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Prisons: Problems and Prospects - The Impact Of Draconian Prison Sentences

offenders prisoners term inmates

The war on drugs has led to prison congestion, but escalating sentences for other offenders as well as drug offenders are a clear contributing cause. One clue to this fact is that the number of inmates in prison is increasing more rapidly than the number who are being imprisoned or being released. To understand this difference, one must consider the fact that a prisoner serving a four-year sentence takes the same amount of space as two prisoners serving two-year sentences, because he occupies his cell twice as long. A prisoner serving a very long sentence multiplies the effect: A man serving twenty years eventually comes to occupy the same prison space as do ten two-year prisoners arriving consecutively. One twenty-year prisoner who enters the system today can therefore crowd it as much as do ten two-year prisoners, and ten two-year prisoners will leave the prison before the twenty-year man is discharged.

In the last decade the number of long-term prisoners has been increasing, and the cumulative effects are experienced at an accelerating degree. There are more long-term prisoners in the prison because there are countless sentencing provisions designed to ensure that convicted offenders are incapacitated. Ensuring the incapacitation of offenders has made political sense to legislators whose constituents know that an incarcerated offender can commit no new crimes. A protracted prison stay assures citizens that they will not have to face a particular offender late at night in a dark alley. By definition any recidivist has served a sentence that the public can argue was too short. Since this means that every prison sentence has the makings of being too short, such reasoning concludes that the simplest solution is to confine all offenders for as long as possible.

The National Institute of Justice reported in 1997 that:

By 1994 all 50 States had enacted one or more mandatory sentencing laws, and Congress had enacted numerous mandatory sentencing laws for Federal offenders. Furthermore, many State officials have recently considered proposals to enhance sentencing for adults and juveniles convicted of violent crimes, usually by mandating longer prison terms for violent offenders who have a record of serious crimes. Three-strikes laws (and, in some jurisdictions, two-strikes laws) are the most prominent examples of such sentencing enhancements. . . . For example, California's three-strikes law requires that offenders who are convicted of a violent crime, and who have had two prior convictions, serve a minimum of 25 years; the law also doubles prison terms for offenders convicted of a second violent felony. . . . A second frequently mentioned mandatory sentencing enhancement is "truth-insentencing," provisions for which are in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. States that wish to qualify for Federal aid under the Act are required to amend their laws so that imprisoned offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. (Parent et al., p. 1)

Other provisions that have been introduced to lengthen periods of confinement involve prison terms—importantly including life prison terms—without possibility of parole. The offenders who are the unhappy recipients of such provisions face natural life sentences or inflexibly long prison careers. Such offenders tend to be classified as high-risk, in part because of their sentences. All of these long-term higher-risk inmates are sent to the traditional walled prison fortresses, which are designed to prevent escapes and control behavior. Such prisons are obviously inordinately expensive to build, and the supply has consequently not kept pace with the accelerating demand. The result has been extensive double or triple celling, program space converted into sleeping accommodations, shrinking program opportunities, and a lower quality of life for both staff and inmates.

The paradox is that long-term prisoners, who face the most painful terms of confinement, are subject to the most inhospitable prison conditions. (The paradox reaches its extreme in death rows, where amenities for condemned prisoners are even more sharply restricted.) Long-term inmates may in many instances be reclassified over time, but many years must pass before their conditions of confinement can improve. And if a long-term prisoner manifests behavior problems in confinement, he can be sent to an even more austere segregation facility where living conditions are often atrocious.

Insofar as prisons have provisions for educational and vocational training, these are apt to be designed for short-term inmates. The programs are delivered in self-sufficient modules over modest periods of time, so that they can be completed before the average prisoner is released. An inmate who serves a two-year sentence can leave prison with a certificate in plumbing or automobile repair, or a high school equivalency degree. He can also leave having attained basic literacy, or graduated from a term in a residential substance-abuse program.

Offenders who arrive in prison with long sentences of the kind that are increasingly prevalent are ill served by modular programming. Such inmates must be engaged in meaningful activities over long periods of time. Serving a long sentence should ideally provide a sense of progression, advancement, and hope, or at least an absence of hopelessness. If short-term program segments are employed, they must build sequentially one on another. For example, a course in automobile repair followed by a remedial literacy course does not qualify as a sequence. Educational experiences that are followed by opportunities for inmates to apply what they have learned, with chances of promotion thereafter, make more sense.

Many inmates who come to prison with mandated long terms are apt to be young violent offenders embittered by their draconian sentences. Others are mid-level narcotics offenders who know that they have been sentenced under provisions that are designed for drug kingpins; others are repeat nonviolent offenders charged arbitrarily as violent recidivists. Since fairness, equity, and justice are salient concerns in prison even in the ordinary course of events, such prisoners are bound to be bitter and resentful when they have finally exhausted their avenues of appeal and come to confront the full magnitude of their impending fate. Prisons are sensitive to this risk and to the fact that the absence of hope can leave some prisoners with "nothing to lose" when they act in anger. There is also concern about a "new breed of violent inmate" who may be serving a long sentence and presumptively poses dangers to other prisoners and to staff.

Concerns about potential violence in prisons have increased the managerial emphasis on security and disciplinary sanctions. One tangible manifestation of this emphasis is the proliferation of segregation settings that are earmarked for the "worst of the worst" inmates. Typically, the most brutal of these settings provide for unremitting isolation and a lack of contact with staff. The conditions in some of these segregation settings (called "maxi-maxi" prisons) have been challenged successfully in the courts. Cases have centered on allegations of brutality and the charge that experiences of solitary confinement exacerbate mental health problems.

If the response to the bitterness of alienated prisoners is custodial overkill, escalations of resentment and suppression can occur in the prison in which cycles of protest and punishment reinforce each other, and culminate in reciprocal violence. A sense of injustice among the prisoners combined with preemptive reactions by staff increases tension in prisons, which enhances the potential for confrontations, including prison riots. While no major disturbances have resulted from sentencing reforms, there is urgent need for prison officials to undertake defusing and deescalating moves. This need—which includes the need for expanding program opportunities—is obvious to most prison managers. Unfortunately, this realization coincides with well-publicized public sentiment—especially in the least liberal jurisdictions—that calls for curtailment of activities that can be defined as "amenities" for prisoners.

A desirable strategy for prison management would be to multiply opportunities for the peaceful expression of grievances and expanded avenues of redress where injustices are alleged or perceived. At present, an increased inhospitability of the courts to litigation by prisoners, and a tendency of judges to refrain from interfering with prison management decisions (unless deliberate neglect or brutality can be documented), creates a need for prison systems to multiply internal avenues of appeals, and to strengthen functions such as those of ombudsmen, inspectorates, or commissions charged with reviewing prison operations.

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almost 7 years ago

To whom it may concern:

Thank you! Your web site is provided the tools to avocate my case when implementing policy changes Prisons and War on Drugs!

Thank you for valuable information!


Shakela Kayla Arjoon

7585, rue Durocher, apt. 10

Montreal, P. Quebec


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over 7 years ago

HELP!!!!!!!!! keep our streets n young people safe from offenders , pervs, rapist , crackheads etc thank u

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over 7 years ago

I think people should be able to do a trade in prison or get some sort of formal training.

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about 11 years ago

My compliments to you.

This is very well written and a pleasure to read.

I agree with every thing say but I'm wondering what will happen to a prisoner who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life with parole with an additional life with for a gun enhancement. If he has served 20 years of his first life and was granted parole. So now he is serving his other life for the weapons enhancement.

But, if the sentencing enhanement is modified to only a 5 year sentence, will this prisoner be released?

I guess I'm confused on how a long term prisoner will benefit from this.