federal Bureau of Prisons, Memorandum on Provision of Feminine Hygiene Products (Washington DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons, August 1, 2017), https://perma.cc/3RAN-X6H9. In Arizona, HB 2222, intended to provide a free, unlimited supply of hygiene products to incarcerated people, won approval from the House Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs Committee in early 2018; the Chairman of the Rules Committee, however, has announced that he does not intend to hear the bill, claiming that administrative changes in the meantime that doubled the number of free pads from 12 to 24 made the bill redundant. Incarcerated people must purchase tampons if they want them. Kaila White, “Arizona Legislator Kills Bill that Would Have Given Female Inmates Free Feminine Products,” The Republic, February 12, 2018, https://perma.cc/2W3N-BGTR. Virginia and Maryland have both passed legislation making menstrual hygiene products available to incarcerated people at no charge. Virginia HB 83 (2018), https://perma.cc/V26C-Y3LA; and Maryland SB 598 (2018), https://perma.cc/3PYC-HB9N.  Several facilities have begun issuing uniforms or other items of clothing in colors designed to humiliate the wearer, or using fabrics that cause discomfort.[]Susie Neilson, “Prison Uniforms Make It Harder to ‘Go Straight,’” Newsweek, March 7, 2016, https://perma.cc/F2KH-VK6Q.  A growing number of jurisdictions have returned to issuing people striped uniforms for their purported “punitive” effect.[] Issuing uniforms designed to make incarcerated people uncomfortable or alter their behavior is not an uncommon practice in the United States. One newspaper article described this practice as “the ultimate humiliation as the final shred of dignity is stripped away.” See Dan Glaister, “Pink Prison Makes Texan Inmates Blush,” Guardian, October 10, 2006, https://perma.cc/J8MQ-H8EY. For a discussion of trends in uniforms, see Thomas Vinciguerra, “The Clothes That Make the Inmate,” New York Times, October 1, 2000, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/01/weekinreview/the-clothes-that-make-the-inmate.html.  

Even meals may be limited. Access to food has become more restricted in recent years as many states have reduced meals from three to two on some days, or reduced the number of overall calories served in prison.[]For example, in fiscal year 2010, seven surveyed states, and in fiscal year 2011, 13 surveyed states, reported reducing food services as a cost-saving measure. See Alison Shames, Michael Woodruff, Alissa Cambier, et al., The Continuing Fiscal Crisis in Corrections: Setting a New Course (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2010), https://perma.cc/FUE4-AAHJ; and Christine S. Scott-Hayward, The Fiscal Crisis in Corrections: Rethinking Policies and Practices (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2009), https://perma.cc/BGF6-YZKJ. Also see “Ohio Introduces Two-Meal Plan to Reduce Costs,” Correctional News, December 1, 2009, http://perma.cc/SF2Z-36S5; Manny Fernandez, “In Bid to Cut Costs at Some Texas Prisons, Lunch Will Not Be Served on Weekends,” New York Times, October 20, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/us/texas-reduces-weekend-meals-for-prisoners.html; and Hanna Raskin, “Feeding the Prison System: Some Inmates Buy Way Around 'Institutional Cooking,’” Post and Courier, December 14, 2014, http://perma.cc/BSL5-XL45.  In the past decade, reports of insufficient quantities of food have become more widespread.[]Raskin, “Feeding the Prison System,” 2014. For this practice in jails, see Alysia Santo and Lisa Iaboni, “What’s in a Prison Meal?” The Marshall Project, July 7, 2015, http://perma.cc/U3D2-SBJM.  Poor quality food and improper food handling have also contributed to a rate of foodborne illnesses among people in prison at six times the rate of the free population.[]Joe Fassler and Claire Brown, “Prison Food is Making U.S. Inmates Disproportionately Sick,” Atlantic, December 27, 2017, http://perma.cc/F2VA-NWK9. For more on foodborne illness in prison, see Mariel A. Marlow, Ruth E. Luna-Gierke, Patricia M. Griffin, and Antonio R. Vieira, “Foodborne Disease Outbreaks in Correctional Institutions-United States, 1998-2014,” American Journal of Public Health 107, no. 7 (2017), 1150-56.  The food supplied is also highly processed, often low in fiber and high in cholesterol and sodium, and tends not to include fresh fruits and vegetables or lean proteins, contributing to chronic medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, from which black people are more likely to suffer.[]Wendy Sawyer, “Food for Thought: Prison Food is a Public Health Problem,” Prison Policy Initiative, March 3, 2017, https://perma.cc/W49W-YPGV.

