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Criminal Justice: Corrections

Abstract and Keywords

The United States has more than 7 million adults under correctional supervision, with more than 2 million incarcerated. The history and theories behind incarceration are described, along with the current jail and prison inmate populations. Specific problems of juveniles and women are mentioned. Current trends and issues in corrections are discussed, including community-based corrections, privatization, faith-based programs, and health care. The roles of social workers in the correctional system are outlined. Comments are made on the future of incarceration.

Keywords: corrections, jail, prison, inmate, privatization


This entry deals with jail and prison programs designed primarily to incarcerate adult offenders. According to Sullivan (1990), incarceration was originally a ritual for the redemption of sin through punishment. The most common forms of punishments for transgressions of moral codes and threats to the social order have been death, slavery, maiming, or the payment of fines. From the Enlightenment to the late 20th century, the philosophy of utilitarianism dominated penal reform. Beccaria (1819) decreed that punishment should be prescribed according to the gravity of the offense, creating a hierarchy of penalties. Other reformers, such as John Howard (1791/1973), translated this theory into specific penal reforms, and it was the driving force behind American penology from the late 18th century.

An opposing philosophy was articulated by Kant (1796/1991) in The Metaphysics of Morals. Punishment would never be imposed just for the purpose of securing some extrinsic good such as the deterrence of crime; the penal code was to be what Kant termed a categorical imperative. Punishment was imposed because an individual had committed an offense (Heath, 1963). A case could be made that today penology has once more shifted from utilitarianism to retribution, based on the neo-Kantian principle of “just deserts.”

The first American prison (1773) was a converted copper mine near Simsbury, Connecticut. A few years later the Quakers created an organization to improve the situation of convicts by substituting imprisonment in solitary confinement for physical torture or the death penalty. The “penitentiary movement” began with the Walnut Street Jail in 1790, later becoming the Pennsylvania Prison Society in 1887 (Sullivan, 1990).

John Howard (1726–1790) initiated lay visiting in England's jails and prisons. The John Howard Society, a voluntary advocacy and prisoners' rights organization, was established in England in 1866 and in Massachusetts in 1889. The Correctional Association of New York was formed in 1884 and the Prisoner's Aid Association of Maryland was created in 1869 (Fox, 1983).

Professional social work has had an uneasy relationship with corrections, partly because of the social work emphasis on self-determination (Fox, 1983). By accepting employment in an authoritarian setting with nonvoluntary, unmotivated clients, social workers in correctional settings were often considered to be ignoring professional values (Congress, 2007).

The ideology, if not the reality, of correctional rehabilitation in the 1950s was rooted in the practice of therapeutic treatment, either psychotherapy or some form of group treatment. By the end of the 1960s, however, political and social events made rehabilitation in a prison setting seem impossible (Sullivan, 1990). The 1970s began with prison activism and violence on an unprecedented scale at Soledad, California, and Attica, New York (Montgomery, 1998). In 1980, 33 inmates were killed in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Rolland, 1997). A riot at San Quentin (California) injured 23 inmates and 2 guards in January 2006; another riot at San Quentin occurred the following month, injuring 16 inmates (Herel, 2006). That same month all seven Los Angeles County jails were locked down because of racial violence, with a riot in one jail involving 300 inmates (Washington Times, 2006). Relatively few resources have been directed at improving these conditions.

Functions of Incarceration

Liberal Ideologies

Liberal ideologies assume that problems in behavior originate in the social environment. The key to changing offenders is manipulating their environments or their psychological consequences (McNeece & Roberts, 2001). Liberals focus on the relationship between poverty, racism, and crime, and they assume that efforts to prevent crime should be directed at these conditions. Liberals also believe that incarceration should provide treatment to rehabilitate, reeducate, and reintegrate offenders into society. Some social workers have been active in the correctional reform movement as a reaction to the conservative ideologies and punitive strategies that began in the 1970s (Treger & Allen, 2007).

Conservative Ideologies

Conservatives view inadequate control over fundamentally flawed human nature as the primary cause of crime (McNeece & Roberts, 2001). They support the notion of retribution or just deserts because it serves utilitarian purposes. Punishment is not only proper, but also necessary, because it reinforces the social order. Deterrence is an expected outcome of incarceration, because punishing offenders for their misdeeds will reduce both the probability of their repeating the act (specific deterrence) and the likelihood of others committing criminal acts (general deterrence). The incapacitation function of incarceration reflects a pessimistic view of human nature: offenders cannot be rehabilitated, but neither can they commit crimes against people outside the prison while incarcerated. Thus, harsher sentences and fewer rehabilitative measures are required (McNeece & Roberts, 2001).

