Essay on Prison System in the U.S.

  • Category: Crime, Prisons,
  • Words: 4725 Pages: 18
  • Published: 13 August 2020
  • Copied: 138

The United States has a prison problem that came about during the “war on drugs” in the 1970s. People were being arrested left and right, now it's come to bite the U.S. in the butt. The prison system has taken a turn for the worse and prisons are about to burst at the seams with the high population of prisoners. 

It is of the utmost importance that the U.S. take immediate action to reform the prison system. The main reason why the United States has not taken action is that people have not been informed enough about the crisis our prisons are facing and how it affects the prisoners.  The United States needs to act soon to help solve the problems I am going to discuss or the prison system will continue to get worse. 

This paper is organized into four sections. The first section looks at how prisoners are discriminated against based off of race or gender. Then, the second section discusses the horrors of solitary confinement, how prisoners get sent there, and the side effects of this punishment. The final research section explains the overcrowding of US prisons and the consequences of it. Finally, the fourth section is discussions with three different people and what their thoughts are on the problems in the United States prison system.

Discrimination in US Prisons

Discrimination has become a very significant issue in the United States, especially in the prison system and many know what it means, but not many really know how it affects the prison system in the United States. There should be more people who care about this problem and willing to find a way to make a change.

Prisons in the United States have had a growth in prisoners, “Between 1980 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million” (“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet”). With the increase in people being incarcerated, there is becoming a trend of increasing discrimination of other races by whites. The greatest amount of discrimination has been toward African Americans, Ashley Nellis who has a Ph.D. in analyzing criminal justice said: “African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites” (Nellis 3). These incarceration rates are very high for African Americans and there are many reasons why they are that way.

There are many factors that affect why there is such a disparity in the incarceration rates between African Americans and Whites. Drug crimes are one of those factors, they show how African Americans are charged more severely or more often. African Americans and whites use drugs at about the same rate, but African Americans are charged for 35% of drug arrests and are convicted of 55% of drug offenses (Silton 61). Besides the discrimination against African Americans in drug crimes, there can be racial bias. People of color can be given harsher punishment based on people thinking they are threats to the public because of stereotypes ( Nellis 10).

In the same book, there was a study by Stanford University that found there was a connection between racial disparities and the harsh punishment in the prisons they studied (Nellis 11). This connection shows that the racial bias creating harsher punishment is discrimination against African Americans that are incarcerated. Besides the factors that affect the discrimination of African Americans in the prison system, there can be more discrimination based on what state someone is in.

Certain states have more discrimination that affects the rate of incarceration between African Americans and whites. Ashley Nellis stated that “ In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1” ( Nellis 3). The disparity is high between African Americans and Whites in those states, but in Oklahoma, the ratio is way higher. Oklahoma has an incarceration rate of fifteen African Americans to one White who is incarcerated. The high incarceration rate in Oklahoma is only based on eighteen and under, but if it were all ages there was a rate of twenty-nine to one, which shows how some states can have more discrimination than others (Nellis 6). Discrimination affects many other states and can lead to many problems for the group being discriminated.

Other states such as New York have discrimination problems. In some New York prisons, there is a lot of discrimination against African Americans. In an article by the New York Times, African Americans had been sent to prison facilities in White Northern parts of New York and received threats and other abuse. In the same article, they said, “Black inmates were 30 percent more likely to get a disciplinary ticket than white inmates and were 65 percent more likely to be sent to solitary confinement” (“The Stain of Racism In New York’s Prisons”). Even though there has been lots of discrimination towards African Americans there has been discrimination towards women in prisons.

Discrimination towards women in prison is an increasing problem in the United States prison system. A major example of this discrimination is when a nurse named Janice Hutt had been sentenced to prison for ten years but was not provided with the same services that males were. She needed vocational and other services to get a job after prison, but the prison in New Hampshire did not follow the 1992 guideline to provide services for both males and females (“Discrimination against women in prisons keeps the going back”). Along with Hutt, many other women have faced similar problems and to understand these problems one would need to know how the prisons don't provide programs and neglect women.

