Conditions in our jails and prisons too often do not promote reform

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The purpose of punishment is to reform behavior, and incarceration is no exception. Yet, there is mounting evidence that U.S. correctional facilities are providing poor conditions for rehabilitation. In November, the U.S. Marshals Service released a 52-page report detailing extensive constitutional rights violations within the Cuyahoga County Jail in Ohio. These violations included depriving incarcerated persons of food, water, exercise, and medical care, as well as a myriad of safety violations such as sexual abuse and housing youth with adults. Those housed in solitary confinement units reported needing to use rags, clothing, and towels for toilet paper after being denied toilet paper by staff.  

In February, people incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., were left without power and heat for more than five days. These conditions left those with medical conditions particularly at risk, as they lacked access to their necessary medical equipment, proper temperatures, and adequate ventilation.

In April, the U.S. Department of Justice released the findings from a 2-year investigation about prison conditions throughout Alabama. Citing examples of staff misconduct, “rampant violence and sexual abuse,” unsanitary living areas, medical neglect, and lack of heat, the 56-page document concluded that conditions in Alabama’s prisons pose significant threats to individuals’ constitutional rights under the 8th Amendment. In one incident, a prisoner with a brain bleed was denied medical attention because he “appeared to be under the influence” after being physically assaulted. This man was eventually rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, but ultimately died because of a subdural hematoma caused by blunt force head trauma.

Other investigations into the conditions of correctional facilities, of which there are many, have cited exposure to toxic coal ash, food services health code violations, extreme violence, and lack of access to mental health services.

The stated causes of these conditions generally include factors such as overcrowding, understaffing at facilities, undertraining facility staff, and budgetary limitations. These are indeed some of the many consequences of incarceration rates that rose sharply for a period spanning nearly four decades in the U.S. starting in the 1970s. It has in fact become so difficult to keep up with housing the incarcerated population that many states now contract with private correctional facilities to do so.

Regardless of their causes, we should all be concerned about the current conditions in our jails and prisons. Beyond the fact that taxpayers spend a national average of $33,274 per year per person who is incarcerated, those placed in cages in correctional facilities are human beings. While incarceration is at times a necessary form of punishment, the punishment is the removal of one’s ability to participate freely in society. The goal for such removal is reform. When people are not treated like human beings — when they are abused, victimized, and deprived of basic human needs such as food, water, and medical care — rehabilitation is compromised; the goal becomes blurred. This is for a number of reasons, but one of them is the fact that such conditions necessitate survival as the default priority. It therefore becomes more difficult to adequately participate in rehabilitation programs, which is precisely the opposite of what we want.

In the course of my research I have interviewed men and women who were afraid to leave their cells for programming out of fears they would be stabbed or raped. I have interviewed others who could not leave their bunks because their health conditions had deteriorated so severely after repeatedly being denied medical care that they were bed-ridden. Others were sold drugs by correctional officers and harassed if they attempted to practice prosocial concepts they learned in programming. The research is very clear that such conditions not only fail to reform or reduce recidivism rates, they can actually increase risks for criminal behavior.

In addition to posing public safety risks due to lack of proper rehabilitation, the types of conditions detailed here are also increasing individuals’ exposure to a variety of infectious diseases and health issues. Without proper preventative health services and treatment during incarceration, public health risks are also likely to become elevated as people cycle in and out of the facilities.

Approximately 600,000 people rejoin communities from prisons each year, and more than 90 percent of those who are incarcerated will eventually be released. These people already face substantial barriers to reentry, including housing, employment, education, and poverty. To be sure, the harms they face and the coping mechanisms they learn during periods of incarceration will not remain behind prison walls.

Assuming the goal is safer communities, our correctional facilities must begin to model civilized behaviors if we hope to see such behaviors imitated.

Dr. Meghan A. Novisky is a criminologist at Cleveland State University. Her research focuses on the links between incarceration and health. Her work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Criminology and Justice Quarterly. Dr. Novisky has also worked as a consultant for the University of Cincinnati’s Corrections Institute for the last decade. Follow her on Twitter @DrNovisky.

Tags prison conditions Prison reform Recidivism Rehabilitation

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