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Key Issues in Corrections critically analyzes the most important challenges affecting the correctional system in the USA, offering a no-nonsense explanation of the problems of correctional officers, correctional managers, prisoners, and the public.

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The correctional systems in the United States and elsewhere suffer from numerous problems (Austin and Irwin, 2001). One issue is the difficulty in obtaining accurate information about jails, prisons, incarceration, correctional officers (COs), and prisoners. More importantly, many individuals, organizations, and institutions tend to develop misconceptions and stereotypes about correctional systems and convicts.

This chapter identifies the dominant common falsehoods about corrections; reviews the leading cultural industries responsible for developing these misconceptions; and provides examples that demonstrate how these myths are created, perpetrated, and perpetuated.

More specifically, in this chapter I examine the importance of mythmaking about crime, criminal justice, and corrections; look at why myths are often believed and taken as fact; and review the important role of the cultural industries. I conclude with some suggestions on how to remedy the problems intrinsic to these myths.

Most people have never been inside a holding cell, jail, or prison as an arrestee, inmate, CO, support staff, administrator, teacher, or visitor. Thus, the general public depends on secondary sources of information and their own (often inadequate) inferences about correctional facilities and the individuals who live and work within (for example, Freeman, 2000: 3; Ross, 2015). Too often, the information on which the general public relies is a myth (Pepinsky and Jesilow, 1985; Kappeler et al., 1996).

A myth is not necessarily arbitrary, false, or the result of poor research or differences of opinion. Rather it is “a traditional story of unknown authorship, with a historical basis [that] ... explain[s] some event” (Kappeler et al., 1996: 2).

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Almost every town, city, municipality, and county has a jail. These can be very small facilities or large institutions, like Rikers Island in New York City or Los Angeles County Jail, which resemble mini-cities in their own right (Irwin, 1985; Thompson and Mays, 1991).

Most of the public fail to distinguish between jails and prisons. People who are sent to jail are typically either pre-trial detainees or individuals convicted of relatively minor crimes (known as misdemeanors). Pre-trial detainees are those individuals who have been determined by a judge, magistrate, or commissioner as being unable to make bail; they cannot be released on their own recognizance; or they have been accused of committing a serious felony and are perceived to be a flight risk (that is, they will not voluntarily return to court). These detainees are kept in jails, awaiting further processing by the criminal justice system.

Individuals who cannot make bail are typically poor and powerless, and come from the lower socioeconomic classes in society. Thus, it should come as no surprise that jails and correctional facilities in the United States predominantly house African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and poor whites.

They are often young, uneducated or poorly educated, and unemployed. This phenomenon has been pejoratively called warehousing (Miller, 1996; Welch, 1996: 172; Irwin, 2005). Very few of these pre-trial detainees will have the nerve and financial resources to fight their cases. Instead they often plead guilty and then are released to the street for “time served.” Regardless, they are saddled with criminal records that haunt them for the rest of their lives (Miller, 1996).

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Icosts U.S. taxpayers approximately $39 billion each year to incarcerate convicts (Henrichson and Delaney, 2012). In 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) alone had a budget of $6.445 billion. In 2001, “[s]tates spent $29.5 billion for prisons ... about a $5 1 艠 2 billion increase from 1996, after adjusting for inflation” (Stephan, 2004). Moreover, “[s]tate correctional expenditures increased 145% in 2001 constant dollars from $15.6 billion in FY 1986 to $38.2 billion in FY 2001; prison expenditures increased 150% from $11.7 billion to $29.5 billion” (Stephan, 2004).

The amount of money it costs to incarcerate prisoners varies between the states and the federal system. In 2010, the cost to house an inmate in the states was averaged at $31,286. This ranged from $14,603 (Kentucky) to $60,076 (New York) ( With respect to federal system it costs an average of $29,291.25 (

Still, prisoners, correctional officers (COs), wardens, and other correctional professionals are quick to admit that their field is seriously underfunded, and the effects are significant: overcrowding; prematurely released prisoners unsuitable for the community; continuous retrofitting of old institutions; failure to hire the appropriate people to work in the facilities; neglect of proper training for recruits; and scrambling to find money to pay for the renovation of old facilities, the construction of new prisons, and a patchwork of rehabilitative programs.

