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Probation, Famous Prisons, Incarceration, Boot Camp Prisons, New Treatment: Prisoners And Animals

Apprehension, examination before a judge, and correction are the three components of the U.S. criminal justice system. Apprehension, the investigation and arrest of an individual suspected of committing a crime, is the responsibility of police and other law enforcement agencies. Once apprehended, an individual moves to the court system where a judge or jury listens to all sides of the case and decides on guilt or innocence. If found guilty, the convicted defendant is sentenced by the judge to some form of punishment. Once sentenced, the defendant enters the correctional process for punishment.

The legal term for sentence is "disposition." Disposition ranges from fines to imprisonment in a large, tightly guarded correctional facility. The history of an individual's behavior and the seriousness of the crime are significant factors used in determining the type of punishment.

Courts look carefully at a defendant's past criminal behavior. A first-time offender may be given a lighter sentence than a habitual or repeat offender. For example, if a gun was used in a robbery, placing victims at considerable risk of bodily Entrance to the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. The prison was the site of a 2000 state hearing over inadequate medical treatment for women inmates in California prisons. (AP/Wide World Photos) harm, a tougher sentence would be handed down than for robbery without using a gun.

Fines, restitution, and community service are common punishments for minor crimes. Fines are based on and taken from an offender's daily income. Restitution is a cash amount paid by the offender to the victim to make up for the victim's loss, like making an offender pay a portion of an injured victim's medical expenses. With community service, offenders pay back the community rather than a specific victim. Courts may order offenders to work for a certain number of hours in local public service organizations or for charitable groups that help their community.

Disposition for more serious crimes called felonies falls into several categories: probation, incarceration (confinement) in a jail or prison, or time in a community-based correctional facility or program. The final two stages of the correctional process are parole or release at the end of a completely served sentence. Most convicted individuals do not serve out their full correctional sentence but are paroled earlier. Parole allows an inmate to leave a correctional facility before serving out his or her full sentence. Upon returning to the community, the parolee is supervised by a parole officer for the remaining sentence period.

Growing jail and prison populations

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 2,033,331 inmates incarcerated in local jails and federal, state, and private prisons in 2002. This figure represented a rate of 701 persons in custody for every 100,000 persons in the United States. Federal prisons held 151,618 individuals; state prisons held 1,209,640; local jails held 665,475; and inmates in privately operated facilities numbered 6,598. In 1990, there were 1,148,702 inmates in federal state prisons and local jails, representing a rate of 458 for every 100,000 persons. In 1980, however, there were only 329,821 total incarcerated persons.

The rapid increase in prisoners directly relates to the "Get Tough on Crime" legislation passed on both the federal and state levels. In the early 1990s both federal and state governments began what came to be called a "War on Drugs." This "war" was a reaction to a huge increase in drug related offenses throughout the United States. Many states passed legislation to lengthen prison stays for drug offenders, for both first-time and repeat offenders. In 2002 approximately 58 percent of prison inmates were convicted on drug related charges.

States also passed guidelines limiting parole for convicted criminals, creating minimum prison sentences for certain violent felonies, and establishing long required prison time for offenders with three convictions. All of these mandatory requirements contributed significantly to the rise in prison populations President George W. Bush outlining his new battle plan in the "War on Drugs," 2002. (AP/Wide World Photos)
and the overcrowding of correctional facilities. At the start of the twenty-first century the United States had the highest incarceration rate per its population in the world.

Prison construction

Both federal and state governments constructed new correctional facilities to ease overcrowding. Congress passed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act authorizing $7.9 billion for prison construction, then quickly added $2.3 billion more as costs and prison populations continued to increase. Large prisons called "megaprisons" were built for up to 20,000 prisoners.

Megaprisons are run on very tight budgets and, in keeping with "Get Tough" policies, many offer no or few rehabilitation programs. Many prisons have dropped vocational and technical education programs such as welding or car repair, the very programs that might offer prisoners a chance to succeed after release. Even though studies show 80 percent of offenders have some form of substance abuse problem—drug and alcohol treatment programs are also frequently cut to save money.

Supermax prisons

Supermax prisons, short for super-maximum security prisons, are designed to keep the most violent or disruptive inmates separated from other prisoners and correction staff. Supermax prisons are generally a special area within an existing prison. In 2002 most states had supermax units, while some prisons such as the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, are designed entirely as supermax facilities.

Inmates are not assigned to supermax incarceration when they enter prison; only extremely disruptive or violent prison behavior such as injuring other inmates or staff, or attempting to escape will get a prisoner sent to supermax. Prisons with these units confine an average of 8 to 10 percent of their prison population in supermax.

Life in a supermax is bleak. Twenty-three hours a day are spent in windowless cells made completely of concrete and steel. One hour is spent showering, in solitary recreation, or in visitation. Anytime prisoners leave their cells, they must wear wrist and ankle irons and are accompanied by several guards. Many supermax units are entirely automated so prisoners never come into direct contact with another human being. Although many prisoners spend only limited time in a supermax unit, returning to the general prison population by Death row inmates, or those who have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution, play basketball in San Quentin Prison. (AP/Wide World Photos)
good behavior, some prisoners spend their entire sentence in supermax.

Death row

Death row refers to locations where inmates sentenced to death await execution. In 2001 thirty-eight states and the federal government allowed the use of the death penalty. Many states keep death row inmates separate from others, in special wings or in an entirely different building. Most convicts sentenced to death are men, although there are a growing number of women. In 2001, there were 3,539 males and 54 females on death row awaiting execution. Thirty-seven of the thirty-eight death penalty states had one or more prisoners on death row.

