American Prison System

American Prison System

PDF: American Prison System



I am a member of the Criminal Justice Student Association at R.I.T. and due to this I had the opportunity to be involved in a semi project in regard to the American Prison System. I have watched several documentations studying our prison system and specific prisons as well as read the famous Attica Riot book ‘A Time to Die’ by Tom Wicker. Our main focus was on the state of New York and their specific laws but I’ve named a few others as well. The point of the project was to explore the pitfalls and limitations of our current prison system and question what its current goals are.


The American prison system has been subject to a wide range of controversy, ranging from ethical misconduct to excessive and poor use of taxpayers costs. In the State of New York, close to 90,000 people are in a correctional facility. The annual cost for one prisoner is nearly $60,000. New York has twice as many prisoners in 23 hour a day lock down than the rest of the country. (Prison:Open Forum)

The American Criminal Justice System’s approach is separation from the general public with very little incentive to stay out of the prison system. This is a very different approach then the rest of the world who focus on addressing the psychological and financial issues that led the individuals into the criminal lifestyle to begin with.

In Sweden, the prisoner’s privacy is very much protected. They are not closely watched, conjugal visits are weekly, whereas several New York prisons only allow six conjugal visits a year. The goal in a Swedish prison is rehabilitation. The United States often states that this is it’s goal but often times limits or removes rehabilitation from the system altogether. It is perceived that the American Prison system’s goal is incarceration to remove from the general public with high expectations of prisoners coming back should they have a shorter sentence.


Attica Correctional Facility

  • Attica Correctional Facility – New York

Super-max security prison.

Attica is best known for it’s 1971 prison riot in which 44 people, prisoners, guards, and hostages died. Over the course of a week, prisoners holding 33 hostages made several demands, requesting better overall treatment by the guards. Many of their demands were met but the riot ended in a bloody take back. The majority of the deaths were due to police shooting through the hostages to get to the prisoners, reclaiming the prison. (Media sources originally claimed the hostages were killed by the prisoners, slitting their throats, but it was later confirmed that the hostages died of gunshot wounds from the police.)

Attica is still open today and is well known for remaining over populated and having poor conditions. The riot was a scandal and became a National concern, since it represented the State’s Correctional policies. Following the riot take back, there was a bombing at the New York Department of Corrections Oswald office. The Weathermen that claimed being responsible for the bombing blamed Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for the riot taking place to begin with. Since Attica is a male only prison with the majority being African American, racial concerns have often been brought up as the reasoning behind the retaliation that took place after the riot was contained.

Even today the information on the riot has been unclear. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman requested the release of the entire Meyer Report, which is the state’s review of the incident. In 1975, one volume of the report was made public but the other two volumes were permanently sealed in 1981 by the State Supreme Court justice. It is unknown if the remaining report will be released. (Wikipedia; Wicker, Tom)


  • Oak Park Heights – Minnesota Correctional Facility

Level 5 maximum security prison.

Lockdown – National Geographic Inside Maximum Security Prisons

A Maximum security prison holds rapists, murderers, and violent inmates. Many of which are repeat offenders.

All cells have no removable pieces, everything is bolted down. The toilets have no seats, the beds are concrete slabs built into the wall. Shelves are built into the wall. Prisoner issued appliances are made of clear plastic so officers can see all components during their routine searches. Prisoners cannot hide anything this way. Guards find many items during searches, such as homemade alcohol, weapons made from toothbrushes or pens with rubber bands, and contraband passed through the sewer systems. Prisoners use their own urine and feces as weapons against the guards.

Many inmates monitor the guards, read lips, posture, and body language. They attempt to learn personal information on the guards to extort or scare the guards. They are information gatherers. All phone calls are monitored and the inmates know it. (Wikipedia)


  • Central California Women’s Facility – California Female Prison

Only female prison in state of California. Largest female prison in United States.

They are thieves, drug traffickers, and murderers, they are the most violent female prisoners. Female prisoners tend to create family unit clans, with a matriarch as the leader. Homosexual relationships, sexual slaves, and dominance over other prisoners is common. Female prisoners are more violent and lash out quickly with little provocation, they tend to use their fists or spit at each other. Drugs are a common factor, with the leaders as drug dealers. Officers have to watch anything that comes in and out of the prison very closely. As prisoners often use letters to smuggle in drugs. An example would be hiding heroine under the flap of an envelope, stuck to the adhesive that seals the letter or under the stamp.

Women are convicted of their crimes whether they are pregnant or not. Pregnant women are separated into the maternity unit, but violence is just as common in the pregnant unit. All medical checkups are conducted in the prison. But delivery takes place at a hospital and after giving birth, the child is immediately taken away. (Wikipedia)


  • Sing Sing Prison – New York City

Maximum security prison by New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Sing Sing is located roughly 30 miles from New York City, the name is of Native American origin. Part of the original cell block is being turned into a museum. In 1989 it was accredited as establishing a set of standards that was adopted by the American Correctional Association, by which all correctional facilities in America are now set.

In 1996, the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program was established as a rehabilitation and education program for inmates. They use cognitive behavior techniques that have proven to be successful.


  • Women in Prison

Women in the prison system have been a hot topic for research for many years. It’s estimated that 1 in 130 Americans are incarcerated and 1 out of 12 are women. (Mo’Nique Behind Bars) Many of their crimes revolve around abuse and child endangerment. The rest revolve around drugs and alcohol. Many of the behavior patterns that leads to women being incarcerated is very predictable and can be addressed when the signs start in childhood.

The prison life for women is very different than their male counterparts but just as predictable. The groups and sub-groups are relatively similar. There is also a constant power play, the dominating figures overpowering the weaker inmates. Prison brings out the animalistic and primitive part of humans, clearing away any attempt at civility we may attempt in the outside.