In the late 1990s, as a result of the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (hereafter, Crime Act), American jails and prisons received a temporary increase in funding in the form of grants from the federal government to construct, develop, expand, modify, operate, or improve correctional facilities, including boot camp facilities and other alternative correctional facilities that can free conventional prison space for the confinement of violent offenders, to ensure that prison cell space is available for the confinement of violent offenders and to implement truth in sentencing laws for sentencing violent offenders.

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Conditions inside correctional facilities vary among the federal, state, and local (that is, county and municipal) systems of corrections, between male and female prisons, and among different levels of security. Assessing the state of these environments is difficult, as many firsthand descriptions resemble urban legends, embellished to suit the personal goals of the storytellers. Thus, not all prisons are filthy, have horrible food, and lack rehabilitative programs. Nevertheless, some of the most salient controversial prison conditions are unsanitary living conditions, the absence of adequate health and medical care, poor food, lack of rehabilitative programs, and violence, including sexual assault. These problems often lead to abuse, anger, depression, fear, frustration, and/or violence, not only among the prisoners, but among the correctional officers (COs) too (see Chapter 11). Before continuing, however, it must be understood that these settings are influenced by the powerful effects of the inmate social system and prison subculture (for example, Sykes, 1958; Sykes and Messinger, 1960; Bowker, 1978). These underlying factors exacerbate living and working relationships behind bars.

When individuals are sent to prison, they must worry about catching serious and possibly life-threatening diseases. Correctional facilities are notoriously unhealthy places (McDonald, 1999; Speed Weed, 2001; Murphy, 2003; Wright, 2008; Wilper et al., 2009a; Wilper et al. 2009b). Historically, convicts routinely contracted cholera, yellow fever, and tuberculosis (TB) while doing time – which explains why TB used to be called jail cough or prison fever. Prisons are typically dirty, lack proper sanitary conditions, are crowded/overcrowded, and have poor ventilation. In situations like this, communicable diseases can quickly spread through the entire inmate population.

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Community corrections consists of a number of different types of programs and sanctions for individuals who have either been charged with or convicted of a crime, or who have served jail or prison time but are still under the supervision of the criminal justice system. As reviewed in Chapter 3, there are various community corrections options including prerelease, supervised release, probation, intermediate sanctions, parole, and mandatory release. The problems experienced by community corrections are not only for the agencies and officers, but also for the individuals who are awaiting their trials, people who have been convicted of a crime but have been sentenced to probation, inmates who are released from jail or prison on parole, and their families and loved ones. Over the past decade, this non-institutional approach has encountered or experienced numerous problems. These difficulties continue to occur, even after repeated criticisms during the 1980s and 1990s claimed that community corrections programs were too lenient, and that tougher sanctions and forms of control needed to be implemented (for example, Morris and Tonry, 1990).

Community corrections now stresses programs that make probationers and parolees more accountable, and protect the public better. These gains, however, have come at a cost. Probation and parole officers/agents spend a considerable amount of their time writing reports, receiving training, going to court, attending probation and parole revocation hearings, and talking with program providers, all of which take time away from actually supervising their caseload.

At the tail end of the Clinton Administration (1990s), a handful of criminal justice experts (see, for example, Petersilia, 2003) and well-placed USDOJ (U.

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If you are a criminal justice practitioner, inmate, or former inmate, and/or pay attention to the news, then it should come as no surprise that U.S. jails and prisons are severely crowded and overcrowded. In some facilities, four prisoners are sleeping in cells originally designed for one person. Other correctional institutions have converted their halls, recreational areas, and classrooms into dormitories with double and triple bunking. “By 1980, two-thirds of all inmates in this country lived in cells or dormitories that provided less than sixty square feet of living space per person – the minimum standard deemed acceptable by the American Public Health Association, the Justice Department, and other authorities. Many lived in cells measuring half that” (Hallinan, 2003: 97). Fortunately, most of these situations are only temporary and after a while a jurisdiction must look for longer-term, lasting alternatives to the shortage of cell space. Many experts might say that underfunding is the biggest problem facing corrections.

If the correctional departments at the municipal, regional, state, and federal levels had more money, then new facilities would be built, more and better qualified correctional officers (COs) would be hired, and overcrowding would no longer be an issue. This presupposes that the money would be spent properly and that qualified persons could be hired and trained throughout the ranks. Regardless of this chicken-and-egg problem, there are several causes of the overcrowded conditions in our jails and prisons (Bartollas, 2002: chapter 18).

Overcrowding is recognized as a problem by a wide cross-section of individuals with expertise in the corrections field.

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