United States prisons have neglected women by not providing them with programs needed to be successful outside of prison. “Women are offered fewer programs than men, and the services provide little recognition of the traumatic paths that led them into the criminal justice system”, said Stephanie Covington, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice. She said this because women are being provided fewer programs to aid with substance abuse, mental health, and physical abuse. With fewer programs, prisons can’t help the 73% of women in prison with mental health problems, 75% of women with substance abuse, or 63% of women who had past physical abuse (“Inequality in Prison”).

Without programs, these women cannot return to society better and will likely return to prison without proper help. A prison in Wyoming bars a “boot camp” program from women which would allow for rehabilitation and educational help that would allow them to return to their homes better than before. With no program for women that is similar to men, women have a tough time returning to society (“The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth”). Women can be affected worse by prisons than they were before and could lead to many problems once they return back to society.

Women face discrimination through physical abuse from correctional staff and can face more psychological distress than men. There is not enough help and treatment in prisons leading to many problems later on. Also, there are fewer women's prisons and women who are incarcerated can be far away from home which leads to problems among families that can have lasting consequences especially if they are single and have kids (“The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth”). The discrimination of having fewer prisons and not being able to contact family like men can is a problem that affects many women. Women can face lots of discrimination that affects them for the worse, but women of color can face these problems and much more.

Women of color are discriminated more than white women just because of the color of their skin. African American women are imprisoned three times more than white women in the United States prison system. Also, two-thirds of women that are incarcerated are women of color (“The Truth about Women of Color Behind Bars”). For example, Joyce Ann Brown, an African American woman had gone to a Texas prison for ten years for a murder committed by someone of the same name.

She had given a story about witnessing a woman not getting parole, but men were given parole three times more often for the same sentence (Willingham 59). The discrimination of African American women not receiving the same chances for parole is a severe problem in today's prison system. African American women sexually abused by guards can create negative stereotypes about them and create bad images about them.

All discrimination of African Americans, women, and women of color has is one of the biggest problems in today's prisons. Besides discrimination, there has been a new increasing problem that has started grabbing people’s attention. That is the use of solitary confinement and all the entails because of it.

Solitary Confinement in US Prisons

Solitary confinement is a cruel and inhumane punishment that has been a problem in the United States for centuries. It is a place where prisoners are forced to go into a cell about the size of a parking space isolated from other people (Tenneriello). But before going on about the problems caused by solitary confinement and why it should be outlawed one would have to know how many prisoners are put in solitary confinement in the United States and why.

The United States has the biggest population of prisoners in solitary confinement at approximately 80,000 prisoners (“Solitary by the Numbers”). The number of prisoners had risen from an earlier number around 57,000 in solitary confinement in 1995 (“The True Cost of Solitary Confinement”). This high population of prisoners in solitary confinement is a growing concern and there are many reasons why the number of people in solitary is such a large amount.

Prisoners can be put into solitary confinement for many reasons that can be fair or unfair, for example: (1) punishment for not following rules (sometimes as minor as failure to obey an order or talking back); (2) concerns related to the safety of staff or other inmates, such as the management of known or suspected gang members; (3) their own protection (such as for sex offenders or individuals who are transgender or sexually vulnerable); and (4) clinical or therapeutic reasons.(“Solitary Confinement(Isolation)”).

These are established reasons why inmates should be put in solitary confinement in United States prisons. Some of these rules can be abused and prisoners can be accused of breaking them for no apparent or justified reason. This can be seen when a man named Johnny Perez was put into solitary confinement for just helping another inmate who didn’t know English well with legal papers (“The Crime Report”). This reason to put Perez in solitary confinement is unjust and doesn’t even line up with the rules established earlier. These rules and reasons have created the high amount of inmates put in solitary confinement in the United States. After being put in solitary confinement the many inmates can be put in these cells for extremely long periods of time that could last months or years.

