How to Improve Todays Prisons

Today’s prisons are a vast improvement over what prisons were even a few decades ago.  Historically speaking, it’s easy to see how the prisons of times past needed to be improved.  Debtors prisons, for example, kept a person confined until they could raise the money to pay off their fines and debts.  The obvious problem there is a person can’t make money if they’re confined, leaving the concept behind a debtors prison inherently flawed.  Prisons never used to provide health care to their inmate populations, leaving many to die of disease or sickness regardless of how severe their crimes were. 

So, looking at issues like these, it’s obvious how improvements have been made over time to the prison systems in the more developed nations of the world.  Providing sanitary conditions, adequate staffing levels, necessary healthcare, and programs tailored to the individual inmate are just some of those improvements in modern prisons.

But, can the prisons of today be improved more?  Of course they can.

With high recidivism rates for criminals, overcrowding, and continued criminal activity by those incarcerated in our prisons, to name some of only a few ofthe problems that exist in our modern prisons, the need for imporvements to the system exists still.  The question that must be answered, is how to make changes that benefit society, but also take care of the needs of the inmate populations.


Today’s prison populations put a great strain on a system designed to realistically house only a limited number of people.  According to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, between the years 2002 and 2003, the number of inmates housed in Federal prisons in the United States increased by 5.4 percent, and State prison inmate populations increased by 2.6 percent.  This represented the largest prison population increase in four years.  That’s a huge increase in people housed in prisons, without a corresponding rise in the numbers of staff and resources in those prisons.

Hearing such statistics, many argue that the solution is to reduce the prison population.  This is not the answer to the problem, and there are several reasons why it isn’t.  For one thing, these persons committed to prison have been convicted of felony-level crimes, for the most part, and society has determined they need to be incarcerated for the safety and well-being of everyone else.  To release them early, or not send them to prison at all, is like saying society doesn’t care if they get punished for their crimes. 

Even if you could accept the argument that some of these people that are in prison should be released to reduce the population, how do you decide which ones get let go?  Do we let go the person who sold drugs to the kid down the street?  Or the drunk driver on his fourth DUI arrest?  And, who would make the decisions about who gets let go?

The answer to the problem of overcrowding is not to reduce the number of people being sentenced to prison.  The answer is to create adequate resources in order to hold the people society has sentenced to time locked away.  If our nation’s schools are overcrowded, the answer is not to teach less students in order to reduce the burden on our education system.  The answer is to build more classrooms or schools and hire more teachers.  Similarly, if there are too few prisons to house the criminals, the answer is to build more prisons or add on to the existing ones, and hire more staff to man those prisons.  This answer has the benefit of protecting society properly, and of creating new jobs, which also helps society.  After all, creating jobs for people is supposed to reduce the incidence of crime.

Inmates running the facility.

Inmates have a variety of freedoms even though they are incarcerated.  They get to watch television, get to attend school classes, get to play handball and basketball, and in general have an immense amount of time on their hands.  Some enterprising inmates even set up little kingdoms for themselves within their little worlds.  In these kingdoms, not only inmates but also correctional staff end up catering to the desires of these inmate kingpins.  This practice needs to end.

Inmates should be treated with the basic respects that all human beings are treated with.  They should not, however, in any way, be treated as though they are not inmates.  Corrections Officers should tell inmates what to do, and should expect inmates to do what they are told.  Strategies need to be put into place to correct the behavior of any inmate who tries to exert authority over other inmates or even corrections staff.  If it means putting more people into solitary confinement situations where they are locked into their cells for most of the day, then so be it.  Nowhere does it say that incarceration has to involve freedom of movement.

Whether you feel inmates are in prisons to be rehabilitated or to be punished, everyone can agree that inmates are there to be inmates.  Allowing inmates to gain any measure of control over the prison system undermines the authority of the prison, and defeats the whole purpose.  An inmate who gains this power for themselves while incarcerated will be neither punished, nor rehabilitated.

Too many freedoms?

It’s hard to believe that the law gives inmates freedoms while locked up.  But it does.  While in prison, inmates often have greater access to things like television, phone service, food, and medical services than do hard-working people who never commit crimes but can’t make ends meet. 

And in this, somewhere, is part of the answer to recidivism rates for criminals.  Who wouldn’t want to live somewhere that takes care of all your basic needs, and then some, for free?

I won’t go so far as to say all rights should be taken away from inmates.  But I do believe inmates have too many rights and privileges.  Flat screen televisions with access to premium movie channels?  Why?  Now, to be fair, in prisons such as New York State’s Ausining Prison (aka Sing Sing) and others, inmates have to pay for their televisions, and they are small portable sets.  This seems like a good compromise to me.  If everyone else in the country has to pay for their own television, why would we give it free to people who have committed felony-level crimes?  Why reward them for their behavior?

Medical treatment.

Medical care is a necessity for inmates, and our modern prisons deliver.  Any time a society takes on the responsibility of caring for a person, whether it is an orphan in foster care or an inmate in prison, that responsibility must be met.  And part of that is providing adequate health care.  But it should be only that: adequate.  Many inmates have minor medical issues that they themselves would never think of taking care of while outside of prison.  Why should society pay for it to be taken care of for them while they are incarcerated for crimes against society?  Inmates have asked for medical attention for everything from sore joints to sex change operations, and in many cases, been granted that care.  Extreme cases such as abortions being paid for are not unheard of.  That needs to stop.  Life threatening conditions, or medical conditions that create substantial pain or impairment of life for the inmate, need to be taken care of, and yes, taken care of at the expense of us tax-paying citizens.  But we should not have to pay for inmates to get false teeth.  Or lemon-flavored laxatives to alleviate an upset stomach.  Or any of a host of other things that the prison system currently lets slide through simply because it’s too much trouble to say no. 

It’s time to say no.

Updated training.

Prisons have come a long way from the days when the guards would simply thump people on the head if they didn’t behave, or lock them in a box for a day or two.  Today’s corrections officers are knowledgeable, wise, and savvy.  But that training needs to be constantly updated.  Today, corrections officers need to know how to handle problems such as gang affiliations, sexual abuse, and a constant prison contraband issue.  It is important that these officers keep ahead of inmates who have all day to think of ways to subvert the system to their own needs.

Corrections officers need to be more than gate keepers.  Today they need to be part counselor, part father figure, and full-time problem solvers.  Giving these officers the mental tools necessary to do their jobs should be a foremost consideration for any correctional staff.

Are there other ways prisons can be improved?  Of course there are.  An article on this subject could easily develop into a book.  But lets start with the basics.  These include adequate facilities to house an ever-growing inmate population, adequate training for those officers who staff these prisons, and making sure inmates don’t have too many reasons to want to be in prison in the first place.  Every person should be involved in formulating ways to improve the system that keeps society safe from those who would cause harm to other people.  Contact your legislators, talk to those corrections officers and prison employees living in your area, and find out what can be done, and what should be done.