Radical Ideologies

Radical ideologies are based on the view that crime is an inevitable result of the capitalist economic system (Gibbons, 1979). According to Rusche and Kirchheimer (1939), the threat of incarceration was an effective capitalist device for controlling the labor supply. Radicals argue that crime should be substantially affected by changes in the political economy. Because of their focus on the social environment, radicals have devoted little effort to reforming correctional programs for individual offenders. To the extent that reforms actually are adopted, they only strengthen the ability of the correctional system to control populations. According to this view, the only hope for meaningful change is socialism (McNeece & Roberts, 2001).

Correctional Programs


Despite being the oldest type of penal institution, jails have been studied less than prisons have been and are not always included in a discussion of corrections. Jails are local institutions, many of which are dirty and dilapidated and hold only a few prisoners; they are located in rural areas and were built decades ago. A smaller number of jails are newer, located in urban areas, and may hold several thousand inmates. The latter type of jail currently houses the majority of inmates.

Such disparate groups as people awaiting trial, inmates serving misdemeanor sentences (generally less than 1 year), mentally ill people, alleged parole and probation violators, felony prisoners in transit, intoxicated people “drying out,” and juveniles may be found in the same jail. Inmates are disproportionately people of color, poor people, and disadvantaged people, leading one critic to refer to the jail as “the ultimate ghetto” of the criminal justice system (Goldfarb, 1975). Irwin (1985) argued that jail inmates are people who are not well integrated into conventional society; have few ties to social networks; and are perceived by their jailers as irksome, offensive, and threatening, rather than dangerous.

Jails are administered by the police, usually the county sheriff. However, a rapidly growing practice is the contracting of local jail services to private corporations. By 1999, the last year national statistics were kept, there were almost 14,000 inmates in privately owned or managed jails (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS], 2000). Usually the local government issues bonds to pay for jail construction costs and pledges the revenues generated from the lease of the facility to retire the bonds. Another common practice is the contracting of jail health care and some social services to private firms.

At midyear 2005, 747,529 inmates were held in American jails, a raise by 33,539 from the previous year. An additional 71,905 offenders were in alternative programs run by jails, but housed outside the jail (BJS, 2006a). Males were 87.3% of the jail population. Non-White minorities accounted for 55.7% of jail inmates. Blacks were almost 5 times, and Hispanics were nearly 3 times more likely than Whites to have been in jail. Sixty-two percent of those in jail were not convicted of a crime, but were awaiting court action on a criminal charge. Sixty-eight percent met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse.

Jail Conditions

Few attempts have been made to systematically study jail conditions since 1991, when 136 jails were under a court order to reduce overcrowding, 66 to provide recreational facilities, 58 to provide medical services, 50 to provide libraries, 46 to provide more staff, and 37 to appropriately classify and separate inmates. Forty of these largest jails were under court order to improve the “totality of conditions,” including such things as illuminating fire hazards and providing educational (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992a). Current information about these conditions is largely anecdotal, but the hundreds of recent and pending court decisions on jail conditions would lead one to believe that a severe problem with overcrowding, sanitation, food, education, social services, and health care still persists (AELE Legal Publications Menu, 2006).

Juveniles in Jail

More than 100,000 juveniles were admitted to adult jails each year during the mid-1980s, with the average daily population varying between 1,500 and 1,700 (Schwartz, 1989). After a specific amendment to federal law to remove juveniles from jail, the average daily population of juveniles in jail dropped only slightly by 1988, from 1,740 to 1,451 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992a). A recent report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (2006) documented a 208% increase in the number of youth younger than 18 years serving time in adult jails between 1990 and 2004, and the average daily population of juveniles in adult jails has been just over 7,200 since the year 2000.

Women in Jail

The number of women in jails increased by 8.0% during the year ending June 30, 2005, and the rate of increase of women in jail since 1998 has averaged 6.2%. The major reason is that more women are being arrested. Women's health problems are even less likely to receive proper attention (McNeece, 1992). The great majority of women offenders are mothers, and two-thirds of women in jail have children younger than 18 years (BJS, 1992b). In addition to the trauma of separation from their children while in jail, women inmates also run the risk of having their parental rights terminated. Sexual harassment of female inmates by male guards is another serious issue (Amnesty International, 2007). A significant proportion of female inmates also have been sexually abused and struggle with substance abuse and mental health problems (DeHart, 2004; National Institute of Justice [NIJ], 2000).