The conditions on death row vary from state to state and prison to prison. The average length of time a prisoner is on death row is about twelve years. The reason inmates spend so long on death row is because of the appeals process, or the opportunity all inmates are given to challenge a court's decision. Working through the appellate system is a lengthy process and can take many years.

There are three types of death row: unreformed, reformed, and mainstream. Unreformed death row prisoners are held in their cells in isolation and let out only for short periods of individual recreation or visitation with friends or relatives. Reformed death row facilities allow their inmates to work and have recreational time with other death row inmates. Mainstream death rows occur only in the Missouri state prison system, where inmates are housed with the general prison population. They are given the same work, recreation, and counseling opportunities as other maximum security prisoners.

Intensive probation supervision

Intensive Probation Supervision (IPS) is the most frequently used community-based corrections program. It is an intermediate program with more supervision than with ordinary probation but does not lock an offender up in a jail or prison. It gives judges another option besides the often too light probation sentence or too harsh prison sentence. IPS relieves prison overcrowding, saves taxpayer dollars, protects the community better than usual probation due to closer supervision, and provides rehabilitation services to offenders within normal community surroundings.

Offenders are evaluated to determine their risk to the community and an individualized IPS program is developed. Offenders convicted of violent offenses or those with long criminal histories usually do not qualify for IPS and are incarcerated. Individual IPS programs combine a variety of community-based correction programs including house arrest, electronic monitoring, strict curfews, drug counseling and drug testing, employment or preparation for employment, community service, and strict adherence to meeting with an assigned IPS officer.

Unlike probation officers who may have a caseload of several hundred offenders, each of which can be met with only once a month, IPS officers try to keep small caseloads of approximately twenty offenders. They meet once a week for intensive sessions. Offenders just starting in IPS may meet once or twice daily with their IPS officer. Some offenders are placed in IPS without ever being incarcerated while others are released into IPS programs after serving their minimum sentence time in prison.

House arrest and electronic monitoring

House arrest involves court-ordered confinement in an offender's home. House arrest relieves prison overcrowding and allows the offender to stay connected to familiar surroundings, family, and friends. House arrest is maintained at several different levels depending on an offender's individual program. Curfew is the lightest form of house arrest; under curfew offenders are confined to their house only certain hours of the evening or at night. Home detention means offenders must remain at home except for time at employment, school, medical appointments, or religious services. Home incarceration confines the offender to home at all times except for court-ordered counseling or treatment.

Electronic monitoring (EM) is commonly used along with home detention or incarceration. As electronic surveillance Lakeview NeuroRehabilitation Center's halfway house in New Hampshire. Halfway houses are rigidly controlled rehabilitation homes for inmates who have been released early from prison or are on parole. (AP/Wide World Photos)
technology improves so does electronic monitoring; EM devices are active, passive, or use global tracking. An active EM system makes use of a small transmitter strapped to an offender, which constantly emits a signal to a receiver-dialer placed on the offender's telephone. Should the offender move too far from the receiver-dialer the signal is interrupted and a central monitoring computer is notified.

Passive EM involves a device strapped to offenders and their phones, but a constant signal is not emitted between them. Instead, IPS officers periodically call the specially designed phones and offenders must make voice contact and insert their tracking device into the phone itself to verify their whereabouts. Global tracking or Global Positioning Systems (GPS) make use of U.S. government-owned satellites. Offenders wear a transmitter that emits a constant signal to a satellite; their exact location can be checked at any time by IPS officers.

Halfway houses

Halfway houses, renamed Community Residential Treatment Centers, are rigidly controlled rehabilitation homes for offenders. Relieving prison overcrowding, the centers house inmates who have been released early from prison or are on parole. Their services vary widely from a full range of counseling, treatment, and education programs to no direct services, only a place to live under supervision. The centers can host a few residents or several hundred. Residents are generally allowed to leave unsupervised each day for specific hours for work, school, or treatment programs.

Residential centers provide a practical solution to the public's demand for criminals to remain in prison longer despite a shortage of prison and jail space. By the year 2000, keeping an offender at a residential center cost must less than in a prison. Residential Treatment Centers are considered similar to minimum security prisons.

Work release programs

Work release programs, also known as furlough, day parole, and day release programs, allow selected inmates release from a prison or community residential center for work during the day. The Department of Justice estimates 40 percent of released prison inmates are returned to prison for new convictions within three years. A major reason is the lack of employment opportunities for ex-prisoners. In work release programs, inmates can learn skills needed for employment and put those skills to use in jobs before their release from prison. The goal of work release is to give released prisoners a smoother transition back into their communities, in hopes they will be less likely to return to criminal behavior.

Inmates selected for work release are those least likely to commit further crimes while in the community. They must have served the majority of their sentences, be on minimum-security status, and their conviction cannot be for murder or rape. The number of offenders actually placed in work release is very small, about 3 percent of incarcerated individuals. Few employers are willing to accept offenders for training, and most communities continue to view work release offenders as dangerous. Although work release offenders rarely cause problems, a few highly publicized escapes and violent incidents keep public opinion unfavorable.

For More Information


Beck, Allen, and Paige Harrison. Prisoners in 2001. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001.

Schiraldi, Vincent, and Jason Ziedenberg. America's One Million NonViolent Prisoners. Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute, 1999.

Siegel, Larry J. Criminology: The Core. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.

Silverman, Ira. Corrections: A Comprehensive View. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001.

U.S. Department of Justice. A Profile of Female Offenders. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons, 1998.

Web Sites

"Correction." U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Criminal Justice Reference Service. http://virlib.ncjrs.org/Corrections.asp (accessed August 20, 2004).

"Corrections Connection." The Official Home of Corrections. http://www.corrections.com (accessed on August 20, 2004).

U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections (NIC). http://www.nicic.org (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law