Imprisonment in America

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Over the recent past, advocacy for human rights and the fight for equity and equality has been picking pace across the globe. As such, there have been calls for the government of the United States through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the departments of corrections to look into reducing the number of individuals locked up within the US prison systems. As such, the United States has the highest number of prisoners in the world despite the fact that other nations such as China and India have higher populations (Campers 2012, p. 12). In regard to this, the departments, institutions, and non-government actors are taking several steps and approaches towards ensuring that the rate of confinement is reduced. Such actors have implemented programs to not only ensure that the likelihood of recidivism is lowered, but that unnecessary imprisonment of individuals is prevented. In this research paper imprisonment in America is discussed, specifically the methods and programs tailored to cutting down such incarceration. The effectiveness of each approach and program is presented to illuminate the extent or otherwise of success of each such program/approach. Additionally, the research paper also advances possible approaches and programs to curb internment.

Reducing Incarceration in the United States

One of the biggest problems that the United States Department of Justice faces is the high number of inmates in the prison system. Considering the statistics, 1.574 million Americans are locked up in the nation’s jail and incarceration facilities from the county jails to the state penitentiary levels and further to the federal penal level (Couch 2015). Attempts to reduce the likelihood of incarceration of individuals have taken many forms and methods as highlighted here below.

Alternative Punishments

The punishment choices are fixed, with each to be meted out on the offender depending on the intensity of the wrongs they commit (U.S. Dept. of Justice 2016, n.p.). With alternatives spanning from monetary fines, probation to confinement within a given area and even to public shaming, these methods of punishment could, and have been proven to be of help in reducing the rates of incarceration in the United States. In this view, a wide range of sanctions can be slapped on certain criminals for those who commit low profile crimes such as drink and driving to deter them from re-commission of their transgressions and crimes. Instead of sending such offenders to prison, the agencies have taken measures, for instance, denial and revocation of licenses, and public shaming of such drivers. As a result, such measures are done to punish the criminals without necessarily incarcerating them. Traffic offences also attract progressively higher fines that are intended to deter repetition of the offences for which they are levied (Vogel 2003, p.38).

Other alternative forms of punishment include probation and the suspension of the sentences of convicted offenders. Both trial and suspension of sentences are often leveled upon petty offenders who commit nonviolent offences. With the aim of preventing the re-commission of crimes and rehabilitating of the criminals, probation acts to prevent the incarceration of individuals. Suspension of sentences on the other hand acts as a form of deterrence to the convicted offender, as Cloud (2017, p.45) assert that, to stay out of any trouble or face the actual serving of the suspended sentence. These two forms of alternative punishment are usually meted out with certain conditions. As such, it often act to bar or persuade the individual recipients from further commission of crimes and transgressions and have been proven to have a measure of success.

Activism & Outreach

In the United States, activist actions from non-governmental actors and outreach is aimed at helping the victims reduce crime. Through various platforms and engagements these entities seek not only to preach abstinence from crime for non-convicted individuals but also for ex-convicts in order to reduce the rates of recidivism. One such group is the Minnesota based Transition from Jail to Community Initiative that equips former prisoners with several forms of support to prevent them from relapsing into a life of crime (Couch, 2015). Made up of the collaborative efforts of social workers, healthcare professionals and community development specialists, the initiative has been able to offer ex-convicts a sense of belonging and in the process reduce the rates of recidivism among its participants in the state of Minnesota by an estimated 85% (Couch, 2015). Community outreach groups that crusade for the shunning of crime and seek to help reincorporate former prisoners into society have been able to achieve great success. As a result, the overall rates of recidivism in the U.S are effectively reducing the rates of incarceration in the nation.

Legislations & Correction Policies

To further help reduce the likelihood of recidivism among previously convicted individuals, the justice department of the United States government in conjunction with willing state governments, has implemented the policy of progressively more severe punishments. Known as the system of “strikes” as Vogel (2003, p.32) writes, “the system punishes each subsequent crime for which one is convicted more severely than the last even if the crimes are the same, with the third strike earning an offender anything between 25 years in prison or life sentence depending on the gravity of the offence”. Such policies have helped reduce the incentives for individuals to engage in criminal acts with Zagar, Grove and Busch (2013, p.390) pointing out that, the Three Strikes Law in California, since its introduction, has reduced the rates of recidivism by as much as 22% and saved the state billions that would have incurred in such subsequent incarcerations. Certain states also have parole policies that bar parolees from associating with other convicted felons and engaging in crimes and transgression. Such policies, upon violation of parole conditions, prescribe the forfeiture of an individual’s parole and completion of the sentence for which they were paroled and any other sentence that may be handed to them for whichever other offence they commit.

Suggestions on Reducing Incarceration in the US

More measures, with greater results and proven success rates, need to be taken in a bid to reduce the rates of recidivism in the United States and hence minimize the population of individuals housed in the nation’s correctional facilities. While a great deal of the measures to be outlined hereafter are already in place in the US, they are only available in select locales. Therefore, the actions should be rolled out on a bigger scale, given their success in prevention re-incarceration of individuals due to re-commission of crime.