The stereotype of the prison as a “big house” holding 2,000 or 3,000 inmates has never been an accurate view of the U.S. prison, and it has become increasingly inaccurate since World War II (Irwin, 1980). Many states have never relied on large institutions to house convicted offenders, preferring to use smaller, decentralized road camps or prison farms.

With more than 2,186,230 of its citizens behind bars, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world (738 per 100,000), more than either the former Soviet Union (628 per 100,000) or South Africa (400 per 100,000). The incarceration rate in Sweden and Switzerland is ∼10% the rate in the United States (Sentencing Project, 2003). There were 1,512,823 inmates in federal and state prisons in FY2005, in addition to the 819,434 in local jails and other local alternative jail programs (BJS, 2006a). The number of prison inmates in custody per 100,000 population in 2005 ranged from 153 in Maine to 824 in Louisiana. States with the largest prison populations were Texas (171,338) and California (166,532), with Florida (87,545) a distant third.

  1. 1. Black males had the highest probability of being in prison (3,145 per 100,000), followed by Hispanic males (1,244 per 100,000) and White males (471 per 100,000).

  2. 2. The number of female inmates continues to rise, comprising 7.5% of the total state and federal prison population in FY2005.

  3. 3. 68% of state prison inmates did not have a high school diploma.

  4. 4. Just over half (52%) of state prison inmates were serving time for a violent offense; the others were in for property (21%), drug (20%), and public order (7%) offenses.

  5. 5. 80% of state prison inmates have a history of drug abuse (Mumola, 1999).

  6. 6. 16% of state prison inmates have a history of mental health problems (BJS, 1999).

Trends and Issues in Incarceration

Alternatives to Incarceration

The great majority of America's 7 million adults who are under correctional supervision are not incarcerated. The majority are sentenced to probation within the community (sometimes called community-based corrections), and most of the others have been released from prison on parole. The number of adults on probation increased by 400% between 1980 and 2005, and the number on parole doubled (BJS, 2006c).


The prison population explosion, coupled with increasing demands for cost cutting, has led to an expansion of privatization. Private for-profit corporations have a long history of involvement in providing correctional services, from laundry and food services, to medical, substance abuse treatment, and psychiatric services, to complete prison operation. Feeley (2002) presents an interesting history of the entrepreneurial aspect of corrections. Hallett (2002) argues that privatization has resulted in a concept of prisoners as commodities. Prisoners are no longer profitable only for their labor, but also for their ability to generate per diem payments to private organizations that house, feed, and care for them.

The major incentives are speed and cost. Both construction time and costs have been reduced (Joel, 1993). Privately operated prison facilities held 101,228 inmates in FY2005, with the federal system reporting the largest increase in privatization (BJS, 2006a). The debate continues over the quality of care and services in private prisons and jails, as well as whether they are actually more cost-effective (Abt Associates, 1998). One concern is that cost savings are realized at the expense of services (Dolovich, 2005).

Faith-Based Programs

The George W. Bush administration has strongly supported the provision of prison services by religious organizations as a way of reducing recidivism. Governor Jeb Bush authorized the nation's first completely faith-based prison in Florida. Despite claims of success from the supporters of this approach, Mears, Roman, Wolff, & Buck (2006) and his associates did not find that faith-based program outcomes were any better than other programs. In addition there is controversy regarding the proper role of churches and other religious organizations in conducting public business.

Health Care

Most correction agencies also contract with private providers for at least some aspects of inmate health care services (NIC, 2003). Whether public or private, lack of access to adequate health care remains a serious problem for many of the nation's jails and prisons (NIC, 2001). Most of the nation's inmates arrive at the prison gate with unmet health needs, and despite decades of litigation and some improvements in programs, many of those needs persist throughout their sentence. The most serious health crisis in American prisons is HIV or AIDS. At year-end 2003, 1.9% of all male prison inmates were HIV-positive, compared with 2.8% of females (BJS, 2005a). Many local jails have HIV-positive rates of more than 10%. In addition to higher prevalence rates for other STDs, women inmates also have special health problems associated with their reproductive systems. Most pregnancies among female inmates are classified as “high risk,” since exposure to drugs and alcohol can lead to fetal health abnormalities.

According to the BJS (2006d), the majority of incarcerated inmates in America have a mental illness. The prevalence of mental disorders among female inmates in state prisons is an astounding 73%, compared to 55% for males. Most of these illnesses are treated psychopharmacologically. Inmates with a nonacute mental illness generally receive less than an hour per week of counseling. One of the greatest needs is for separate housing for mentally ill inmates.

