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Another trend resulted from the high incarceration rates of African Americans and Hispanics, which changed the makeup of the prisoner population and altered the nature of prison life. As discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, during the past 40 years of increasing imprisonment, incarceration rates for African Americans and Hispanics have remained much higher than those for whites, sustaining and at times increasing already significant racial and ethnic disparities. Racially and ethnically diverse prisoner populations live in closer and more intimate proximity with one another than perhaps anywhere else in society. In some prison systems, they also live together under conditions of severe deprivation and stress that help foment conflict among them. Despite this close proximity, racial and ethnic distinctions and forms of segregation occur on a widespread basis in prison—sometimes by official policy and practice and sometimes on the basis of informal social groupings formed by the prisoners themselves. Race- and ethnicitybased prison gangs emerged in part as a result of these dynamics (Hunt et al., 1993; McDonald, 2003; Skarbek, 2012; van der Kolk, 1987; Valdez, 2005). Estimates of gang membership vary greatly from approximately 9 percent to as much as 24 percent of the prison population during the past two decades (Hill, 2004, 2009; Knox, 2005; Wells et al., 2002). However, Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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these different estimates mask the wide variation in the proportion of gang members within different prison systems and locations and the level of organization of the gangs themselves (Skarbek, 2011).

A number of scholars predicted that many of the above changes would result in prisons becoming more disorderly and unsafe (e.g., Blomberg and Lucken, 2000; Hagan, 1995). However, some key indicators of order and safety in prisons—including riots, homicides, and suicides—showed significant improvement instead. For example, in a study of reported riots, Useem and Piehl (2006, p. 95) find that “both the absolute number of riots and the ratio of inmates to riots declined.” The number of riots declined from a peak in 1973 (about 90 riots per 1,000,000 inmates) to become a rare event by 2003, even though the prison population significantly increased over this period. The rate of inmate homicides likewise decreased, declining 92 percent from more than 60 per 100,000 inmates in 1973 (Sylvester et al., 1977) to fewer than 5 per 100,000 in 2000 (Stephan and Karberg, 2003). Useem and Piehl (2006) also report a similar drop in the rate of staff murdered by inmates—a rare but significant event that fell to zero in 2000 and 2001. In addition, as discussed further in Chapter 7, suicide rates in prison declined from 34 per 100,000 in 1980 to 16 per 100,000 in 1990, and largely stabilized after that (Mumola, 2005). Although these measures of lethal violence do not encompass the full measure of the quality of prison life (or even the overall amount of violence that occurs in prison settings), these significant declines during a period of rising incarceration rates are noteworthy, and the mechanisms by which they were accomplished merit future study.

In the early years of increased rates of incarceration in the United States, many of the most important improvements in the quality of prison life were brought about through prison litigation and court-ordered change. Thus, as part of the larger civil rights movement, a period of active prisoners’ rights litigation began in the late 1960s and continued through the 1970s.

It culminated in a number of federal district court decisions addressing constitutional violations, including some that graphically described what one court called “the pernicious conditions and the pain and degradation which ordinary inmates suffer[ed]” within the walls of certain institutions,2 and that also brought widespread reforms to a number of individual prisons and prison systems. As prison law experts acknowledged, this early prison litigation did much to correct the worst extremes, such as uncivilized conditions, physical brutality, and grossly inadequate medical and mental health services within prison systems (e.g., Cohen, 2004).

By the beginning of the 1980s, as state prison populations continued to grow and correctional systems confronted serious overcrowding problems,

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

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the Supreme Court signaled its intent to grant greater deference to prison officials. In a landmark case, Rhodes v. Chapman (1981),3 for example, the Court refused to prohibit the then controversial practice of “doublecelling” (housing two prisoners in cells that had been built to house only one). Even so, at least 49 reported court cases decided between 1979 and 1990 addressed jail and prison overcrowding, a majority of which resulted in court-ordered population “caps” or ceilings to remedy unconstitutional conditions (Cole and Call, 1992). By the mid-1990s, there were only three states in the country—Minnesota, New Jersey, and North Dakota—in which an individual prison or the entire prison system had not been placed under a court order to remedy unacceptable levels of overcrowding or other unconstitutional conditions (American Civil Liberties Union, 1995).





In 1995, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which greatly limited prisoners’ access to the courts to challenge their conditions of confinement. Among other things, the law prohibited prisoners from recovering damages for “mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury” [at 42 U.S.C. Section 1997e(3)], and it also required prisoners to “exhaust” all “administrative remedies” (no matter how complicated, prolonged, or futile) before being permitted to file claims in court. Legal commentators concluded that the PLRA had helped achieve the intended effect of significantly reducing the number of frivolous lawsuits; however, it also instituted significant barriers to more creditable claims that could have drawn needed attention to harmful prison conditions and violations of prisoners’ rights (Cohen, 2004;

Schlanger and Shay, 2008). By the late 1990s, the average inmate could find much less recourse in the courts than the early years of prison litigation had appeared to promise (Cohen, 2004). Schlanger and Shay (2008, p. 140) note that the “obstacles to meritorious lawsuits” were “undermining the rule of law in our prisons and jails, granting the government near-impunity to violate the rights of prisoners without fear of consequences.” The final trend that affected the nature of prison life in the United States over the past several decades was both an independent factor in its own right and the consequence of several of those previously mentioned.