At the same time, prison medical staff struggle to appropriately respond to the medical needs of the incarcerated population. The failure to provide adequate medical care and its extreme consequences is well documented and has been a frequent subject of litigation in recent years.[]To cite just two recent instances, two Vermont men died of cancer, one without being diagnosed with or treated for the disease by prison medical staff despite requesting care and suffering increasing debilitation of movement and cognition, as well as significant pain. The other man was diagnosed only after his femur snapped while he was dressing; he died within a year. Taylor Dobbs, “The Slow and Painful Prison Death of Roger Brown,” Vermont Public Radio, November 14, 2017, https://perma.cc/G94A-HLEA; and Taylor Dobbs, “'They Killed Him': As a Vermont Inmate Suffered from Untreated Cancer, Officials Delayed Care,” Vermont Public Radio, November 13, 2017, https://perma.cc/5L89-VQ58. Also see Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011).  Yet incarcerated people continue to report health problems at higher rates than the general population in a wide range of areas.[]Specifically, incarcerated people experience higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, heart problems, asthma, kidney problems, stroke, arthritis, and sexually transmitted infections. Laura M. Maruschak, Marcus Berzofsky, and Jennifer Unangst, Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-12 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2016), 2-3, http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5219. Also see Margaret Noonan, Harley Rohloff, and Scott Ginder, Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000–2013 - Statistical Tables (Washington, DC: BJS, 2013), 1, 4, & table 24 (finding that the leading causes of death in prisons are cancer, heart disease, and liver disease), https://perma.cc/N2M5-22YX.  Prison environmental conditions, including poor air quality and high temperatures, can exacerbate existing health problems—or create new ones.[]Poor air quality has also caused lung and breathing disorders at prisons in Pennsylvania. See Environmental Protection Agency, “EPA Settlement Will Reduce Air Pollution from Four Pennsylvania Prisons,” Environmental Protection Agency, January 4, 2011, http://perma.cc/NT4P-EPH2. High temperatures and inadequate cooling systems have been reported as the cause of death for people in prison facilities in Arizona, California, Michigan, and Texas. See James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, “When Summer is Torture,” Mother Jones, July 27, 2010, http://perma.cc/2YMN-496C; Manny Fernandez, “In Texas, Arguing That Heat Can Be a Death Sentence for Prisoners,” New York Times, July, 28, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/us/in-texas-arguing-that-heat-can-be-a-death-sentence-for-prisoners.html; Alice Speri, “‘Deadly Heat’ in U.S. Prisons is Killing Inmates and Spawning Lawsuits,” The Intercept, August 24, 2016, http://perma.cc/3LR3-E62L; and Maurice Chammah, “Cooking Them to Death: The Lethal Toll of Hot Prisons,” The Marshall Project, October 11, 2017, http://perma.cc/739C-3PH3.  