Prisoners can go through solitary for long periods of time and can be in their cells for about 22-24 hours a day ( Boyd et al.). This is a predicament that affects many prisoners across the US and can cause lasting damage to them. A prisoner named Alfred Woodfox had spent 44 years in a cramped cell in Louisiana State Penitentiary where he would be in the cell for 23 hours a day. He said, “ It can feel as if the walls are closing in, and the very clothes on your body feel as though they’re smothering you” (“'It Destroys Your Humanity': Albert Woodfox on Surviving 44 Years in Solitary Confinement”). Imagine being in Woodfox’s shoes and spending several days stuck talking to yourself and trying to not go insane from the loneliness and claustrophobia. Being in confinement for this long can have mental consequences.

Craig Haney, a psychiatrist who has studied effects of isolated prisoners said “They experience what has been termed “isolation panic.” The experience of being in a cell by oneself, isolated in a place where other prisoners are isolated, facing the deprivation of social contact, is overwhelming for people, and some people react with extreme anxiety reactions in the very beginning of this process” (Childress). The “isolation panic” that Haney describes is serious and the prisoners who are kept in solitary confinement cells for nearly a day on end have to suffer through this constantly. This suffering from constant isolation and the panic that comes with it can have lasting effects on the health of the prisoners for the rest of their lives.

When keeping prisoners in isolation they can have physiological problems that affect them. Inmates can begin to have “gastrointestinal and genitourinary problems, diaphoresis, insomnia, deterioration of eyesight, profound fatigue, heart palpitations, migraines, back and joint pains, weight loss, diarrhea, and aggravation of preexisting medical problems”(“Solitary Confinement(Isolation)”). These health conditions can have lasting effects on the prisoners. Some of the physical effects happened to Robert King when he spent 29 years in Solitary Confinement at Louisiana State Penitentiary. He had lost his ability to see long distances, got high blood pressure, and looked older from all the stress that he had endured (“Stop Solitary - Stories from Solitary”). Not only do prisoners such as King face physical problems, but they can also have psychological problems as well. 

Prisoners face psychological effects from being held in solitary confinement. They can suffer from anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, paranoia, and psychosis (Shalev 16). These symptoms can lead to self-harm and in a study by The American Journal of Public Health found that inmates assigned to solitary were 6.9 times more likely to harm themselves (“'It Destroys Your Humanity': Albert Woodfox on Surviving 44 Years in Solitary Confinement”). Self-harm is a predicament that has led to suicide which cost a young man his life. Kalief Browder was only sixteen years old when he got sent to solitary confinement for two years. He had experienced depression and paranoia that led him to four suicide attempts and later dying of suicide in 2015 (Muller). These psychological effects faced by prisoners such as Graves and Browder from solitary confinement are a problem that needs more attention.

Solitary confinement and the effects it has on prisoners is a serious issue that needs to be changed for the future. Prisoners across the US have to deal with this along with overcrowding which affects prisons all across the U.S.

Overcrowding of US Prisons

Overcrowding is an increasing predicament for the United States prison system. The US currently has 5% of the world's population and holds 25% of its prisoners (Clark). The high population of prisoners is overflowing and leaving the prison system on the brink of catastrophe.

The US has nearly 2.2 million people that are in prison and that means there are 716 prisoners for every 100,000 people in the country. The amount of prisoners for the US is very disproportionate to Canada where they have 118 prisoners per 100,000 people with a 40,544 prison population (Walmsley). The gap between US and Canada's prisoners per 100,000 people is startling in that it shows how our prisons are being overflown with inmates because of all the people being incarcerated.

The gap grows larger when the US is compared to Germany with 79 prisoners per 100,000 people, and Denmark with only 73 prisoners per 100,000 people (Walmsley). The disproportionate number between the United States and other countries needs to be addressed as said by June Tangney, who has a Ph.D. in psychology at George Mason University, “Being the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world is really something we need to take a second look at” (Clark). The “second look” can be of the overcrowding among states in the US.

