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Useful Notes / American Prisons

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The United States has the world's highest incarceration rate. One person in a hundred people are in prison, and one person out of thirty-one people are in prison, probation or on parole. (Note that a very large percentage of this is argued to be due to the "War on Drugs" by opponents of said movement.) The rate is especially high among black men. Important to note is the American philosophy that prisons are more for punishment, deterrence, and incapacitation than they are for rehabilitation. Whether or not it works (which is quite debatable), rehabilitation is low on the prison system's list of priorities. This skepticism results in longer sentencing as well. For example, in much of Europe, "life" is 20 years, with about seven to ten years off that for good behavior. In the US, this varies from 25 years (with parole hearings possible after half that time) to a very literal "lock 'em up and throw away the key" sentence (more typically referred to as "life without parole"). Sometimes, it's even a Longer-Than-Life Sentence. In the federal system, early release on parole is even forbidden for prisoners convicted for offenses committed after November 1, 1987, but time off for good behavior remains. In the 1980s, there was a trend towards determinate sentencing (a fixed sentence with a certain number of years, as opposed to "10 to life"), statutory sentencing guidelines, and mandatory minimums that made sentencing relatively predictable (and harsh, especially for drug offenses), but the trend in the 21st century has perhaps been slowly moving away from that.

Technically speaking, a jail is where someone is placed while awaiting trial or to serve sentences under one year, while a prison (also known as correctional institution, penitentiary, or correctional facility) is for persons serving a year or more. However, the words are often used interchangeably. Even people sentenced to long prison terms may spend a significant portion of their time in a local jail, and placement in a permanent prison can sometimes take more than a year before a space is found (especially if the prisoner has a problematic history in prison already or has enemies in particular prisons narrowing the choices where they can be sent).

There are prisons run by the federal government (both for civilians and the military), states, counties, and cities. People convicted of federal crimes normally go to federal prison, people convicted of state crimes to to state prisons, and so on. Counties and cities usually run jails, not prisons. In recent years, however, there's been a significant amount of cooperation and contracting between the federal, state, and local governments in transferring prisoners, where one government that doesn't have space in its prison system will pay another to keep some of its prisoners (California started exporting prisoners to other states in 2010 and the Federal government often does this with immigration detainees). There are also privately-operated prisons, which contract with the state or federal governments on a per-diem rate to hold their prisoners (over 260 facilities holding nearly 100,000 prisoners nationwide as of 2010). Needless to say, this is highly controversial. As of 2016, the federal government has ceased contracting with privately-operated prison corporations.

One half of prisoners in federal prisons are there on drug-related charges.

There are a variety of levels of security, ranging from minimum (dormitory-style rooms, one fence) up to Supermax (twenty-three hours a day in a single-person cell, lethal electric fences). Minimum security facilities, especially in the Federal system, are sometimes jokingly referred to as "Club Fed". Conversely, many supposedly medium- and high-security state prisons, especially in California, are so overcrowded that they've had to bunk inmates in gymnasiums and hallways. Modern prisons, at least medium- to high-security ones built since about the 1980s or so, no longer look like giant halls with long tiers of cells, but are more decentralized and low-rise, built in a "campus" layout around individual, self-contained "pods" or "modules" that have 20-50 cells arranged around a central control desk or observation area where a single corrections officer can see into every cell. (The television show Oz best represents what this design looks like.) This is done to further control and minimize movement of prisoners throughout the facility and to cut down on the amount of staff required to run the prison.

Prisons other than minimum security (and sometimes even those) are notorious for Prison Rape. The actual prevalence of it is subject to debate, with many prison officials claiming that it either does not exist or is very rare. As a result, inmates attempting to report rape are usually not believed or just get No Sympathy. Often, word of reporting it gets back to the rapist, who then punishes the victim further. A surprisingly high amount of prison rape is perpetuated by staff, and an unsurprisingly high amount of it occurs in juvenile facilities. Much actual prison rape tends to use coercion, psychological pressure, or veiled threats rather than actual physical force or violence. For a very depressing look at the subject, go here. The federal government passed a law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, that sought to provide significant resources to study and help fight the problem on a national level.