Substance abuse treatment is a major need in prisons and jails. According to NIJ (2003), the majority of arrestees are at risk for alcohol or drug dependence, or both, and three of four convicted jail inmates were involved with alcohol or drugs at the time of their current offense. If treatment is not provided during incarceration, the chance of recidivism remains high; yet our best estimates are that only about 10% of those needing treatment while incarcerated actually receive it (Mumola, 1999). The number of prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses increased substantially during the 1970s and 1980s, partly because of harsher drug laws, such as the Rockefeller laws in New York. Treatment accessibility varies greatly from state to state and prison to prison, with a few offering a full range of treatment for addictions, mental health problems, domestic violence, and educational deficits.

Prison Conditions

Selke (1993) maintained that four overriding features of prison life must be considered: (a) violence, (b) corruption, (c) racism, and (d) boredom. Violence, always a fact of prison life, has been exacerbated in recent years because of overcrowding. There were 6,241 allegations of sexual violence in prison and jail reported in 2005, with 38% of allegations involving staff sexual misconduct; 35%, inmate-on-inmate nonconsensual sexual acts; 17%, staff sexual harassment; and 10%, inmate-on-inmate abusive sexual contact (BJS, 2006b). The number of nonreported incidents is believed to be much higher.

Corruption has also been a historical problem in closed prisons as both inmates and staff attempt to ameliorate the strains of living and working in such an unpleasant atmosphere. Racism has been a commonly recognized fact of prison life since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. According to Irwin (1980), “the hate and distrust between White and Black prisoners constitute the most powerful source of divisions” in prison (p. 183).

Boredom is a reflection of the absence of meaningful activities for most inmates. Prisoners are confined to their living and sleeping unit most of the day. Most inmates who are physically able are required to work, and most are paid a small hourly wage. Work assignments generally fall into three categories: operational assignments within the prison (janitorial, food preparation), community service (highway clean-up, construction), and prison industries (producing goods for sale). Even in the best correctional programs, the routine that pervades prison life compels some inmates to bizarre and outrageous conduct. Other serious issues for inmates are the lack of autonomy over one's actions, excessive noise, and lack of privacy.


Incarceration is often described as a “revolving door.” In a study of 380,691 inmates released from state prisons, BJS (2002) reported that two-thirds were rearrested within 3 years, and almost half were reconvicted. McKean and Ransford (2004) recommend mental health and substance abuse treatment, education, and vocational training in prison as the most cost-effective ways of reducing recidivism. Drug courts, with mandatory treatment and education programs, have managed to cut recidivism rates by 31%.

Social Work and Corrections

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2006), there are opportunities for correctional social workers in jails, prisons, and parole or probation agencies. In jails and prisons, they often assist in classifying inmates' needs, evaluate their progress, and work with other agencies to develop parole and release plans. In addition, social workers provide offenders with coping, anger management, and drug and sexual abuse counseling and plan education and training programs to improve offenders' job skills and employment prospects. Social workers are usually part of an interdisciplinary team.

Despite many opportunities in corrections, relatively few social workers choose a career in this field (Gibelman, 2006). This may be due partly to the aversion social workers have toward working with “mandated” clients in a coercive system that allows minimal client self-determination. Also, few graduate programs provide more than one course in correctional or justice system social work (McNeece & Roberts, 1997). Students interested in this field of practice should contact The National Organization of Forensic Social Work (

Future of Incarceration

Corrections in the United States is a growth industry. Prison and jail populations have continued to climb steadily since the mid-1990s, despite a decline in the rate of both violent crimes and property crimes (BJS, 2005b). We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. States and communities do not seem to have the capacity to build jails and prisons fast enough to keep pace with the growing inmate population. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 emphasized the construction of new correctional facilities by providing $9.7 billion for new prisons, boot camps, and “other alternative correctional facilities that free traditional prison and jail space for confinement of violent offenders” (U.S. Department of Justice, 1994). Despite our increasing ability to electronically monitor offenders with global positioning devices, the states and the federal government have turned increasingly to the private sector to build even more jails and prisons, without answering questions about whether the private sector can build and operate such facilities more efficiently. Progress has been made in improving living conditions and the provision of essential services to inmates, but much remains to be done.


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                                                                                            Further Reading

                                                                                            Von Hirsch, A. (1976). Doing justice. New York: Hill and Wang.Find this resource: