By Scott Benowitz | The Pavlovic Today

The country that has the highest percentage of its own population in prisons is the United States Of America, and this has been the case for many years. Scott Benowitz takes an in-depth look at an overdue prison reform.

Photo: COO Photo: COO

As of the time that I’m writing this article in July of 2018, the country that has the highest percentage of its own population in prisons is the United States Of America, and this has been the case for many years.  The reasons why we have such a high crime rate in a country which is as technologically advanced as the U.S. are complex and numerous; there are entire rows of shelves in academic libraries throughout the U.S. (and probably in academic libraries in a number of other countries as well) which are devoted to analyzing the numerous factors which contribute to the high rates of crime in our country.  While analyzing the numerous factors which continue to contribute to our annual high crime rates, and thus the high incarceration rates in the U.S. is very complex, looking at some ideas for prison reform which could potentially contribute to reducing recidivism is notably simple.


In this article, I’m going to look at three ideas which could contribute towards ending our nation’s “revolving door” prison system, and contribute to ending the repeating cycles of violence that have been plaguing our country for many decades now.  I’m going to examine two different kinds of racial segregation which still occur in prisons throughout the U.S., and I’m also going to look at which kinds of rehabilitation, educational and vocational programs appear to be successful in assisting people with readjusting to a healthy life in which they can find jobs and live productive lives after they complete their sentences.


I would like to point out to our readers here that I am not an expert in prison reform or programs that exist in prisons throughout the world.  You don’t need to be to notice this. All anyone needs to do is to watch television shows such as LockdownHard TimeGanglandGangland UndercoverThe Big HouseAmerica’s Prison Nation and America’s Hardest Prisonsto notice that the conditions which exist in city, state and Federal prisons throughout the country.


A Brief History Of Segregation In The U.S. Prisons

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in prisons in many (though not all) states, prison wardens segregated the housing blocks in prisons according to inmates’ races.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964ended all legalized racial segregation throughout the entire U.S., including within prisons.  Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the departments of corrections and the bureaus of prisons in every state were required to integrate all of their facilities.


While prison wardens are not permitted to segregate the housing units in prison based on the ethnicities of the inmates, in the maximum security and the supermax prisons within some of the states’ prison systems, wardens segregate the housing blocks based on prisoners’ gang affiliations.  This effectively results in housing blocks becoming segregated according to the ethnicities of the inmates because most street gangs are comprised entirely of people who are from the same races.


Guards state that this is specifically reserved only for the most violent of inmates, and that this is the easiest way to prevent the inmates from fighting amongst each other as well as to prevent them from killing each other.  This probably does effectively reduce the chances of prisoners killing each other. Gangsters will tend to want to remain loyal to their own gang, so they are less likely to fight among their fellow gang members, and they’re possibly less likely to attempt to fight rival gang members because they know that’s an easy way to begin a prison riot, in which people will end up getting killed, the entire facility will be placed on lockdown, and quite probably their sentences will be extended.


However, once again this is far from an ideal solution.  By segregating prisoners based on their gang affiliations, prisons are creating an environment which reinforces their loyalty to their criminal gangs, rather than assist people with learning skills that they’ll need upon reentering into society.


Separating inmates based on the gangs that they’d been involved with occurs only within the state prison systems, this practice does not occur within the Federal prison system.


There also exists a second kind of racial segregation within prisons in the U.S., which occurs in minimum and medium security jails.  Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, guards in prisons throughout the U.S. noticed that during meals as well as during recreational times, a sizable percentage of inmates were tending to stick together in groups based on their races, and this practice is still commonplace among inmates today.  This voluntary segregation among inmates results from people feeling comfortable with the people whom they feel that they can identify with and trust; prisoners seem to feel that they’re safe from being assaulted if they only converse with or socialize with people of their own race.


Voluntary racial segregation still occurs in many minimum and medium security prisons throughout the U.S. today.  Prisoners impose this upon themselves when prisoners who are housed in dormitory style units due to overcrowding intentionally opt to separate themselves from each other along racial and ethnic divisions.


As a short term solution, inmates socializing only with members of their own race probably effectively does reduce the chances of fights, stabbings and killings among the  prisoners. However, this does absolutely nothing to help these people learn to function as healthy members of a society once they are released.


Does It Have To Remain This Way?

People join gangs for a number of reasons, but one of the primary contributing factors is that people find that the social structure of a gang is easier for them to relate to than anything else that they’re encountering.  That’s also why people choose to stay in gangs. People won’t leave gangs until they have a reason to want to do so. If people are shown that a world beyond gangs exists that they can contribute to and feel as if they are a productive part of, then they have a lot less incentive to stay in gangs.


By keeping prisoners who are incarcerated in a number of state prisons throughout the U.S. segregated by their gang affiliations, we’re creating an environment which is likely to do little more than become a breeding ground for better skilled gangsters.  The Federal government as well as all of our state governments need to allocate more funding for rehabilitation, education and vocational programs within the prison systems, or else our prisons will continue to become “revolving door” facilities throughout the course of the 2020’s and the 2030’s.  Even potentially violent inmates should be given the opportunity to participate in educational and vocational programs while they are serving their sentences. This would be possible if there were more guards assigned to the prisons which house violent inmates because a larger number of guards would be able to prevent inmates from fighting or end fights as soon as they begin.  There would also be fewer inmates who are likely to behave violently if prisons had more counselors on their staff who could spend more time counseling each inmate and examining why the inmates behave the ways that they do.