States such as California and Illinois are having problems with overcrowding of there prisons. In California, their prisons were designed to hold 84,000 inmates, but have nearly twice that amount at 156,000 (Newman). With the prison population expanding, they are not able to keep up with the services needed for there prisoners. The problem got worse forcing the US supreme court to intervene and made the decision to only decrease the population by 46,000 inmates (Newman). 

The decision may have partly helped California, but what about prisons in Illinois where they are holding nearly 48,278 inmates that were meant to hold only 32,975 inmates (Green). Illinois is facing a major crisis that should be addressed, but are trying to fix it in all the wrong ways. They tried adding beds to create space for 50,598 inmates, but adding another bed may give space for one more inmate, but it doesn’t mean there is enough room to prevent safety risks (Green).

David Maurer, GAO Director of Homeland Security and Justice said, “If you start cramming more and more people into a confined space, you’re going to create more tensions and problems” (McLaughlin). The safety risks have led prison systems to spend more money that could have been avoided if they would have fixed the problem right away.

With prisons overcrowding the US has to spend money on more inmates and to increase prison capacity. Every inmate costs taxpayers about 31,286 dollars per year which is millions and millions of dollars paying for the high population of prisoners in the US (Williams). A study by the Vera Institute of Justice also found that taxpayers were paying 39 billion dollars towards prisons (“The Problem with Overpopulation in Prisons”). The amount of money to fund these prisons could have been avoided if the US dealt with the overcrowding problem sooner. 

California is dealing with a predicament where there spending nearly 8 billion dollars to deal with the overcrowding problem (Vera). US prisons are putting so much money towards capacity, that they forget about the programs needed for prisoners. Prisons don’t put enough money towards the programs after dealing with the high population of prisoners. Inimai Chettiar, director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law said, “People are going to recidivate more when they get out of horrendous conditions without job training and development programs to get their lives back together”(McLaughlin). With people returning back to prison because there is a lack of programs leads to more overcrowding. When there were programs such as an educational program a study by RAND found that prisoners were 43 percent less likely to go back to prison (Stratton). If more money went to programs such as education, there could be a decrease in the overcrowding of US prisons.

The US needs to take immediate action to stop the overcrowding problem that plagues our prisons. By spending more money on treatment for inmates and caring more about their safety, then the United States can decrease the high population of prisoners.


Discussions serve a crucial role in understanding how people feel about the problems with the US prison system. I discussed these problems with my grandmother, Shari Haberlach, my aunt, Rachel Gustofson, and my mother, Laura Hilber. 

Shari Haberlach

One person I chose to interview was my grandmother, Shari Haberlach. I thought she would be a great person to interview because she is 65 years old and has a strong opinion on many topics that show up in the news and that are happening in the United States. I felt that she would be able to come up with a strong answer to this topic.

I wanted to know what her opinion was of the United States prison system. The first thing she said was, “There are too many repeat offenders and we are doing something wrong with the high rate of prisoners.” She then went on and talked about how there are disparities between the wealthy and the poor and that the poor live in bad conditions leaving them to do crime just to survive. I presented information about the high incarceration rates in the U.S. and how we have more people than other countries in prison. I asked her how she felt about the high incarceration rates. She responded by talking about how she felt that we don't have enough programs to help prisoners get out of prison and that people don’t know what to do once they are out, so they return to prison. 

We continued the discussion and I brought up discrimination in prisons. She believed that people of certain cultures and races are targeted more and she said, “Caucasian people don’t realize how bad it is to be a person of color skin and be fearful of being incarcerated.” This point she made really stuck and made me think about what she said and reflect on it.