Entrepreneurship Programs

Prisons, though intended to punish crimes, are also meant to correct the behavior of individuals and prepare them for life after the service of sentences. In this manner, the role of the prison as a reformation institute should not be overlooked. In this view, the State of Texas chose to take a different approach with its inmates; in a bid to reduce the rate of recidivism. The state department of correction chose to arm its prisoners with adequate business skills in order to enable them earn a living. Also, reformed victims become productive members of society after the completion of their sentences. According to Couch (2015), the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) imparts valuable skills among jail inmates, a fact that helps to prepare them for life after custody and gives them a reason to stay away from crime. Presently, as Couch (2015) states, the method has been able to reduce the rate of recidivism among its participants to 7%, way below the national average rate of 76.7%. The platform will register much success if rolled out across America in each prison, is likely to help reduce the overall rates of incarceration by reducing recidivism. The program also offers the participants who cannot go on to open their businesses with the requisite skills to enable them enter the labor market and get jobs thereby transitioning them successfully from inmates to productive members of society.

Such programs may also take the format that the San Quentin Penitentiary, California has taken which includes the teaching of computer coding to inmates (Couch, 2015): a fact that helps prepare such individuals for life after incarceration. By so imparting inmates with such skills, the prison systems actually prepares them to catch up with the world and be part of the society by being productive members therein. Consequently, such small programs have a huge impact on the lives of the released or paroled prisoners, helping them secure jobs and adapt to technology while helping inmates stay away from crime and subsequent incarcerations. To illuminate the success of the Code 7370 Initiative that teaches victims computer coding, Couch (2015) notes that the recidivism rate among individuals who undergo the training is remarkably lower as such convicts look to the future with more optimism.

Rehabilitation rather than Punishment

Considering prisons as places that are aimed at behavior change among individuals, the main focus of the corrections system should be rehabilitation of individuals who are sentenced to such facilities rather than punishing them (Cullen, Jonson, & Nagin, 2011). In the report by U.S. Department of Justice (2016), it is pointed out that without actual rehabilitation, prison sentences are not likely to deter recidivism; instead they call for a change of approach. Essentially, prison systems should consider dealing with individuals within the prison walls not as criminals and outcasts but rather as human beings who may have lost direction and need to be guided back to the correct path. For instance, being based on significance of rehabilitation rather than punishment the Norwegian justice and corrections system, only a measly 20% make it back to the prisons on second and subsequent sentences (Sterbenz 2014, n.p.). It is possible that the implementation of such a system in the United States would help reduce the rate of recidivism and save the federal and state government billions in costs that would have been incurred through the incarceration of individuals. The system should, just like it does in Norway, focus more on repairing harms caused by crimes rather than punishing the individuals responsible for such acts. In common opinion, prisons are meant to punish convicted individuals by denying them their freedoms and nothing further.  As such, dehumanizing treatment should not be used as a method of correcting behavior in prisons as is the case in the U.S as per the view of Bibas (2015, n.p.).

Cognitive Behavioral Approach & Focus on Mental Health

Prisons in Norway are successful in rehabilitating and transforming individuals because they take a cognitive behavioral approach to the correction process. The system aims to solve the problems that inmates have, and impart skills in them to allow them shift their thoughts and behavior patterns. As a result, the individuals upon release from incarceration will not relapse; a fact that explains the extremely low rates of recidivism in the European nation. As Sterbenz (2014) points out, the system is focused on the well-being of the prisoners, and treats them as humans rather as outcasts. The inmates are made to live with the thought of life on the outside in mind; taking on vocational programs to equip them with the necessary skills to inspire behavior change amongst themselves and to help them become productive members of society. There exists the possibility that is such an approach to the rehabilitation of criminals and convicts were to be taken by the US department of corrections.  Similar results (such as the low rates of recidivism) would be achieved in the nation and the overall prison population in the US would fall below the current 1.57 million inmates.

In addition, there is need to take care of the mental health matters that plague the inmates within the American prison system. As Couch (2015) remarks, as many as 56% of the inmates in the state prisons, 45% of those in federal correctional institutes, and 64% of those in jails across the US suffer from one form of mental health issue or another, and to varying degrees. By dealing with such concerns, prisons would help the individuals live better lives once released from the holding facilities and help rehabilitate them back into society. In making a case for the need to provide mental health services to inmates in prisons, Zagar, Grove & Busch (2013, p.384) observe that, the involvement of behavioral therapists and psychiatrists in the correctional system would go a long way in reducing the likelihood of recidivism among former prisoners.


In the US today, a number of initiatives are being undertaken to help reduce the number of individuals confined to the prison system. Such efforts aim to among other things, reduce the rate of recidivism among former convicts, and reduce the commission of crime by reaching out to individuals in society while also advancing alternative forms of punishment for petty nonviolent crimes. Though with a measure of success, such initiative are yet to be enrolled nationwide and are instead confined to certain states, counties or even prisons. Other alternatives exist that would help reduce the prison population in America, with a number having been proven to be effective both at home in the US and overseas in Norway, which has the best prison system in the world. However, no single initiative would be enhanced than a combination of such initiatives. As such, the corrections department should depending on the situation and chose the most desirable combination of initiatives to use so as to reduce the rate of recidivism among inmates in US prisons and jails.