Maximum Security And Supermax Prisons- Prison Gangs

As I mentioned, I am not an expert in prison programs or prison reform; I do know that sociologists have analyzed prison gangs, and there are numerous books which have been written about prison gangs.  The reasons that criminals like to form gangs which are based on races are complex; the manner in which keeping prisoners segregated based on gang affiliation does more harm than good in the long term are quite simple.  How can someone ever possibly become successfully integrated into a society if they’ve spend several years living in a prison in which some of the floors are reserved for members of specific gangs, and the gangs are divided among racial lines?


Some people who were committing crimes on their own end up joining a gang for the first time when they get to prison.  It should be obvious that our prisons are breeding more efficient criminals, which will continue to happen until people are shown that it is possible for them to become something other than criminals.


For prisoners who are not serving life sentences, and who will be released back into society at some point, keeping them segregated by gang affiliation teaches them absolutely nothing about life beyond gangs, which is the only life that many of them have ever been familiar with.  In most prisons, the process of becoming eligible for parole begins when people opt to remove themselves from gangs, and yet people still opt to stay within their gangs, because they have little else to look forward to if they’re released back into society.


Those who are serving life sentences should still have the opportunity to exit the gangs and to work in prison work programs.  This could be accomplished if more funding is allocated for prisons to hire more counselors to work with people- to sit down, on an individual basis, to discuss with these people the reasons that they’d committed their crimes to begin with.  Such programs doexist, many prisons have them, but these programs are understaffed and underfunded.  If the Federal government and the state governments would allocate the funds which are necessary to expand these programs, wardens would no longer want to segregate housing units within prisons according to inmates’ gang affiliations because there would be fewer gangs in the prisons when inmates would finally have reasons to want to leave the gangs that they’d been involved with.


Minimum Security And Medium Security Prisons- Voluntary Segregation Among The Inmates

It’s no secret that jails throughout the U.S. have had problems with overcrowding for many decades now.  In many minimum security as well as medium security jails, inmates are housed in gyms which are filled with rows of dozens, and sometimes hundreds of bunkbeds.  In some of these jails, upon arrival, inmates are permitted to select their own beds from among the vacant beds.  Inmates tend to choose to bunk with other inmates who are of the same ethnic background as themselves; if you visit some of these jails or if you watch some of the television shows which include footage of these jails, you’ll see that the bunkbeds seem to be divided into “African American areas,” “Hispanic areas,” “white areas,” etc.  As I mentioned earlier, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively ended legalized racial segregation in all institutions throughout the U.S., including prisons. Inmates deciding to bunk with people of their own races is not forced segregation, this is the result of decisions that inmates make voluntarily, this is part of inmates’ unofficial rules that they adhere to.  This same phenomenon occurs in the recreational areas of maximum security prisons- prisoners tend to stay with other inmates from their own ethnic groups during the hours that they are permitted to use the recreation yards because many prisoners seem to feel more comfortable with people who are from their own racial backgrounds, and they feel that they can trust people from their own ethnic backgrounds.


This is a particularly complex issue because when inmates opt to intentionally segregate themselves, they’re not actually violating any civil rights laws.  They are however violating some very basic common sense.


This voluntary segregation among the inmates is entirely legal, this is the result of inmates making their own decisions about who they feel that they can trust and who they feel comfortable with.  However, this does absolutely nothing whatsoever for preparing people to readjust to life after they serve their sentences. We do not live in a world which is officially segregated along races or ethnicities, and if we want inmates to be able to adjust to a life in which they can succeed by living and working without being likely to return to committing further crimes, then prisons need to be designed so that the staff are doing everything possible to help inmates prepare themselves for life beyond prison.

One possible idea is that prisons should also include programs in which counselors discuss this issue with the inmates.  Trained counselors can sit down with the prisoners and discuss issues about trust, about interacting with people and about the outside world with the prisoners.  We want to give prisoners every possible advantage with regard to attempting to readjust to a healthy life once they’ve completed their sentences, and by not discussing their tendency to intentionally opt to segregate themselves with them, we’re missing an opportunity to address issues which they’ll be faced with when they return to the outside world.

It is important to note here that obviously, not all prisoners are mistrustful of people from other races, not all prisoners adhere to the inmate code, and not all inmates opt to intentionally segregate themselves based on their ethnicities.  Perhaps the prisoners who do not opt to segregate themselves can be useful in assisting other prisoners learn to trust people from other races.


Rehabilitation, Educational And Vocational Programs In American Prisons- A Source Of Hope For Inmates

Among the various programs that prisons offer for inmates are rehabilitation, educational programs and vocational training programs.


The administrators in prisons offer various rehabilitation programs for inmates, some of which are optional, and some of which are mandatory, depending upon the crimes that the inmates had been convicted of.  All prisons offer narcotics and alcohol recovery programs, counseling for people who have committed crimes involving child abuse, domestic abuse or sexual abuse. Optional psychological counseling is also available to all inmates in most prisons in the U.S.