American prisons are also known as breeding grounds for racism and gangs. Prisons with violent inmates often have racist gangs, which tend to divide up into White, Black and Hispanic. Sitting with or hanging out with someone of a different race than your own may lead to your being attacked. Just consider yourself warned to find out the situation before doing so. (There's actually a logical but depressingly self-reinforcing reason for this: every race demands loyalty so they have troops in case they're at war with another race, and prevents their members from hanging out with other races to prevent personal disagreements from starting racial incidents in the first place, but that prevents anyone from ever seeing prison life as anything other than racially-driven, so it's a vicious cycle.) Some of these gangs, such as the Aryan Brotherhood and Mexican Mafia, have since spread beyond prison walls, with inmates taking their gang ties with them as they're released. In fact, in some states, like California, the majority of organized and gang crime 'on the street' is controlled by prison gangs from inside prison, on the logic that people involved in gangs or criminal activity are probably going to wind up doing some prison time sooner or later, where they might have friends among the gangs inside, or not. (Some gangs even require prospective members to do some time in prison at some point!) The power of prison gangs drove much of the enthusiasm for Supermax prisons in the 1990s as a (harsh and extremely expensive) solution to the problem by isolating as totally as possible anyone who was even suspected of being a gang member.

It isn't unusual for non-violent offenders to remain out on bail after sentencing for anywhere from a week to six months before reporting to prison, as seen in Orange Is the New Black. Usually, this gives a convict the chance to get their affairs in order and spend time with their families while the system finds a spot for them.

  • Ken Lay of Enron had a heart attack during this period; convicted hedge fund manager Samuel Israel III faked his death to escape, but was captured and incarcerated two years later. Both were wealthy middle-aged men convicted of major financial crimes and given 20-plus-year sentences.
  • Kiefer Sutherland, star of 24, got an agreement when he was convicted of a repeat drink-driving offence to take his (short) sentence during filming breaks. In the end, the writers' strike postponed Season 7 a whole year, so Kiefer did his time in one go instead.

Working on the Chain Gang

A rather American phenomenon, this involved people being chained together as they chipped stone on a highway. Only Maricopa County, Arizona now uses this. Other jurisdictions use more modern implementations of this, such as sheriff's work crews. These work crews aren't chained together and are not high-risk offenders.

Within the prison itself, a great deal of the work done by inmates involves the maintenance of the prison itself — cooking, laundry, etc. In addition, prisons were once the go-to labor force for government agencies that needed to make something; the classic is license plates, but everything from uniforms to aggregate was once a product of "hard labor". In at least one case of highly predictable irony, prisoners used the guard uniforms that they were charged with sewing to attempt escape. These days, a fair fraction of US military hardware, like body armor and ammunition belts — not ammunition, weapons or explosives, obviously — is made with convict labor. Some prisons are even large enough to grow crops inside their walls, and produce a portion of their own food in this way. Many smaller, lower-security prisons are set up as work camps to provide labor to military bases or other government facilities, or for activities like land conservation or agriculture. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, prison labor was used to produce a wide variety of necessities, including hand sanitizer, paper products, and personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses.

An unfortunate side effect of this was that until World War II, (and, debatably, even today) particularly in the former Confederacy, young able-bodied black men (and occasionally women) were arrested on trumped-up or fabricated charges, then sentenced to hard labor on local plantations, mines, or manufacturing concerns. Once in the system, prisoners would often be accused of additional crimes to lengthen their sentence, or their paperwork would simply get lost in the shuffle.

Ol' Sparky

The topic of the death penalty is controversial in the US, to put it bluntly. No other Western, developed country uses the death penalty (a few developed Eastern countries do, though). The pro side says it deters crime and prevents repeat offenses, while the con side says it is discriminatory, barbaric, an overreach of government authority, and irreversible in case of error. And that it doesn't deter crime, though repeat offenses ARE infrequent. Also, because of appeals, it can be shown that the total cost to incarcerate someone for 40 years (because of, say, life without parole) is less than the total cost of a successful capital case. One city had to raise taxes to handle the cost of a crime which was prosecuted as a capital case, and in the end the guy still only got life. It took four years to pay off the bill. All in all, the debate may give you a headache.

