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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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Notwithstanding the many improvements made in the intervening years and reasonably reliable data on a number of important criminal justice indicators collected by BJS and other government agencies, on which researchers justifiably rely, the collection and reporting of data from official sources measuring actual living conditions and overall quality of life inside the nation’s correctional institutions remain problematic. No mandatory reporting requirement exists for most key indicators or measures, and many prison systems do not systematically assess or report them. In addition, there is little or no standardization of this process (so that different systems often use different definitions of the indicators); little or no quality control over the data; and no outside, independent oversight. As recently as 2005, for example, Allen Beck, chief statistician at BJS, testified that, because of this imprecision and unreliability, “the level of assaults [in prison] is simply not known” (Gibbons and Katzenbach, 2006, p. 418).

A National Research Council panel critically examined the nature and quality of data collection performed by BJS—the agency responsible for providing perhaps the nation’s most reliable and relied upon criminal justice data. The panel concluded that “the lack of routine evaluation and quality assessments of BJS data is problematic because of the wide variety of sources from which BJS data series are drawn” (National Research Council, 2009, p. 253). Using BJS’s prison-related data as an example, the panel noted that “much of the correctional data are collected from agencies and institutions that rely on varied local systems of record-keeping” that, among other things, include “varying definitions” of even basic facts such as race and level of schooling. The panel recommended that BJS “work with correctional agencies” to “promote consistent data collection and expand coverage beyond the 41 states covered in the most recent [National Corrections Reporting Program]” (p. 253).

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5 The National Research Council panel commented on the special challenges that are faced in trying to capture statistically the dimensions of “social context”—whether the context in which crime occurs or the context in which punishment is meted out. For example, the panel noted that one of the major limitations in the statistical data collected by BJS and other agencies on the various factors that influence criminality derives from the fact that “contextual factors associated with crime are inherently difficult to describe—and even characterize consistently” (National Research Council, 2009, p. 55). The panel elaborated further on the fact that the “geography of crime... including social and physical conditions and community Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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ommended that BJS “develop a panel survey of people under correctional supervision” that would allow researchers and policy makers to better “understand the social contexts of correctional supervision” both in prison and following release (National Research Council, 2009, Recommendation 3.6, p. 140), but that recommendation has not been implemented.

Ambitious attempts to estimate and compare the overall “punitiveness” of individual state criminal justice systems (e.g., Gordon, 1989; Kutateladze,

2009) have been constrained by not only the quality but also the scope of the data on which they were based. For example, Gordon’s (1989) initial effort to construct a punitiveness or “toughness” index includes no data that pertained directly to conditions of confinement. Kutateladze’s (2009) more recent and more elaborate analysis includes six categories of measurable indicators of conditions of confinement—overcrowding, operating costs per prisoner, food service costs per prisoner, prisoner suicide and homicide rates, sexual violence between inmates and between staff and inmates, and rate of lawsuits filed by prisoners against correctional agencies or staff members. But these indicators, too, were derived from data of questionable reliability; in addition, the analysis omits many important aspects of prison life.

No comprehensive national data are routinely collected on even the most basic dimensions of the nature and quality of the prison experience, such as housing configurations and cell sizes; the numbers of prisoners who are housed in segregated confinement and their lengths of stay and degree of isolation; the amount of out-of-cell time and the nature and amount of property that prisoners are permitted; the availability of and prisoners’ levels of participation in educational, vocational, and other forms of programming, counseling, and treatment; the nature and extent of prison labor and rates of pay that prisoners are afforded; and the nature and amount of social and legal visitation prisoners are permitted. Moreover, the subtler aspects of the nature of prison life tend to be overlooked entirely in official, comprehensive assessments,6 including those that Liebling (2011) finds are most important to prisoners: treatment by staff and elements of safety, trust, and power throughout the institution.

resources in an area” is difficult to specify and therefore tends not to be included in BJS and other government data collection efforts (p. 67).





6 Lacking is what might be called a “national prison quality-of-life assessment” roughly comparable to the national performance measurement system that the Association of State Correctional Administrators has begun to implement to ensure greater levels of correctional accountability. See Wright (2005).

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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CONDITIONS OF CONFINEMENT