Getty Images 482001852
Meaningful Activities 

As prison life has become more restricted and punitive, it has simultaneously become more monotonous. Higher levels of security are generally the most restrictive, with more closely supervised movement, less time outside of cells, fewer options for leisure or programming, and more rigorously controlled rules regarding personal property.[]For the defining characteristics of minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security prisons, see James J. Stephan, Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2005 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2009), 8, http://perma.cc/CXT4-N8A7.  However, no matter where someone is placed—whether a minimum-, medium-, or maximum-security facility—opportunities for paid work, as well as rehabilitative, vocational, and postsecondary programming, have declined across the board—although opportunities for postsecondary education have been increasing in certain jurisdictions.[]While the number of individual programs has increased for some types of educational opportunities (notably, vocational training), the actual number of seats available to people in prison has decreased, and many incarcerated people may be restricted or prohibited from enrolling because of disciplinary infractions or other administrative reasoning. See Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 191-92. However, over the last several decades, some educational programs became more available as a result of mandatory education policies requiring those who enter prison without a high school credential to participate in adult basic education. These policies exist in 22 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons. See ibid., 190. Postsecondary education opportunities have become less accessible since 1994, when federal student aid in the form of Pell grants was made unavailable to incarcerated persons. Ruth Delaney, Ram Subramanian, and Fred Patrick, Making the Grade: Developing Quality Postsecondary Education Programs in Prison (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016), 5, https://storage.googleapis.com/vera-web-assets/downloads/publications/making-the-grade-postsecondary-education-programs-in-prison/legacy_downloads/making-the-grade-postsecondary-education-programs-in-prison.pdf. However, in 2016, the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program launched to make need-based financial aid available to students in prison for the first time in 20 years. See Vera Institute of Justice, “Bringing College Back to Prison,” http://perma.cc/7LZL-TN2C; and U.S. Department of Education, “U.S. Department of Education Launches Second Chance Pell Pilot Program for Incarcerated Individuals,” press release (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, July 31, 2015), http://perma.cc/VA38-TP2Y. The fate of that program, which must be renewed each year, is uncertain under the Trump administration. See Nicole Lewis, “The Uncertain Fate of College in Prison,” The Marshall Project, March 28, 2018, http://perma.cc/6KQS-TW3C.  This leads not only to a worsening daily existence in prison, but it also hinders the chances of success for people after they leave prison. And fully 95 percent of people in prison will eventually be released—around 600,000 each year.[]Jeremy Travis, Amy Solomon, and Michelle Waul, From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2001), 9, http://perma.cc/KY7V-GEYF. Also see Joan Petersilia, When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). For eventual release figures see E. Ann Carson and Daniela Golinelli, Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991-2012 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2013), 4 & table 2, http://perma.cc/32TN-9ED3.  But despite research showing that prison violence tends to go down when education and vocational programs are introduced, and that cognitive behavioral and other rehabilitative programming may alleviate the negative impacts of incarceration and improve post-release employment prospects and earnings, in-prison therapeutic programming has become less—not more—available over time.[]See for example Katherine M. Auty, Aiden Cope, and Alison Liebling, “Psychoeducational Programs for Reducing Prison Violence: A Systematic Review,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 33 (2017), 126-143, 140; Grant Duwe and Valerie A. Clark, “Nothing Will Work Unless You Did: The Predictors of Postprison Employment,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 44, no. 5, (2017), 657-77; and Delaney, Subramanian, and Patrick, Making the Grade, 2016, 8-11. For the decline in in-prison programming, see Faye Taxman, April Pattavina, and Michael Caudy, “Justice Reinvestment in the United States: An Empirical Assessment of the Potential Impact of Increased Correctional Programming on Recidivism,” Victims & Offenders 9, no. 1 (2014), 50-75, 56-58.  In fact, a study conducted in 2005 and 2006 found that although substance abuse treatment programs are available in a majority of facilities, less than 10 percent of people in prison were able to participate in treatment services.[]Taxman, Pattavina, and Caudy, “Justice Reinvestment,” 2014, 68 & table 2.