After talking about discrimination I brought up solitary confinement and right away she talked about how we have “no forgiveness and mercy.” I chimed in and told her about how mentally ill prisoners are put in solitary for long periods of time. The first thing she said, “we have no respect for people who need our help” and talked about how we need more programs to help these people and get them out of solitary confinement. I asked her, how do feel we could change our prison system? She answered that we need better programs and training and that we need to give help through something such as therapy animals to give these prisoners something to be proud of. 

In the end, all my grandmother had to say was, “ It’s a big problem and getting bigger every day, we need money for programs and studies, and people need to be willing to do that.”

Rachel Gustofson

The next person I interviewed was my aunt, Rachel Gustofson who is 38 years old and works at CCRI in Moorhead and helps people with disabilities. I felt that she would be great to interview even though she didn’t have much to say about the topic which was perfect to inform her about. 

First, I asked her how she felt about the United States prison system. She responded by saying, “prisons are necessary, but not always safe.”

Secondly, I asked why she felt this way about prisons in the U.S. She felt that there are more inmates than staff and that is a problem and that she feels like inmates as she put it “are running the show.” This proves my point in a sense that overcrowding is a problem and that its big enough of an issue that people know about it. 

Next, I asked her how she felt about the U.S. using solitary confinement for prisoners. She believed that we should use it to keep people separated if they are doing something wrong, “but not for an extended period of time, just for an immediate need”. I told her about Albert Woodfox who was in solitary confinement for 44 years. She responded quickly by saying, “I thought five years was over the top.” She gave this anecdote from a church service and she said, “Father Mike, talked about Hell as being in isolation away from anyone.” She talked about how she thought of solitary confinement as being in “hell.”

She didn’t have anything to say about discrimination but we ended the discussion and I asked her she had any final words. She responded, “I wish we worked more on preparing people for back out into society and give them jobs and duties.”

Laura Hilber

My third interview was with my mother, Laura Hilber. She is 39 years old and a nurse at Sanford Health. I knew she would be able to bring more of a medical person perspective to some answers and she would give well thought out answers to my questions. 

First, I asked the same question as my first two interviews, how do you feel about the United States prison system? She responded right away and said, “it’s overcrowded” and talked about there being drugs in prisons, not enough staff for all the prisoners, and that as more laws come out there will be more people put in prison.

Secondly, I asked her about why she believes the prisons are overcrowded. She talked about prisons not having good enough programs to get individuals back into society to get prisoners from coming back. 

Next, I asked her if she felt discrimination was a problem and why she thought that way. She responded with “once people are in the prison system, they are forced into discrimination.” she also added that people will form communities based off of race and discrimination happens among the different groups. 

Finally, I asked how she felt about solitary confinement in prisons. She talked about how she suffers from depression and that putting people into solitary with mental illnesses can make them worse than before solitary.

When we ended the discussion she said, “ If we don’t do something to change the way our system is, it's going to get even worse.” This proves my point that the U.S. prison system has problems that need to be addressed before it's too late. 


The United States prison system should not be taking the route that it is on. The problems of discrimination, solitary confinement and overcrowding are too big to overlook. Why don’t we just try to fix these problems instead of working around them and having them come back even worse than before? We should take care of them now through reform and creating programs for prisoners rather than put them back on the street and have them return to start the cycle over again. 

After researching this topic I learned more about what prisoners go through more than I ever thought I would. I learned that the U.S. has one of the worst prison systems in the world and that we are very overcrowded with prisoners. Moving forward after learning more about prisons I can reflect on what people have to go through when they get put in prison.

I faced limitations while researching such as time constraints because of my busy schedule. I could not find as many experts as I was hoping to while researching this topic. I had limited resources such as money to find more research out in prisons in the United States.

 If I had more money and resources I could interview actual inmates that have gone through the horrors of prison and hear their personal stories. I could create studies to see how people feel about the U.S. prison system and their thoughts on how to reform it. With more money and resources I could make the issues the U.S. prison system is facing known to the public and find a way to fix prisons in the United States for the future.

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