As noted above, no truly comprehensive, systematic, and meaningful assessment of prison conditions in the United States exists.7 The lack of high-quality national data on prison life is due in part to the closed nature of prison environments and the challenges faced in studying the nature and consequences of life within them. Nonetheless, a substantial body of scholarly literature provides important insights into prevailing conditions of confinement and the experience of incarceration. Our review of that literature proceeds in the context of internationally recognized principles of prisoner treatment (see Box 6-1) and the long-established standards and guidelines adopted by the American Correctional Association and the American Bar Association.8 We agree with the observation that “some of the most valuable knowledge we have about corrections is the product of in-depth and sometimes qualitative research conducted by academics and policymakers inside our correctional institutions” (Gibbons and Katzenbach, 2006, p. 528). For example, Lynch’s (2010) historical and qualitative study of the Arizona prison system chronicles a series of changes in correctional policies and practices that took place in that state over the previous several decades, many of which had direct consequences for the nature and quality of life inside Arizona prisons. These changes included significant increases in the length of prison sentences meted out by the courts, the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences, and the implementation of truth-in-sentencing provisions to ensure that prisoners would serve longer portions of their sentences before being released (see the discussion in Chapter 3). The prison population was reclassified so that a greater percentage of prisoners were housed under maximum security conditions. The nation’s first true “supermax” prison was opened, where prisoners were kept in specially designed, windowless solitary confinement cells, isolated from any semblance of normal social contact nearly around the clock and on a long-term basis (a practice discussed later in this chapter). Investments in security measures expanded in Arizona during this era, including the use of trained attack dogs to extract recalcitrant prisoners from their cells, while rehabilitative program opportunities declined (Lynch, 2010).

Lynch also shows the ways in which Arizona prison officials modified many aspects of day-to-day prison operations in ways that collectively worsened more mundane but nonetheless important features of prison life.

7 Some scholars have questioned the feasibility of such a national system. For example, see Kutateladze (2009).

8 For further articulation of these principles, see http://www.aca.org/pastpresentfuture/ principles.asp and http://www.americanbar.org/publications/criminal_justice_section_archive/ crimjust_standards_treatmentprisoners.html#23-1.1 [July 2013].

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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The changes included housing two prisoners in cells that had been designed to hold only one, reducing prisoners’ access to higher education, removing certain kinds of exercise equipment from the prison yard, reducing the time prisoners could spend watching television, placing greater limits on the amount and kind of personal property prisoners could have in their cells, requiring prisoners to pay fees for medical services and for the electricity needed to run their electrical appliances, charging room and board to those engaged in compensated inmate labor, greatly reducing the number of “compassionate leaves” that had allowed prisoners to be escorted outside prison to attend to urgent family matters (such as funerals), placing additional restrictions on prison visits in general and on contact visits in particular, requiring prisoners’ visitors to consent to being strip searched as a precondition for prison visitation, instituting the tape recording of all prisoner phone calls and adding the expense of the recording process to the fees paid by prisoners and their families for the calls, and returning to the use of “chain gangs” in which groups of shackled prisoners were publicly engaged in hard labor under the supervision of armed guards on horseback.

(See Lynch [2010, pp. 116-173], for a more complete description of these changes and the political dynamics that helped bring them about.) Arizona may be near the far end of the spectrum of prison systems that implemented an especially severe regime of “penal harm” over the period of increasing rates of incarceration in the United States, but other observers have documented severe conditions in other states as well and reached sobering conclusions about the outcomes of incarceration. For example, in an ethnographic study of a modern and otherwise apparently well-run

prison in California, Irwin (2005, p. 168) finds:

For long-termers, the new situation of doing time, enduring years of suspension, being deprived on material conditions, living in crowded conditions without privacy, with reduced options, arbitrary control, disrespect, and economic exploitation is excruciatingly frustrating and aggravating.

Anger, frustration, and a burning sense of injustice, coupled with the crippling processing inherent in imprisonment, significantly reduce the likelihood [that prisoners can] pursue a viable, relatively conventional, non-criminal life after release.

Irwin (2005, p. 149) concludes that such conditions did “considerable harm to prisoners in obvious and subtle ways and [made] it more difficult for them to achieve viability, satisfaction, and respect when they are released from prison.” One of the most recent and comprehensive summaries of the current state of the nation’s prisons was provided by the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (Gibbons and Katzenbach, 2006).

In 2005, the Commission held a series of information-gathering hearings Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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in several locations around the country in which it heard live testimony and received evidence from correctional, law enforcement, and other government officials; representatives of interested community agencies and citizens’ groups; and a wide array of academic and legal experts. Witness testimony provided the most informed “snapshot” of prison conditions across the country available at that time and since. In its final report, the Commission acknowledges that “America’s correctional facilities are less turbulent and deadly violent than they were decades ago,” noting that “many correctional administrators have done an admirable job” in bringing these improvements about (Gibbons and Katzenbach, 2006, p. 390).

However, the Commission also observes that, despite the decreases nationally in riots and homicides, there is still too much violence in America’s prisons and jails, too many facilities that are crowded to the breaking point, too little medical and mental health care, unnecessary uses of solitary confinement and other forms of segregation, a desperate need for the kinds of productive activities that discourage violence and make rehabilitation possible, and a culture in many prisons and jails that pits staff against prisoners and management against staff. (p. 390) Thus, the authors argue that “steady decreases nationally in riots and homicides do not tell us about the much larger universe of less-than-deadly violence” or the “other serious problems that put lives at risk and cause immeasurable suffering” (p. 390).

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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