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«This PDF is available from The National Academies Press at The Growth of Incarceration in the United ...»

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Many studies have attempted to estimate the combined incapacitation and deterrence effects of incarceration on crime using panel data at the state level from the 1970s to the 1990s and 2000s. Most studies estimate the crime-reducing effect of incarceration to be small and some report that the size of the effect diminishes with the scale of incarceration. Where adjustments are made for the direct dependence of incarceration rates on crime rates, the crime-reducing effects of incarceration are found to be larger.

Thus, the degree of dependence of the incarceration rate on the crime rate is crucial to the interpretation of these studies. Several studies influential for the committee’s conclusions in Chapters 3 and 4 find that the direct dependence of the incarceration rate on the crime rate is modest, lending credence to a small crime-reduction effect on incarceration. However, research in this area is not unanimous and the historical and legal analysis is hard to quantify. If the trend in the incarceration rate depended strongly on the trend in crime, then a larger effect of incarceration on crime would be more credible. On balance, panel data studies support the conclusion that the growth in incarceration rates reduced crime, but the magnitude of the crime reduction remains highly uncertain and the evidence suggests it was unlikely to have been large.

Whatever the estimated average effect of the incarceration rate on the crime rate, the available studies on imprisonment and crime have limited utility for policy. The incarceration rate is the outcome of policies affecting who goes to prison and for how long and of policies affecting parole revocation. Not all policies can be expected to be equally effective in preventing crime. Thus, it is inaccurate to speak of the crime prevention effect of incarceration in the singular. Policies that effectively target the incarceration of highly dangerous and frequent offenders can have large crime prevention benefits, whereas other policies will have a small prevention effect or, even worse, increase crime in the long run if they have the effect of increasing postrelease criminality.

Evidence is limited on the crime prevention effects of most of the policies that contributed to the post-1973 increase in incarceration rates.

Nevertheless, the evidence base demonstrates that lengthy prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure. Specifically, the incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.

Also, because recidivism rates decline markedly with age and prisoners necessarily age as they serve their prison sentence, lengthy prison sentences are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation unless they Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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are specifically targeted at very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders.

For these reasons, statutes mandating lengthy prison sentences cannot be justified on the basis of their effectiveness in preventing crime.

Finally, although the body of credible evidence on the effect of the experience of imprisonment on recidivism is small, that evidence consistently points either to no effect or to an increase rather than a decrease in recidivism. Thus, there is no credible evidence of a specific deterrent effect of the experience of incarceration.

Our review of the evidence in this chapter reaffirms the theories of deterrence first articulated by the Enlightenment philosophers Beccaria and Bentham. In their view, the overarching purpose of punishment is to deter crime. For state-imposed sanctions to deter crime, they theorized, requires three ingredients—severity, certainty, and celerity of punishment. But they also posited that severity alone would not deter crime. Our review of the evidence has confirmed both the enduring power of their theories and the modern relevance of their cautionary observation about overreliance on the severity of punishment as a crime prevention policy.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences T

his chapter summarizes what is known about the nature of prison

life and its consequences for prisoners. The dramatic rise in incarceration rates in the United States beginning in the mid-1970s has meant that many more people have been sent to prison and, on average, have remained there for longer periods of time. Therefore, the number of persons experiencing the consequences of incarceration—whether helpful or harmful—has correspondingly increased. Although this chapter considers the direct and immediate consequences of incarceration for prisoners while they are incarcerated, many of the most negative of these consequences can undermine postprison adjustment and linger long after formerly incarcerated persons have been released back into society.

In examining this topic, we reviewed research and scholarship from criminology, law, penology, program evaluation, psychiatry, psychology, and sociology. These different disciplines often employ different methodologies and address different questions (and at times come to different conclusions). In our synthesis of these diverse lines of research, we sought to find areas of consensus regarding the consequences of imprisonment for individuals confined under conditions that prevailed during this period of increasing rates of incarceration and reentry.

Prisons in the United States are for the most part remote, closed environments that are difficult to access and challenging to study empirically.

They vary widely in how they are structured and how they operate, making broad generalizations about the consequences of imprisonment difficult to formulate. It is possible, however, to describe some of the most significant trends that occurred during the period of increasing rates of incarceration Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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that affected the nature of prison life. After reviewing these trends and acknowledging the lack of national and standardized data and quality-of-life indicators, we discuss aspects of imprisonment that have been scientifically studied. From the available research, we summarize what is known about the experience of prison generally, how it varies for female prisoners and confined youth, its general psychological consequences, and the particular consequences of extreme conditions of overcrowding and isolation, as well as the extent of participation in prison programming. We also consider, on the one hand, what is known about the potentially criminogenic effects of incarceration and, on the other hand, what is known about prison rehabilitation and reentry in reducing postprison recidivism.