Where work opportunities do exist in prison, many are now institutional jobs such as food service, laundry, or janitorial assignments that benefit the prison, rather than jobs in which incarcerated individuals can learn or apply new skills to prepare them for the workforce on release.[]Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 192.  Even among those who do obtain jobs, the average number of hours they work has decreased from 40 to 20 per week and median pay has declined to 86 cents per day.[]In the United States, the vast majority of in-prison work opportunities fall into two categories: (1) regular prison jobs that support the prison facility; and (2) jobs in state-owned businesses, which produce goods that are sold to government agencies (often known as correctional industries). Data on average wages paid to people in prison are difficult to calculate, but one source found that the average hourly rate for regular jobs ranged from $0.14 to $0.63; and the average hourly rate for correctional industries jobs ranged from $0.33 to $1.41. See Wendy Sawyer, How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn In Each State? (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2017), https://perma.cc/6BNT-TH5A. Also see Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 192.  People in prison are thus able to buy fewer personal items from the prison store or commissary to supplement the limited supplies the prison provides.[] Items they may need to purchase include food, toiletries, and hygienic supplies, and supplemental articles of clothing such as undergarments, socks, or shoes. Purchasing supplemental food is particularly important in prisons that have cut meals and calories. See note 89, above. Also see Eldridge, “The Big Business of Prisoner Care Packages,” 2017.[/footnotes]

Connections with the outside 

Another reality of the prison experience is loneliness. During the prison boom of the 1990s, many new prisons were constructed in poor, rural areas.[]Before 1980, only 36 percent of prisons were located in rural areas. From the 1970s to the 1980s, the average number of new prisons constructed in rural areas each year went from four to 16, and in the 1990s that number grew again to 25. Almost 60 percent of new prisons built between 1992 and 1994 were in located in rural areas, although those areas accounted for only approximately 20 percent of the national population, and 53 percent of all people sentenced to newly built prisons from 1980 to 1991 were housed in rural facilities. Between 1990 and 1999, 245 new prisons were built in rural areas. See Calvin L. Beale, "Prisons, Population, and Jobs in Nonmetro America," Rural Development Perspectives 8, no. 3 (1993), 16-19; Calvin L. Beale, "Rural Prisons: An Update," Rural Development Perspectives 11, no. 2 (1996), 25-27; Tracy Huling, “Building a Prison Economy in Rural America,” in Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, edited by Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind (New York: The New Press, 2002), 197-213; Amy K. Glasmeier and Tracey L. Farrigan, "The Economic Impacts of the Prison Development Boom on Persistently Poor Rural Places," International Regional Science Review 30, no. 3 (2007), 274-99; Terry L. Besser and Margaret M. Hanson, “Development of Last Resort: The Impact of New State Prisons on Small Town Economies in the United States,” Journal of the Community Development Society 35, no. 2 (2004), 1-16; Susan H. Packard and Kevin E. Courtright, “Exploring Satisfaction and the Perception of Economic Impact Among Communities Hosting Correctional Institutions: A Qualitative Examination of Four Rural Communities in Pennsylvania,” International Journal of Business and Social Science 6, no. 8(1) (2015), 1-13; and Suzanne M. Kirchhoff, Economic Impacts of Prison Growth (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2010), 16. For example, between 1982 and 2010, New York constructed 40 new state prisons and located all of them in rural areas. Rebecca U. Thorpe, "Perverse Politics: The Persistence of Mass Imprisonment in the Twenty-first Century," Perspectives on Politics 13, no. 3 (2015), 618-37, 624. In Pennsylvania, between 1990 and 2000, the number of people in rural prisons rose by 187 percent (compared to a growth in the number of people in urban prisons of only 46 percent). At the turn of this century, rural areas had 11 incarcerated people per 1,000 residents and urban areas had only five per 1,000 residents. “Just the Facts: Prison Population Growth,” Center for Rural Pennsylvania Newsletter, November/December 2001, https://perma.cc/SMQ2-KPML; and Kirchhoff, Economic Impacts of Prison Growth, 2010, 16.  Siting prisons in rural areas—especially when coupled with restrictive visitation and furlough policies—has made it all the more difficult for people in prison to sustain personal relationships with their families and friends. With prisons farther from population centers, many more people are forced to serve their sentences in places that may be unreachable by public transit—and where visiting can place a substantial cost burden on friends and family, who may have to miss work, pay for childcare, and cover the costs of travel, including a place to stay, food, and gas.[]Léon Digard, Margaret diZerega, Allon Yaroni, and Joshua Rinaldi, A New Role for Technology? Implementing Video Visitation in Prison (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016), 2 & 4, https://perma.cc/3XQ2-V4CW.  Receiving fewer visits from family and friends not only exacerbates the isolating experience of prison, but it also implicates community safety, as regular visitation is associated with a reduction in future criminal justice contact after prison.[]Meghan Mitchell, Kallee Spooner, Di Jia, and Yan Zhang, “The Effect of Prison Visitation on Reentry Success: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Criminal Justice 47 (2016), 74-83 (finding that experiencing visitation resulted in a 26 percent decrease in recidivism).