One distinct difference in female prisons is the family units that they each create. There are just as many rapes, just as much violence, but the groups organize based on mother, aunt, sister, and child figures. Even referring to each other in these terms.

In 2008, Jennifer Wilkov was found guilty of a white collar crime and wrote an article explaining her experience of prison for four months. Her article demonstrated several issues in our current system. (


  • Solitary Confinement

The United States is one of the only countries that widely use solitary confinement as a form of punishment in the prison system.

Offenders work on a Quality of Life level system, which means they are stripped of privileges or earn privileges based on behavior. Solitary confinement is the complete loss of human contact, minimizing all stimuli and the interaction with another human being. Inmates spend 23 hours a day completely alone in a small cell. Inmates feel it’s a form of torture, to crack, punish, or break them. The prison system feels that confinement is based on the offender’s behavior and that they are given the most contact as can be risked.

Inmates are not allowed any contact, but that does not stop them from trying with what’s known as hidden communication techniques. Rat Lining is a common form of communication, where inmates ‘fish’ notes to each other with a long string they pass or grab from under the doors. They also hide notes within the binding of books that are passed to each other, one rents a book and the next rents it, thereby receiving the hidden message. Every-time a hidden message is discovered; the prison confiscates it and punishes the offenders, adding to their solitary confinement.

Critics feel that this complete isolation will result in permanent psychological damage. That it falls within the definition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. That human beings are not solitary animals but social animals that require contact. They also feel that when stimuli is removed from an environment that the captivity will create a hyper sensitivity to their surroundings. In effect, risking the inmate to be more active, bitter and more prone to lash out once released segregation. The theory is that segregation will cause inmates to act more violent and impulsively because it changes how the brain works. Inmates, who are in solitary confinement too long, admit to losing the ability to relate to other humans and fear being let out in public because they don’t know how to act in public anymore. There is a higher risk of return to prison due to irrational fear and paranoia. This causes them to commit additional crimes. It becomes an ongoing cycle that guarantees offenders will remain in the system and that their mental issues will be exacerbated.



Inmates Playing Chess from prison cells. Attica Correctional Facility, New York. March 1972

  • Wives and Husbands of Prisoners

Being married to a prisoner has several issues. Financial issues, since the partner on the outside becomes responsible for the family income. In many prisons, the inmate has no ability to make money and relies on family on the outside to provide a monthly allowance so they can buy personal products, toilet paper, toothpaste, and soap. Clothing is also not provided by many prisons and has to be provided by family. In a financial recession, the ability to support more than one person is extremely difficult for a single income family.

A family member often times believes in their partner’s innocence, which makes their ability to stand behind them possible. It is very rare for a family or partner to stand by an inmate if they feel they are guilty of the crime. You often times see a partner or family slowly stop visiting, accepting the inmates calls, or providing financial support.

New York is one five states that still allows conjugal visits. The couple is allowed to spend 46 hours in an apartment styled trailer during their visit. The trailers have a small kitchen but all food, clothing, and necessities must be provided by the partner. So a meal plan and grocery list must be done beforehand, since neither are allowed to leave during the 46 hour visit.




In conclusion this semi project has reaffirmed the American prison system has many flaws. We have adopted a stance for segregation from the general public instead of rehabilitation. With the explanation that rehabilitation would cost more money and effort that each state does not necessarily have resources to. Whereas this may be true, I do have to wonder if the amount of money and resources we spend on keeping people in prison longer, in some cases for their entire life, has actually been calculated and compared to the cost of further rehabilitation research. Have we addressed the total cost for our current system and compared it to other countries and their adopted systems? What causes our current system to be so feverishly defended when it’s challenged? And what road did we come down to end up this far from every other first world country in this particular area of concern?

These are all valid questions that we struggle to get answers to. This leads to a second question. Why? Why is this topic taboo? Why can’t we address it or suggest improvements? We currently have an unspoken understanding as a nation, that our prison system is to keep the ‘bad guys’ away from the general public and that’s perfectly fine with the rest of us. We don’t want them lose. We also have an understanding that they more than likely will be in and out of the prison system their entire life, if they find themselves there even just once. Why do we accept this as a fact of life without question? And lastly, is this really the best approach?



Cited Sources

Wikipedia. “Minnesota Correctional Facility”. Web. Apr. 27 2013.


Minnesota State. “Oak Park”. Web. Apr. 27 2013.


Wikipedia. “Lockdown”. Web. Apr. 27 2013.


Wikipedia. “Valley State Prison”. Web. Apr. 27 2013.


Wikipedia. “Central California for Women”. Web. Apr. 27 2013.


Wikipedia. “Sing Sing”. Web. May 7 2013.

<> “I Survived Prison: What Really Happens Behind Bars.” Web. May 7 2013.


ArtGallery. “Prison: Open Forum.” Web. Ari. 27 2013.


Huffington Post. “Sing Sing Prison.” Web. Ari. 27 2013.


Virtuar. “Alcatraz Virtual Tour.” Web. Ari. 27 2013.


TheDailyNewsOnline. “Retired Attica Prison Cheif Gets Look At Other Side of the Wall.” Web. Air. 27 2013.


Wicker, Tom. A Time to Die.

New York: Haymarket Books. 2011. Print.

Attica Prison Front Entrance. Buffalo Images YNN. 2011. Attica Correctional Facility, New York.

<,_US > PRISON: Open Forum. 2013.

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Inmates Playing Chess from prison cells. Cornell Capa. 1972. Attica Correctional Facility, New York.

Mo’Nique Behind Bars. Dir. Gary Binkow. Prod. Salient Media. 2007. 2007 Netflix.


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