By C. Jeff Oakes
There are two things to which a person may aspire: To discover or to inspire. The prison system in America is a good example of this in action.
From the earliest concepts of Gaols to the modern prison complex, a single underlying notion has both driven and responded to the growth of this industry: There must be a reason for punishing criminals other than simple vengeance. As a result, the first penitentiaries, predecessors of prisons today, were built with a view to behavior modification procedures (Foster, 2006). By taking an historic tour one can see clearly how inspired the first planners of prisons were as well as discover what led to the sometimes rapid growth in the industry.
Early State and Federal Prisons
If one could wind back the clock to Norfolk, England, in 1875, one might get to see Sir Thomas Beever proudly announcing to the public the opening of Wymondham Gaol. This is near the end of the Age of Enlightenment, when the Western World began to look inward and outward. Looking outward, Western civilization could see barbaric tribes across the far reaches of the known world. Looking inward, the Western World believed itself more civilized and reformations began to touch every aspect of life, including dealings with criminals. Belief in the scientific method drove society to find more humane ways of dealing with the lawless while perhaps transforming these into law-abiding, productive citizens (Foster, 2006).
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean only five years later, the Philadelphia Society would oversee the opening of the first prison in America, the Walnut Street Jail. Soon to follow would be Auburn Penitentiary and as the several states began to rapidly incorporate the same operations model, called simply, the Auburn model. Around the same time, the Federal Prison system was developing. The first Federal prison was the converted Army Fort near Leavenworth, Kansas (Foster, 2006).
The Rise of the State and Federal Prison Industries
Such a simple beginning for such a complex industry seems contradictory but considering how the
growth occurred it is not. In the late 19th Century the majority of Americans took for granted the States’ Rights aspect of the Constitution for few questioned the sovereignty of the several states. As a result, each state developed a prison system similar to its neighbors yet decidedly different. Over time, these differences have been studied, expanded upon, rejected, and ridiculed. In most cases, Department of Corrections’ officials eliminate what does not work while keeping what does (Foster, 2006). One interesting study was recently published showing a possible causal link between the security level a prisoner is assigned to and the likelihood of recidivism (Gaes & Camp, 2009).
This study is important because as the system developed both state and federal prisoners are assigned to a facility according to an assessed security-level. If the study is correct, however, this could create considerable difficulties for prison officials. Here is how the current system functions:
- Both State and Federal prison systems have a first-level security risk – minimum. In both cases, prisoners are not considered a flight risk and are given considerable latitude for movement within and without the perimeter of the facility. In the case of state prisoners, some are trustees permitted to work outside the fences whereas others are those sentenced to half-way houses and work-release programs.
- Low-Security is the next level and again, both the State and Federal systems are similar. Security is heightened, with a reduced ratio of convicts to guards; fencing is generally doubled or improved in some similar fashion.
- Medium-Security prisons in both cases begin to resemble secure locations: These, house fewer prisoners per guard and the perimeter is sure to be far more secure. Guards may be mounted along the fence and inmate movement is greatly limited.
- High-Security prisons are considered more traditional prisons. These are the ones seen in movies and books with the high stone walls and guard towers with spotlights and rifles. With a far narrower gap between the guard to inmate ration, such prisons are clearly more expensive to operate. This helps one to understand how careful criminal justice officials need to be in assigning cases to one prison or another. Budgets are involved.
- Finally, both State and Federal systems use a Maximum-security level. In the case of both systems, lifers and death row inmates are sent to such prisons. In the case of the Federal, an AdMax prison takes care of certain federal prisoners of special interest to the United States Government. Infamous bomber Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to such a prison in Terre Haute,
Indiana, (Lloyd, 1997).
Do State and Federal Prisons Create Criminals?
The study asserts that the classification of an inmate to a particular security-level prison has more to do with recidivism than any of the so-called factors used to make the determination. If this is the case, then corrections officials must reconsider the classifications now in use. The entire system would need a complete overhaul (Gaes & Camp, 2009; Foster, 2006).
Of course, the system has overhauled itself considerably since its inception. Whereas state systems continue to vary greatly, especially as regards community corrections services, the Federal system has only had seven directors. With each director serving for several years, the system has developed in spite of most political whims. Early prison growth was largely attributed to widespread unemployment in the 1930’s and until the ‘get tough on crime’ drive of the 1980’s and 1990’s growth generally followed population figures (Foster, 2006).
It is worth noting that the increase in prison populations through the 80’s and 90’s could have been more a result of administrative and legislative changes than with a real increase in crime. With lawmakers passing the so-called ‘three-strikes’ law and increases in the number of persons returned to custody as a result of failed drug tests, the increases appear somewhat artificially created (Chavers, 2009). Much of the legislation passed could be called knee-jerk reactions to public opinion, regardless the increases demand additional prisons be built.
Thus the State and Federal prisons complex has developed haphazardly on an as-need basis. As the public and policy-makers saw a need for more or differing prisons, the need was addressed. It would be as if building a structure, then having generation after generation add to it as they saw fit—After many generations, the structure would look nothing like its ancestor. The same could be said of how both the State and Federal Prisons system developed. The system today, for better or worse, looks nothing like the system imagined or believed could be developed.
Foster, B. (2006). Corrections: The Fundamentals. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis-Hall.
Gaes, G., & Camp, S. D. (2009, June). Unintended Consequences: experimental evidence for the criminogenic effect of prison security level placement on post-release recidivism. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 5(2), 139-162.
Lloyd, J. (1997, December 26). After bombing trials, unanswered questions. Christian Science Monitor, 90(), .