On top of this, many state corrections agencies enforce strict visitation policies—including denying physical contact between individuals (even parents and their children), limiting the number of approved visitors, especially non-family visitors, limiting the length of each visit, and restricting the days on which visits are permitted.[]See Chesa Boudin, Trevor Stutz, and Aaron Littman, “Prison Visitation Policies: A Fifty-State Survey,” Yale Law & Policy Review 32, no. 1 (2013), 149-89, 160-61 (number and duration of visits), 163-65 (number and nature of visitors) & 167 (physical contact). For people in prison who are parents of young children, these policies are particularly destructive. Research indicates that parent-child visits are most successful for both parent and child when, among other things, they allow physical contact and are conducted in a child-friendly setting—provided by only a few facilities. See Lindsey Cramer, Margaret Goff, Bryce Peterson, and Heather Sandstrom, Parent-Child Visiting Practices in Prisons and Jails: A Synthesis of Research and Practice (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2017), 7, https://perma.cc/FBJ7-5TTK.  For those people who are able to visit their loved ones in prison, they often must undergo invasive search procedures—standard at most maximum-security facilities, even for children—which can be a traumatic experience that may deter future visits.[]The state of Florida recently enhanced its search procedures, subjecting 2,350 people—more than 97 percent of whom are women—to strip searches when their clothing set off metal detectors. Ben Conrack, “Women Describe ‘Degrading’ Strip Searches at Baker Prison Visitation,” Florida Times-Union, March 22, 2018, https://perma.cc/QW5J-NYU7. Also see Cramer, Goff, Peterson, and Sandstrom, Parent-Child Visiting Practices, 2017, 7-8; and Boudin, Stutz, and Littman, “Prison Visitation Policies,” 2013, 149 & 166-69.  And while advancements in technology theoretically should make it easier for people to stay in touch remotely through phone, email, and video calls, these opportunities are also often restricted and can be quite costly.[]Digard, diZerega, Yaroni, and Rinaldi, A New Role for Technology?, 2016. Additionally, some facilities foreclose in-person visitation after they introduce video visitation: it is estimated that nearly 75 percent of local jails institute policies that reduce or eliminate in-person visits once video calling is installed. Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner, Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2015), https://perma.cc/JJG6-MLVD. Video calls can be anywhere between $10 and $15 for a 30-minute computer connection; telephone calls are nearly $25 for only 15 minutes.[]Digard, diZerega, Yaroni, and Rinaldi, A New Role for Technology?, 2016, 13. According to one report, before the FCC instituted an 11 cents per minute rate cap in 2015, the average rate for in-state phone calls was $2.96 for 15 minutes, and the average rate for calls between states was $3.15 for 15 minutes. Under the Trump administration, the FCC has declared that it will no longer enforce the cap on in-state calls. Ann E. Marimow, “FCC Made a Case for Limiting Cost of Prison Phone Calls. Not Anymore,” Washington Post, February 5, 2017, https://perma.cc/2H5D-XTL8. Also see Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration,” Prison Policy Initiative, January 25, 2017 (prison phone companies may charge up to $24.95 for a 15-minute call), https://perma.cc/EL8N-GJ66.


