What you Need to Know about the American Prison System

This graph by wikimedia commons shows the increase in prison population despite the decrease in crime rate since 1978.

This graph by wikimedia commons shows the increase in prison population despite the decrease in crime rate since 1978.

The American Prison System has an extensive developmental history. The modern prison system in American relies on a collaboration of many ideologies. The basis of this system can be sourced back to the eighth amendment, which prohibits any form of cruel and unusual punishment. The country recognized a need for criminals to face consequences without subjecting them to pain and torturous suffering. 

Before analyzing the purpose of the nation’s prison system, it is important to understand the difference between jails and prisons. A jail is a detainment center that holds those awaiting trial or sentencing. This is what is implied through the concept of bail, which is a payment that would allow a defendant to avoid spending time in jail before their trial.

Prison, on the other hand, is a detainment center for those who have been convicted of a crime. It is what a judge can sentence a guilty person to as punishment. The American Prison system has shown many areas of controversy, including privatisation and living conditions for inmates. 

The most important topic of controversy, however, is what the purpose of the prison system is and whether or not it is fulfilling that purpose. Oxford scholars have summarized these purposes into four categories:

  • Deterrence: Sentencing guilty people to prison should prevent people outside of the prison from wanting to commit crimes. Unfortunately, this ideology has been difficult to support, as there is no evidence of correlation between length of imprisonment and crime rate. 
  • Retribution: This purpose stems from the belief that a punishment should fit the crime, or that whatever harm was done to the victim should equal the harm that will be done to the perpetrator. This way of sentencing does not necessarily align with the eighth amendment, and it is nearly impossible to legally assess the severity of a crime in this way without bias. 
  • Incapacitation: This believes that extremely dangerous criminals should not be allowed to threaten a community, therefore it is necessary for them to be imprisoned so they cannot inflict anymore harm. This reduces crime rate in the sense that it restricts a likely offender from committing a crime. 
  • Reformation: This way of thinking believes that a prisoner should be able to amend themselves to become a law abiding citizen upon release. Most prisons have proven to be ineffective in this sense, which is why prison reform is a strongly pushed concept in modern politics. 


Oxford scholars have also concluded that the goals of a prison should include keeping prisoners in custody, maintaining order and discipline that allows for a safe environment, provide basic conditions for prisoners to meet their needs, provide positive regimes to help prisoners address their offences, and help prepare prisoners to return to their communities. 

Unfortunately, it is apparent that the goals are not being met in prisons all across America. Many people are advocating for functional reformation of the prison system. 

According to the Charles Koch Institute, prison reformation is a remedy to the ineffectiveness of the justice system. For example, in America, since 1978, the amount of incarcerated people increased by 390 percent, despite a decline in crime rate. Also, in total, 80 percent of those released from state prisons are rearrested in the future. 

Reformation in American would focus on ensuring public safety by implementing constructive measures that would allow the system to model and incentivise responsibility and self control,  ensure access to programs which help individuals gain knowledge, skills, job training, and positive values, and revise correctional policies to ensure that minimal barriers exist to maintaining positive community relationships during the period of incarceration.

Also according to the Charles Koch Institute, various studies of minor implementations of forms of reform have been conducted. For example, mental health support in prison was found to reduce misconduct incidents by 22 percent. Substance abuse treatment in one California prison resulted in a 48 percent reduction in reincarceration.

Multiple educational and job training programs have shown to reduce recidivism by 13 percent, decrease incident reports for prisoner misconduct by 4 percent, and increase post-release employment by 13 percent.

It is crucial to understand what prison reform entails in order to ensure that all people, including those incarcerated, can contribute to the betterment of society.  By ensuring that individuals have the opportunity to use their time incarcerated in a constructive manner and allowing them to maintain positive relationships with their support network, the likelihood that they become productive members of society after imprisonment will increase. 




Morris, N., & Rothman, D. J. (1998). The Oxford history of the prison: The practice of punishment in western society. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Mosteller, J. (2019, August 09). Why Prison Reform Matters in America. Retrieved November 06, 2020, from https://www.charleskochinstitute.org/issue-areas/criminal-justice-policing-reform/why-prison-reform-matters/