It is somewhat more difficult to document quantitatively but has been vividly described in a number of historical accounts of this era of American corrections (e.g., Cullen, 1995; Garland, 2001; Gottschalk, 2006). The mid-1970s marked the demise of the pursuit of what had come to be called the “rehabilitative ideal” (Lin, 2002; Vitiello, 1991). Rehabilitation—the goal of placing people in prison not only as punishment but also with the intent that they eventually would leave better prepared to live a law-abiding life—had served as an overarching rationale for incarceration for nearly a

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

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century (e.g., Allen, 1959). In this period, as discussed in Chapters 3 and 4, the dominant rationale shifted from rehabilitation to punishment.

As the manifest purpose of imprisonment shifted, aspects of prison life changed in some ways that adversely affected individual prisoners. Once legislatures and prison systems deemphasized the rehabilitative rationale, and as they struggled to deal with unprecedented overcrowding, they were under much less pressure to provide prison rehabilitative services, treatment, and programming (e.g., California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Expert Panel on Adult Offender Reentry and Recidivism Reduction Programs, 2007; Office of Inspector General, 2004; Government Accountability Office, 2012). We examine the available data on the decline in opportunities to participate in such services later in this chapter

and also in Chapter 7.

As discussed in Chapters 3 and 4, during the period of incarceration growth, politicians and policy makers from across the political spectrum embraced an increasingly “get tough” approach to criminal justice. Eventually, advocates of these more punitive policies began to focus explicitly on daily life inside the nation’s prisons, urging the implementation of a “no frills” approach to everyday correctional policies and practices. Daily life inside many prison systems became harsher, in part because of an explicit commitment to punishing prisoners more severely. What some scholars characterized as a “penal harm” movement that arose in many parts of the country included attempts to find “creative strategies to make offenders suffer” (Cullen, 1995, p. 340).

As Johnson and colleagues (1997) point out, political rhetoric advocated “restoring fear to prisons,” among other things through a new “ethos of vindictiveness and retribution” that was clearly “counter to that of previous decades, which had emphasized humane treatment of prisoners and the rehabilitative ideal” (pp. 24-25). In some jurisdictions, “get tough” policies addressed relatively minor (but not necessarily insignificant) aspects of prisoners’ daily life, such as, in one southern state, “removing air conditioning and televisions in cells, discontinuing intramural sports, requiring inmates to wear uniforms, abolishing furloughs for inmates convicted of violent crimes, and banning long hair and beards” (Johnson et al., 1997, p. 28). In 1995 and several times thereafter, Congress considered an explicit No Frills Prison Act that was designed to target federal prison construction funds to states that “eliminate[d] numerous prison amenities—including good time, musical instruments, personally owned computers, in-cell coffee pots, and so on” (Johnson et al., 1997, p. 28).4 Although the No Frills Prison Act 4 See H.R. 663 (104th), whose stated purpose was “to end luxurious conditions in prisons.” Congress also considered No Frills Prisons Acts in 1999 [H.R. 370 (106th)] and again in 2003 [H.R. 2296 (108th)]. A bill by the same name, limiting food expenditures and restrictCopyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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never became law, it did reflect prevailing attitudes among many citizens and lawmakers at the time. As described in more detail below, a number of restrictions on “prison amenities” were imposed through changes in correctional policy rather than legislation.

PRISON DATA Before discussing the consequences of imprisonment for individuals, it is useful to describe contemporary conditions of confinement—the physical, social, and psychological realities that prisoners are likely to experience in the course of their incarceration. However, attempts to characterize the overall conditions of confinement are constrained by the lack of comprehensive, systematic, and reliable data on U.S. prison conditions. The best evidence available often is limited to specific places or persons. As noted at the outset of this chapter, any generalizations about typical prison conditions must be qualified by the fact that prisons differ significantly in how they are structured, operated, and experienced. Official national statistics that address certain aspects of imprisonment are useful for many scholarly purposes, but they have two important limitations: a lack of standardization and sometimes questionable reliability, on the one hand, and the fact that they typically focus on few meaningful indicators of the actual quality of prison life. We discuss each of these limitations in turn.

Lack of National and Standardized Data Concerns about the accuracy or reliability of official compilations of general criminal justice data—including data collected in and about the nation’s correctional institutions—are long-standing. More than 45 years ago, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice (1967) concluded that regional and national criminal justice data often were inaccurate, incomplete, or unavailable and recommended a number of reforms. Similar concerns were voiced by the National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals and the General Accounting Office in reports published in the early 1970s (Comptroller General of the United States, 1973; National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1973). Although a number of reforms and new standards were implemented, a report sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) that was published almost two decades after the 1967 Commission report acknowledged that “significant data quality problems still remain” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1985, p. 28).

ing living conditions, recreational activities, and property, was enacted in at least one state.

See Alaska S.B. 1 (1997).

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