The prison experience in America not only crushes one’s individual identity and robs one of dignity; it also produces long-term effects—including social and psychological adaptations to prison conditions and the lasting effects of trauma resulting from incarceration.[]“Prisonization,” a condition identified among incarcerated people as early as the 1950s, is the process of internalizing behaviors and values associated with prison life in an effort to cope with the requirements of institutional life. For a discussion of the psychological impacts of incarceration see Haney, The Psychological Impact of Incarceration (2002). Also see Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 176-78.  The National Academy of Sciences explains that this social adaptation to prison arises from two primary causes: (1) the “structure and routines [of prison] that can erode personal autonomy;” and (2) “the threat of victimization.”[]Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 177. The result of adaptation to prison routines is a set of behaviors and cognitive patterns that make life outside, where myriad decisions must be made daily, increasingly challenging the longer the person is incarcerated. To fend off victimization, incarcerated people may adopt physically and sexually aggressive behaviors or gang affiliations. Ibid.  The latter cause is key, as violence remains a regular occurrence within prisons. One study of 7,528 incarcerated people in 13 prisons found that nearly 40 percent of men and women in prison had experienced physical or sexual assault by staff or another incarcerated person within the previous six months, a finding echoed by other research.[]Nancy Wolff, Jing Shi, and Jane A. Siegel, “Patterns of Victimization Among Male and Female Inmates: Evidence of An Enduring Legacy,” Violence and Victims 24, no. 4 (2009), 469-84, 474 & table 1, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3793850/. Also see for example Tawandra L. Rowell-Cunsolo, Roderick J. Harrison, and Rawha Haile, “Exposure to Prison Sexual Assault Among Incarcerated Black Men,” Journal of African American Studies 18, no. 1 (2014), 54-62, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4203380/.  In addition, the rate of violence stemming from other incarcerated people—the most approximate measure of community-level violence in prison—was 10 times the rate of assault outside prison.[]Wolff, Shi, and Siegel, “Patterns of Victimization,” 2009, 470. Also see Nancy Wolff, Cynthia L. Blitz, Jing Shi, et al., “Physical Violence Inside Prisons: Rates of Victimization,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 34, no. 5 (2007), 588-99.

Both the fear and actual experience of victimization can result in deep and long-lasting distrust of others, inability to express or share emotions, feelings of anger, and an outsider mentality that can make it difficult for people to seek help from others.[]Rochelle F. Hanson, Genelle K. Sawyer, Angela M. Begle, and Grace S. Hubel, “The Impact of Crime Victimization on Quality of Life,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 23, no. 2 (2010), 189-97 (finding that crime victimization, especially of violence, impacts role functioning in parenting, intimate relationships, jobs, and social roles).  Psychologists have identified rates of PTSD among those incarcerated in prisons that are two to 10 times the rate of the general population, and they have discovered evidence of compounded versions of this condition in prison populations.[]Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 174-76. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as a set of related symptoms resulting from a specific or recurrent trauma, these include re-experiencing the trauma or flashbacks, avoidance or emotional numbing, negative cognitions such as loss of memory or depression, and aggressive, self-destructive, or hypervigilant behavior. See American Psychiatric Association, “What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” https://perma.cc/92CL-AV3B. Suicide rates are one of the few harms that are consistently measured by prison authorities: after years of holding steady, suicide rates in state prisons rose sharply in 2013—increasing by 30 percent from 2013 to 2014. Margaret E. Noonan, Mortality in State Prisons, 2001-2014 – Statistical Tables (Washington, DC: BJS, 2016), https://perma.cc/E64Y-6BWZ.  This “complex” PTSD results specifically from the repeated harms and “deformations of personality” that occur in captivity.[]Judith Herman’s proposed diagnosis of Complex PTSD would include “protracted depression, apathy, and the development of a deep sense of hopelessness.” See Judith Herman, “A New Diagnosis,” in Trauma and Recovery, edited by Judith Herman (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 115-29. Also see Craig Haney, Reforming Punishment: Psychological Limits to the Pains of Imprisonment (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2006), 185.  In addition to trauma arising from personal victimization, vicarious trauma—trauma that is incurred when one is exposed to other people’s suffering and need—also occurs in prison, meaning that few escape the effects of violence behind bars.[]Hearing about or witnessing serious bodily injury or the killing of another person can have significant consequences for bystanders. According to Nancy Wolff and colleagues, “research has found that even such passive activity is associated with emotional and behavioral effects similar to those found among direct victims of violence.” Wolff, Shi, and Siegel, “Patterns of Victimization,” 2009, 469 & 479. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists among the criteria for diagnosing PTSD: “Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways: . . . Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s) (e.g., first responders collecting human remains; police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse).” Work-related exposure through “electronic media, television, movies, or pictures” is also considered adequate to cause PTSD. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013), Diagnostic Criteria 309.81 (F43.10).

