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The American Penal System

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Over the past few decades, cases of mass incarceration has become a widely known occurrence of the American Penal system. Fifty-nine percent of all state inmates in the United States are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes as of 2017, while our criminal justice policies have increased the length of prison sentences given to inmates and have lessened their availability of obtaining parole. In many jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities, imprisoned individuals suffer from physical mistreatment, insufficient medical and mental health care, hardly tolerable physical conditions and excessive disciplinary sanctions.

The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 3,163 local jails, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 102 federal prisons and 1,719 state prisons. With this widely recognized awareness there has come an agreement across the political scene that the United States prisoner population needs to be reduced. In republican states as well as democrat efforts to end this have emerged across the country. What is missing is the consideration of what the dramatic expansion of the American carceral system has impacted the day to day experience of the more than 2.3 million people currently living behind bars in the United States. A plan focused only on how to reduce this number of incarcerated disregards that the American carceral system is failing daily to ensure safe and human conditions for people who live inside. In the United States a large majority of people who end up incarcerated and behind bars are sooner or later eventually released back into society to assimilate with everyday normal people like you, meaning treating inmates inhumanely and as animals while they are in custody is ultimately self defeating in the long run for our communities and society. American prisoners are already among societies our most disadvantaged members, know to most likely to be suffering from learning disabilities, severe mental illness, drug addiction and to have been exposed to forms of serious abuse or neglect as a child. Being incarcerated for long extended periods of time instill fear, stress and mental problems and almost certainly all the time leave people in a state unfit for law-abiding and productive lives from when they were first incarcerated. Even those who are able to stay relatively safe in such a volatile environment and mentally healthy while inside are likely to find it difficult to adjust to freedom after years of the constant tension in an environment that manifests apprehensiveness, aggressiveness and distrust towards others. With the absence of an effective social reintegration program of people newly released from prison to help inmates re enter society, the harm done on the individuals by the carceral system is sure to be affecting communities at large, whether it be one way or another. Due to these conditions released inmates struggle at large with returning to society and carry out normal lives. An important reason why it should be taken that prisoners are treated humanely is the safety of the staff can be greatly affected by it and lives could be at stake.

Everyday in prison thousands of inmates turn to other methods to ensure their own safetynot trusting the authorities to keep them safe. In this environment gang affiliation is a rational choice and inmates display acts of aggression to deter would be aggressors. Living this way over long periods of time take a toll on someone’s physiological and physical well being. A better route to more humans prison conditions is the fact that prisons are dangerous places to where the inmates feel unsafe. Amongst the issue of safety arises the issue with the solution for specified inmates. Most facilities ensure the safety of vulnerable prisoners with something known as “protective custody” which is essentially social isolation in solitary confinement. Although this is a viable solution there is two disadvantages. Holding all prisoners in solitary confinement is simply too costly and resource extensive. Aswell solitary confinement is entirely counterproductive in the aspect of getting inmates socially productive and reentry into society.

Recent experiments have shown that extended periods of solitary confinement show that this practice causes serious psychological harm, rendering people ill able to assimilate with other people in positive social ways. Long term exposure to solitary confinement have resulted in perceptual distortions, chronic depression, social withdrawal, hallucinations, social withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, irrational anger, chronic depression and confused thought processes. In 1890 a Supreme Court case challenged solitary confinement condemning the practice due to the amount of psychological damage it caused. Social interaction is needed for psychological stability and mental health and inmates risk the lost of their social capabilities when undergoing this practice. Safety without close to total isolation is what is needed in prison.

Overcrowded prisons do not only mean inmates or put into dormitories that they do not fit in or small cells designed for one person, it also means a insufficient ability to access vital services gauranting that illnesses and disease people could face long wait times for medical services. In a prison environment this is pending disorder, violence and tension. Overcrowded prisons mean a lack of access to productive programs and pursuits that can atone for the damage this type of environment creates. Overcrowding is clearly a major reason why American prisons and jails are unstable and unsafe. Our decade long commitment to penal harm could also be another reason. The penal sanitation is to harm or hurt offenders so they stop offending. Regardless if this is effective in reducing crime people in society have chosen to incarcerate and not show concern of people have a means to grow and develop while inside. Instead we are demoralizing, dehumanizing people. Combined with insufficient staffing and the idea of its inmates versus staff a violent environment brews. When inmates in prison realize that the staff cannot guarantee their safety, they do what anyone would do in the same situation they adjust themselves of whatever forms of actions seem most likely to ensure their own protection. In prisons that are overcrowded, understaffed, and under-resourced, inmates normally only have two options, protect themselves as best they can on their own, or join forces together with other violent prisoners in a collective agreement for mutual security. Men can be normally violent, but they can be far worse in the prison environments, being constantly aggressive and violent so they do not they show an impression of vulnerability. This overwhelming pressure on inmates can feed a environment of posturing, belligerence, emotional repression, and ready violence that rewards indifference to others and impels the strong to terrorize the weak. Such an environment, is fertile ground for prison gangs, which represent the primary source for mutual protection. Gang culture excels significantly where people are afraid and anxious not to be seen as weak. The collective dehumanization of people in custody has fueled a idea of prisoners as subhuman and, at an extreme, as animals or even monsters.

It is crucial to recognize that the vast majority of people who live this way would not do so if they felt they had a choice. In other words, it may not be the prisoners who make the prison, but rather the prison and in particular the widespread failure of the system these inmates depend on to keep people safe that makes the prisoners and their actions.

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The American Penal System. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from
“The American Penal System.” GradesFixer, 11 Dec. 2018,
The American Penal System. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 May 2022].
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