Prisons as Social Policy, United States

  • James D. SlackEmail author
Living reference work entry


Social Policy Restorative Justice Correctional Officer Prison System Maximum Security 
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Deadline: A form of punishment in the nineteenth century, where an inmate would be shot to death if he crossed a particular line in the yard.

Just desert: The theory behind retribution. A convicted criminal will get what he deserves, or his “just desert.”

Lock-step: a form of punishment where an inmate walking in line must keep the toe of the shoe on the heel of the inmate’s shoe in front of him.

Rates of recidivism: the proportion of former inmates who reenter the prison system.

Stocks: A form of punishment used primarily in colonial times through the nineteenth century, where an inmate’s head and hands are locked in place for an indefinite amount of time.


America is a land of prisons and prisoners (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2016). It ranks first in the world with over 4500 facilities. Russia, second in the world when it comes to the number of prisons, has four times fewer than what is found in the USA. While having only 5% of the world’s population, one in four of the world’s inmates is serving time in American prisons. There are 2.8 million Americans in prison. One child in every 128 has a parent incarcerated. Nearly one-third of all black men in the USA will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.

American federalism is reflected in the prison systems. There are a little more than 100 federal prisons and about 130 private prisons, but the remaining thousands are divided among the 50 states’ departments of correction. Prison systems, however, share some commonalities. All tend to be organized into three categories. Maximum security prisons hold the most dangerous offenders. These facilities are built with confined quarters, sections demarcated with a series of iron gates and doors that open mechanically, and layers of electrified razor-wired fencing separating the various subunits and surrounding the entire facility. Electrified razor-wire fencing typically is planted 5–8 f. into the ground to prevent underground escape attempts. The entire facility is marked with watchtowers.

The second level consists of combinations of medium and maximum security facilities. When located within a blended institution, the maximum security component is segregated with similar safety features as found in the stand-alone maximum security prisons. Inmates in the medium-security units, whether blended or stand-alone, are afforded more allowances. Still housed in traditional prison blocks, they tend to have more time to socialize in common areas and in the outside yard. There may be a better library and more lenient gymnasium visitations. There may also be more opportunities to engage in faith-based activities. The environment is a bit more relaxed because the inmates, in comparison to those in the maximum security units, are deemed to be a lesser threat to themselves, other inmates, and the correctional officers.

The third level consists of minimum-security facilities, and these are sometimes called camps, farms, or detention centers. Low-risk inmates, serving time for nonviolent crimes, are placed in this category. The housing tends to be dormitory or military bunk bed, in style. The living arrangements tend to have unlocked doors to allow inmates freedom to walk about. Inmates may even be assigned to work details outside the facility, picking up trash along the highways, or cleaning the inside of public buildings. Some minimum-security facilities have programs that engage the inmate with paid private sector jobs during the day or provide weekend furloughs to visit loved ones.


The modern prison stems from colonial times (Stohr and Walsh 2016). The Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay colonies developed the earliest arrangements for incarcerating offenders. These arrangements included pretrial housing in homes, taverns, and barns. Posttrial sentencing, if not hanging, included stocks. This was a wooden two-part devise with three holes cut as corresponding semicircles in both the upper and lower sections of the wood. With the two parts opened, the convicted person’s head and hands were fit into the holes. When the two parts closed and locked, the head and hands remained stationary. Stocks typically were located in a public area so the convicted person would also receive ridicule and scorn from the community. Early colonial confinement and punishment also included the European tradition of charging fees to each incarcerated man.

Given the influx of new settlers from Europe, these makeshift arrangements became inefficient and ineffective. Many inmates could not afford the fee, and, furthermore, confinement in a house, tavern, or barn was not secure.

Three models of prisons emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and parts of these models are seen in contemporary prisons (Krisberg et al. 2015). The Pennsylvania Model was structured around the idea that inmate punishment was best served in isolation. If inmates were kept from one another, the less chance of corruption by the other. Hence, the purpose of segregation was both to punish and to rehabilitate. Prisons adopting the Pennsylvania Model employed codes of silence. No man could speak unless specifically asked a question by a correctional officer. Inmates were not allowed to eat, socialize, or work with other inmates.

The New York Model was predicated on the idea that punishment and rehabilitation was most effective when associated with the value of community. Prisons using this model required collective work and common socialization. Inmates were organized into work teams, and they were permitted to eat and talk in common areas. Like the Pennsylvania Model, however, inmates slept in single cells isolated from one another.

The Newgate Prison Model is the third model of prison. Connecticut’s Newgate Prison was founded on Quaker values. From confession and forgiveness would flow redemption and rehabilitation. Faith was incorporated into the everyday activities of the inmate. Prayer was consistent throughout the day – at dawn, before and after meals, before and after work, and at dusk. Church services were daily, and bible study was mandatory.