Loss of constitutional rights 

The current prison experience further isolates incarcerated people from society through civic exclusion and the denial of constitutional rights guaranteed to those outside of prison. Incarcerated individuals generally lose their right to privacy in prison, and they are not protected from warrantless searches of their persons or cells.[]Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517 (1984), https://perma.cc/G7LQ-9NBR.  In all but two states, they are deprived of their right to vote while incarcerated, a ban that can follow them back into the community and sometimes last their whole lives.[]Maine and Vermont are the only U.S. states that provide incarcerated people with the opportunity to vote. Dozens of countries, including Canada, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and South Africa, allow most people in prison to vote. See “International Comparison of Felon Voting Laws,” ProCon.org, https://perma.cc/Q56Q-JWRP. For U.S.-specific laws, see “State Felon Voting Laws,” ProCon.org, https://perma.cc/W6CU-LEG4.  Although people in prison retain some due process rights and are protected against unequal treatment or cruel and unusual punishment, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, together with rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, serve to deny incarcerated people meaningful access to courts due to a host of unique restrictions and strict legal standards.[]The PLRA’s restrictions include: (1) a strict interpretation of “exhaustion of internal prison remedies”; (2) a mandatory showing of physical, not just psychological, injury; (3) the strict application of the grievance exhaustion requirement to detained or incarcerated children, who must act on their own behalf rather than through a guardian; (4) limited court oversight of prison conditions; and (5) a limitation on attorney fees, making it difficult for potential applicants to obtain legal representation. See David Fathi, No Equal Justice: The Prison Litigation Reform Act in the United States (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2009), https://perma.cc/VMN3-5BGY. Also see Gibbons and Katzenbach, Confronting Confinement, 2006, 84-87. Additionally, although the United States Supreme Court has affirmed that solitary confinement is a form of punishment subject to scrutiny under Eighth Amendment standards, most federal courts have been unreceptive to limiting its use. This is because to succeed, an incarcerated person must satisfy a particularly onerous two-part test: first, his or her alleged suffering must be reasonably serious; and second, prison officials must have acted with “deliberate indifference to the prisoner’s health and safety”—where “deliberate indifference” is only proved if it is shown that prison officials “kn[e]w that inmates face[d] a substantial risk of serious harm,” but “fail[ed] to take reasonable measures to abate it.” See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), https://perma.cc/PQ4Q-M9LT.  In-prison administrative procedures do not provide people with an adequate substitute forum: weak internal complaint processes limit a person’s ability to alert officials to staff misconduct or other wrongful behavior by the prison administration or staff that violates peoples’ rights.[]Gibbons and Katzenbach, Confronting Confinement, 2006, 86-87.  Few jurisdictions have the sort of robust prison oversight mechanisms that might allow for independent inspections or investigations that could examine the treatment of people in prison and inquire into specific allegations of wrongdoing.[]See Michele Deitch, “The Need for Independent Prison Oversight in a Post-PLRA World,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 24, no. 4 (2012), 236-44; and David C. Fathi, “The Challenge of Prison Oversight,” American Criminal Law Review 47, no. 4 (2010), 1453-1577.  For incarcerated people, the right to justice is all but nonexistent.

The prison experience for corrections staff

Group Created with Sketch.
Getty Images 50622868 Copy