Classic sociological and psychological studies have underscored the degree to which prisons are complex and powerful environments that can have a strong influence on the persons confined within them (Sykes, 1958;

Clemmer, 1958; Toch, 1975, 1977). However, it is important to note at the outset of this discussion of the consequences of imprisonment that not all “prisons” are created equal. Not only are correctional institutions categorized and run very differently on the basis of their security or custody levels, but even among prisons at the same level of custody, conditions of confinement can vary widely along critical dimensions—physical layout, staffing levels, resources, correctional philosophy, and administrative leadership— that render one facility fundamentally different from another. One of the important lessons of the past several decades of research in social psychology is the extent to which specific aspects of a context or situation can significantly determine its effect on the actors within it (e.g., Haney, 2005;

Ross and Nisbett, 1991). This same insight applies to prisons. Referring to very different kinds of correctional facilities as though the conditions within them are the same when they are not may blur critically important distinctions and result in invalid generalizations about the consequences of imprisonment (or the lack thereof). It also may lead scholars to conclude that different research results or outcomes are somehow inconsistent when in fact they can be explained by differences in the specific conditions to which they pertain.

This chapter focuses primarily on the consequences of incarceration for individuals confined in maximum and medium security prisons, those which place a heavier emphasis on security and control compared with the lowercustody-level facilities where far fewer prisoners are confined (Stephan and Karberg, 2003). Prisoners in the higher security-level prisons typically are housed in cells (rather than dormitories), and the facilities themselves generally are surrounded by high walls or fences, with armed guards, detection Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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devices, or lethal fences being used to carefully monitor and control the “security perimeters.” Closer attention is paid to the surveillance of inmate activity and the regulation of movement inside housing units and elsewhere in the prison. Obviously, these, too, are gross categorizations, with countless variations characterizing actual conditions of confinement among apparently similar prisons. The assertions made in the pages that follow about broad changes in prison practices and policies, normative prison conditions, and consequences of imprisonment all are offered with the continuing caveat that as prisons vary significantly, so, too, do their normative conditions and their consequences for those who live and work within them.


Although individual prisons can vary widely in their nature and effects, a combination of six separate but related trends that occurred over the past several decades in the United States has had a significant impact on conditions of confinement in many of the nation’s correctional institutions: (1) increased levels of prison overcrowding, (2) substantial proportions of the incarcerated with mental illness, (3) a more racially and ethnically diverse prisoner population, (4) reductions in overall levels of lethal violence within prisons, (5) early litigation-driven improvements in prison conditions followed by an increasingly “hands-off” judicial approach to prison reform, and (6) the rise of a “penal harm” movement.

The first and in many ways most important of these trends was due to the significant and steady increase in the sheer numbers of persons incarcerated throughout the country. As noted in Chapter 2, significant increases in the size of the prisoner population began in the mid-to-late 1970s in a number of states and continued more or less unabated until quite recently.

The resulting increases in the numbers of prisoners were so substantial and occurred so rapidly that even the most aggressive programs of prison construction could not keep pace. Widespread overcrowding resulted and has remained a persistent problem. Congress became concerned about prison overcrowding as early as the late 1970s (Subcommittee on Penitentiaries and Corrections, 1978). Overcrowding was described as having reached “crisis-level” proportions by the start of the 1980s and often thereafter (e.g., Finn, 1984; Gottfredson, 1984; Zalman, 1987), and it was addressed in a landmark Supreme Court case as recently as 2011.1 At the end of 2010, 27 state systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons were operating at 100 percent design capacity or greater (Guerino et al., 2011).

In addition to the rapid expansion of the prisoner population and the severe overcrowding that resulted, recent surveys of inmates have shown

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

–  –  –

high prevalence of serious mental illness among both prisoners and jail inmates (James and Glaze, 2006). Although the reasons for this high prevalence are not entirely clear, some scholars have pointed to the effect of the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s (e.g., Hope and Young, 1984;

Hudson, 1984; Scull, 1977), which effectively reduced the amount of public resources devoted to the hospitalization and treatment of the mentally ill.

Some have suggested that untreated mental illness may worsen in the community, ultimately come to the attention of the criminal justice system, and eventually result in incarceration (Belcher, 1988; Whitmer, 1980). However, Raphael and Stoll (2013) have estimated that deinstitutionalization accounted for no more than approximately “7 percent of prison growth between 1980 and 2000” (p. 156). Even this low estimate of the contribution of deinstitutionalization to the overall rise in incarceration indicates that in the year 2000, “between 40,000 and 72,000 incarcerated individuals would more likely have been mental hospital inpatients in years past” (p. 156). Other scholars and mental health practitioners have suggested that the combination of adverse prison conditions and the lack of adequate and effective treatment resources may result in some prisoners with preexisting mental health conditions suffering an exacerbation of symptoms and even some otherwise healthy prisoners developing mental illness during their incarceration (e.g., Haney, 2006; Kupers, 1999). In any event, the high prevalence of seriously mentally ill prisoners has become a fact of life in U.S. prisons. Further discussion of mental illness among the incarcerated is

presented in Chapter 7.

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