Twenty-seven US statesnote  have statutes allowing capital punishment. Some states use this more than others. For instance, Texas has executed 449 inmates since 1976, while Virginia, with the second highest number of executions, had only 105. (Partly justified as Texas's total population is about 3 times that of Virginia's.) Ironically, the definition of what constitutes a "capital murder" in Texas is one of the strictest standards in the countrynote .) Also, the federal government and the US military can use capital punishment. The federal government performed 13 executions in the last seven months of the Trump administration (July 2020–January 2021) after having performed none since 2003. The military's last execution was in 1961, though it has six people on its death row (all for murder).

Nobody since 1964 has been executed for anything but aggravated murder or conspiracy to murder. A few states have odd capital crimes like train wrecking (California) or aircraft hijacking (Alabama), but in 2008, the Supreme Court found capital punishment unconstitutional in crimes that did not involve death (or espionage, treason, or terrorism). These could only be enforced as murders by other names. There may be some additional military-specific offenses that could result in a death sentence (e.g.: mutiny or desertion) but the Supreme Court decision didn't reach those circumstances and the US has not executed anyone for desertion since 1945.

Lethal injection is the normal method of execution. Some states still allow hanging, firing squads, or gas chamber executions, but these are rare. For over one year, Nebraska had the death sentence with no way to implement it. Electrocution had been the only approved execution method since 1913, but was banned as cruel and unusual punishment by the state Supreme Court in February 2008. A law approving lethal injection made it through the Unicameral in May 2009. The state of Florida kept the electric chair even after condemned were catching on fire in it in the late 1990s, considering it to be a deterrent, but eventually switched to lethal injection, though still allows condemned to choose the chair if they want.

There really is the "last meal" for prisoners a day before their execution. Besides alcohol or tobacco, the prisoner's wishes are usually granted (within reason). Last rites are offered, as well. More info on what the last day of a death row inmate's life is like can be seen here.

A common dramatic device used in media is the last second reprieve. The state governor or the president can stop the execution. Sometimes, at least. Quite a few states do not allow the governor to grant clemency or pardon without the approval of a board, and the US President cannot, presumably, interfere with a state execution (though he can with a federal one, and must personally sign all death warrants for military executions).

With the advent of DNA testing, quite a few prisoners on death row have been found not guilty and released. As for persons already executed, supporters of the death penalty claim they were all (or almost all) guilty, overlooking the fact that U.S. courts refuse to reopen cases where someone is executed based on the fact that you can't bring someone back to life, as well as that no one else but the prisoner them self has standing to bring about suit.

In some states, the Governor has the power to pardon a person (wipe away the conviction) or commute their sentence (wipe away or shorten it, or in the case of a death sentence, reduce it to life imprisonment.) The Governor of Massachusetts did this when he granted Sacco and Vanzetti a pardon, albeit he hadn't even been born when they were tried and they were executed 50 years before the pardon was issued. The President also has the authority to pardon and commute for federal offenses; nearly every President goes on a pardoning frenzy for all their buddies during the last weeks of their administration.

  • It even occurred in The West Wing- Jed Bartlett's last act in office was pardoning Toby Ziegler.

Prison and Debt

A more recent development is that prison is often not free anymore with inmates being charged for amenities and lodging, and sometimes being put back into prison for failure to pay those debts.

Common stand-up jokes

Incidentally, if you hear a comedian or commentator ranting about America's litigious society, they might reference the fact that the doctor performing a lethal injection note  sterilizes the needle before inserting it into the condemned. There really are good reasons for this:
  • As mentioned above, there is the potential for a last-minute commutation.
  • If something went wrong, like the prisoner deciding to fight to the end, somebody else could get stuck with that needle.
  • The needles are pre-sterilized anyway by the manufacturer.
  • Medical procedures are safest when the physician follows a routine. As any skydiving instructor can tell you, the people who die aren't the first-timers, but the people who've been doing it so long that they sleepwalk through planning and preparation.

See also the Useful Notes for American Courts.