Peter Moss

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Major Factors Causing The United States Prison Crisis

Major Factors Causing The United States Prison Crisis

In the last three decades, the population of inmates in the United States prisons are believed to have skyrocketed to a staggering over 2.3 million still being locked up in prison cells. These numbers though, not new in the last decade are still astonishing to many and has led the United States to be ranked as one of the highest jailers in the world: 25 percent of all the prisoners in the world are in the United States; perceived to be a very large number given that the United States only counts for 5 percent of the world population. In addition, studies and research show that from the 1970s to the present times the population in the United States have grown by a little over 700 percent hence; the large numbers in prison.

Numbers show that in every ninety adults, nine are said to be incarcerated in the United States; moreover, one adult in every thirty one adults is under some form of correctional control such as jail, county prison, probation and parole. This number has led to the United States to be ranked as the most populated prisons. The fast growth and large numbers in the prisons can be attributed to three major factors: these factors include; the war on drugs; policies of being tough on crime and race or racism. Looking at the war on drugs; back in the mid 1970s when the states of California and New York adopted the Rockefeller Drug Law which led to the rise of strict laws on drugs with longer sentences in relation to crimes associated with drugs. Though the rulings are out to deal with drug related crimes it has led to numerous arrests, convictions and prison sentences. For instance an estimated 57% of all the prisoners who are federal are in prisons for drug related crimes (Tonry, 1995).

Policies in general also show that the rise in the number of prisoners can be attributed to those policies. These policies were implemented with the purposeful aim of being tough on crime. In the 1980s and into the 1990s the U.S federal government and states adopted a new strategy in relation to minimum sentences that were mandatory. In addition, towards the end of the 1980s the parole federal system was abolished hence; high numbers of long term sentences without room for parole. Moreover, this in turn, has led to prisoners increasing in the prisons with longer sentences and no parole in comparison to the 1970s.

The other cause of an increase in the prisons is race and racism; back in the 1970s of the population in prisons an estimate of about one third consisted of Latinos and blacks; to this date the numbers has risen to an estimate of about two thirds of the total population. Studies show that if the rate of imprisonment is based down to race and gender it would show a high rate of racism that has been taking place in the last three decades. Racism is believed to be a part of the problem with the justice system in the United States hence; the big difference of the black and Latinos to the white people in prisons (Rosenblatt, 1996).

Although the large numbers in prison can be based mostly on the three aspects; tough on crime; race and racism and war on drugs, the privatization of the prison service is also believed to have played a critical role in the increase of prisoners. This privatization is believed to have added to the growth of the corporate economy in relation to contracts regarding construction of prisons. On the other hand it has also led to de-industrialization, rise in exportation of manufacturing jobs and loss of jobs, which is a clear sign that imprisonment of the large numbers of people is more of a drawback rather than a way of correcting and improving the society at large. In addition, politics has taken over how the prisons are run hence; recent studies showing that the policies of social welfare are being exchanged for policies of penal welfare (Kennedy, 1997).

The imprisonment of the large numbers of people, over the years, has had a large impact in the United States government system and countries as a whole. Some of these impacts include; an increase in the rate of unemployment; this is in the sense that once a prisoner has finished his or her sentence, it is difficult to find employment hence; vast numbers of labor shortages. There is an increase in the welfare of the prisoners and also people who are related to the prisoners outside the prisons: for instance, families that have their family members in prison, in most times do not have any financial support to help them. Another impact is that the prisoners in most cases will end up having large correctional and legal expenses; while in the prisons they may opt for suicide, racism, joining gangs and self mutilation. Prisoners are often abused and neglected on a daily basis as they try to do their sentences; leading the prison system to breed a culture of violence and brutality instead of rehabilitating and correcting the prisoners (Mauer, 1999).  


In conclusion, I believe that the prison system in the United States is highly inefficient and instead of changing people to be better members of the society they lead them to become worse and at times lose their sense of morality. In addition, though the prison system is out to improve the society at large, currently it is more of a burden than good and, has challenges and issues that affect the economy of the United States in a very negative way.


Kennedy, Randall. (1997). Race, Crime, and the Law, Pantheon, New York.

Mauer, Marc. (1999).  Race to Incarcerate, The New Press, New York: forthcoming.

Rosenblatt, E. (1996). Criminal injustice:confronting the prison crisis. USA: South End Press

Tonry, Michael. (1995). Malign Neglect—Race, Crime, and Punishment in America, Oxford University Press, New York.

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