Educational programs were first introduced into prisons in the U.S. in 1876, when the warden at the Elmira Correctional Facility, which is located in Elmira, New York (formerly called the “Elmira Reformatory”) first introduced educational programs for the inmates.  The program in Elmira was a success, and gradually an increasing number of prisons throughout the U.S. began to offer optional educational programs for the inmates. Educational programs in prisons throughout the U.S. always include the option for prisoners to acquire their GED’s, and some prisons offer programs in which inmates can earn associated degrees, bachelors degrees, and in a handful of prisons, program are offered in which prisoners can earn master’s degrees while they are incarcerated.


Vocational programs are also available in many prisons in the U.S.  One of the most famous examples of vocational programs is the programs in which prisoners stamp vehicle license plates.  These programs tend to be among the most popular vocational programs because prisoners learn how to operate industrial drill presses, which is a skill that will enable them to work in a variety of industrial jobs once they’re released.  Prisons are prohibited from operating any programs which would produce a monetary profit, so all items that are manufactured in prisons are required to be items that will be used by government agencies. (Most license plates will end up on vehicles which are privately owned, but because license plates are issued by the state DMV’s, they are considered to be the legal property of the issuing agency until the plates are issued to vehicle owners.)


Other prison vocational programs involve inmates learning to work with animals, to grow vegetables, to train as firefighters, to work in roadside maintenance, to learn how to teach CPR classes, as well as to work as commercial saturation divers.  Prisoners also work in prisons’ cafeterias and laundry rooms.  In some states, prisoners also have the opportunities to work on repairing and maintaining vehicles which are owned by various state agencies.  In some labor programs, prisoners also manufacture components of uniforms for various Federal agencies, including the military. Prisoners also manufacture road signs and highway signs, and prisoners work in recycling numerous materials.  In all of these programs, prisoners learn to operate various kinds of industrial machinery, which can enable them to work in a number of industrial jobs after they complete their sentences. Prisoners also earn minimal wages for working in the prison industries, which they can save up for when they’re released.


The administrators of prisons usually only offer the vocational programs to inmates who are not likely to pose a risk of violent behavior for obvious reasons.  The staff at prisons do not want people who are likely to start fights to have access to tools which can easily be used to manufacture improvised weapons.


As I mentioned earlier, many of the inmates who are listed as behavioral risks would likely no longer pose potential behavior risks if prisons were able to employ more counselors on their staff.  If prisons were able to employ more well trained psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors on their staffs, then the psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors could work closely with each inmate.  Many inmates who pose behavior risks will only learn to behave differently when they have the opportunity to converse with counselors about why they behave the ways that they do. Again, this has been studied closely in a number of countries throughout the world for many years.  The techniques that counselors use when conversing with prisoners vary between countries as do success rates in terms of reducing incidents of violence within prisons. By allocating further funding so that prisons could employ more counselors, the prisons would have fewer inmates who pose behavioral risks, and then more inmates would be able to participate in vocational training programs.


Of course, no programs will ever have a 100% success rate.  Vocational training programs within prisons have been studied closely, and people who have participated in vocational programs do end up having higher success rates finding as well as keeping jobs after they’ve completed their sentences.  People who complete vocational training programs also have a lower rate of committing crimes again after they’re released from prisons.


Wardens and guards also need to use common sense too.  In recent years, the staff at prisons in some states have attempted to reintroduce chain gangs which are used to clean roadside litter.  Cleaning roadside litter is a form of job training; these people are learning a skill which would enable them to work as maintenance workers in parks after they complete their sentences.  However, chain gangs are in fact a civil rights violation, that’s why chain gangs were outlawed in the U.S. in the 1950’s. Unlike the chain gangs of the 1800’s and the first half of the twentieth century, today’s prison chain gangs are sometimes bound with plastic ties instead of iron or steel cuffs, but the basic concept is the same- the guards know that plastic ties are a very low cost means of preventing the prisoners from escaping.  Regardless of whether ties are made of plastic, iron or steel, the use of ankle ties in prison labor programs constitutes a civil rights violation. It does make sense for guards to use ankle ties when transporting prisoners, but not during labor programs. The idea behind labor and vocational programs is to prepare inmates to readjust to life after they complete their sentences, and excessively humiliating people will not accomplish this.

The administrators who oversee prison staff also need to be careful too.  Merely hiring more counselors, psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists alone will solve notably little.  It is important that the administrators within each state’s bureau of prisons (or departments of corrections) as well as within the Federal Bureau Of Prisons are careful to hire only well trained and highly competent counselors, psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists.  In the article which I wrote which appeared in the June 26th, 2016 issue of The Pavlovic Today in which I discuss the need to enact legislation in every state which would require that the state governments reimburse people who have been determined to have been wrongfully convicted for crimes which they were not involved in, I mention that in recent years, advocacy groups such as The Innocence Project have found that overzealous, poorly trained and incompetent counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists in some prisons have been pressuring inmates to confess to crimes which they had no involvement with.