Prisons as Social Policy

For most Americans, prisons are used as a social policy (Cullen et al. 2014). However, which aspect of social policy is most effective, or even desirable, is debated widely in the USA. There are five aspects of social policy that influence, or are influenced by, correctional institutions in the USA. First, prisons perform an incapacitation function in society. As long as a criminal is locked-up, he or she can do no further harm to citizens in the community. The incapacity function also is applied to safety inside the prison. Segregation blocks are used to keep very dangerous criminals from harming other inmates. Incapacity social policy is best seen in maximum security facilities.

Second, prisons implement retribution. It is the basis of the “just desert” theory. Convicts get what they deserve – their “just desert” – through punishment. Some historical acts of retribution are now viewed as cruel and unusual punishment. Examples include the “deadline” and the “lock-step.” The deadline was used before the invention of electrified razor-wire fence. It entailed an invisible line that, if crossed by an inmate, a guard with a rifle would shoot to kill. (Hence, this is the origins of the term “deadline.”) The lock-step was a more Draconian punishment because it was used every day on every inmate. Whenever they moved from one part of the prison to another, inmates were lined up in single file. Their hands were on the shoulders of the inmate in front, and their entire torsos were pasted together. When they marched, each inmate’s toe had to be in constant touch with the heel of the inmate ahead. When an inmate got out of lock-step, he was beaten. The lock-step was so painful that, not uncommon, some inmates opted for suicide after just a period of months in prison.

Contemporary forms of in-house retribution include lock-down, where a block of inmates are locked in their respective cells for a period of time; transfer to segregation, where one inmate is placed into lock-down within a segregation block; denial of parole and, hence, the inmate is forced to reach end-of-sentence status; and extension of sentence, due to conviction of further crimes committed in prison. The policy of retribution, while evident in all facilities, is seen most vividly in maximum security institutions.

Deterrence is a third aspect of social policy. Prisons are believed to deter further crime by the convict when he or she is either paroled or exits at end of sentence. Prisons are also believed to stop other citizens from committing crimes. Many prisons set up special programs for juveniles who have crime records. These at-risk children visit a prison where selected inmates give them a glimpse of life in the facility. Some corrections departments have established programs that encourage any citizen or civic group to visit a prison to see deterrence in action. Through these kinds of programs, it is hoped that at-risk youth will think twice about crime, and citizens will not think twice about advocating on behalf of prisons in their communities and state. Deterrence is the logic behind both maximum and medium security institutions.

A fourth aspect of social policy is rehabilitation. This policy requires changing the attitudes of inmates to make each want to stay away from crime once he or she exits the institution. Prisons are criticized for failing the rehabilitation function (Cullen et al. 2014). Rates of recidivism tend to be over 50% and can be as high as 90% (Slack 2014). Primarily due to limited state funding, prisons tend to choose the cost-effective routes of social policy – incapacitation, retribution, and deterrence. Rehabilitation is a labor-intensive process, requiring counseling, small-group session, and opportunities to learn skills useful on the outside. Rehabilitation is most effective in minimal security level facilities.

The fifth aspect of social policy found in prisons is reintegration. Like rehabilitation, reintegration tends to be less than successful (Mears and Cochran 2015). It costs money to prepare an inmate to go back into society. Preparing inmates to cope with fundamental issues – like starting a checking account or using the internet to search and apply for a job or how to interview – requires institutional capacity that is often lacking. Further, an inmate exiting the institution needs hard cash in order to survive. Some states give the exiting inmate as little as $10 and a bus ticket. Too often, the bus ticket is sold, and all cash is consumed by dinner on that first day (Slack 2014). The inmate then has to choose between criminal activity (and reentry into the prison system) or becoming homeless and unsuccessful in reentering the free world. Reentry programs work best in minimal security prisons, and they fail worst in maximum security facilities.

Conclusion: Prisons as Social Policy

Contemporary prisons in the USA face many problems. Some are ageless problems, dealing with the politics of overcrowding (see Pratt 2009) and perhaps even representing a new form of Jim Crow social policy (Alexander 2012). Is the purpose of prisons to warehouse or change inmates? That question has never been fully answered. Effective faith-based programs are increasingly challenged (Sullivan 2009), inmate-victim restorative justice activities remain experimental (Zehr 2002), and effective reentry programs are rare (Mears and Cochran 2015). Yet American prisons do reflect social policy. Whatever successes or failures encountered, they gauge the priorities and fears of society.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Jackson State UniversityJacksonUSA