Cruel and Unusual
The United States Penal System
"Those of us on the outside do not like to think of
wardens and guards as our surrogate, yet they are,
and they are intimately locked in a deadly embrace
with their human captives behind the prison walls,
by extension, so are we."
- Jessica Mitford, Kind and Usual Punishment: The
Prison Business
Pains of Imprisonment
Loss of liberty, including separation from family members
and friends.
• The inability to maintain ties with the outside world produces
enormous strains for inmates and their families.
Deprivation of heterosexual relationships. Key to
maintaining a sense of gender self.
Loss of goods and services. The importance of our
identity kit and our ability to express ourselves
Loss of autonomy and are denied the opportunity to make
basic decisions affecting their lives.
Loss of security. Inmates suffer from psychological,
economic, social, and physical victimization during the
terms of their confinement.
Prisonization: American Style
 With the country's prisons and jails holding some two
million adults--roughly one in every 140 persons--the
rate of incarceration in the United States is about 727
prisoners per 100,000 residents.(
 No other country in the world is known to incarcerate as
many people, and only a small handful of countries have
anything approaching a similar rate of incarceration.
 Prison Population increased almost than 400% since
1980 in the United States.
 With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the
United States holds 25 percent of the globe's prisoners.
Factors that caused the increase
 Increase in the war on drugs.
 Increase in determinant sentencing – 3
strikes policy.
 Increase in poverty and inequality during
the last 30 years in the U.S.
 Change in prison policy from rehabilitation
to punishment.
 Victims Rights movement and the
legitimation of retribution.
Prison Conditions
 Overcrowding is a continual problem.
Estimates are that most state prisons are at
least 15 to 25% overcapacity.
 Due to public reluctance to spend any
more than necessary to warehouse the
criminal population, inmates generally
have scant work, training, educational,
treatment or counseling opportunities.
Prison Population
 Males are more than 90 percent of all prisoners.
 More than 60% of the prison population is an ethnic
minority (44% Black, 15% Hispanic, 2% Asian or
Native American).
Social class –poor, unskilled/educated, and lower
60%+ of the population are charged with drug
The majority of prisoners are between eighteen and
forty years old, trend toward longer sentences and
more restrictive parole policies has increased the
number of elderly inmates.
There has been a notable increase over the past
decade in the numbers of juveniles held in adult
Violence in Prisons
 Inter-prisoner violence, extortion,
harassment, and other abuse is even more
common. Estimated that as many as 70
percent of inmates are assaulted by other
inmates each year. In 1998, seventy-nine
inmates were killed.
 Prison rape – estimates are from 7 to 15% of
inmates according to studies in the 1980s. Human
Rights Watch 2001 estimate up to 600,000 per
 Rarely is their prosecution for inter-prisoner
 Guard violence is also a significant problem.
Ethnic conflict within prisons
 Racial and ethnic antagonisms are another
important contributing factor to prison
violence and abuse.
 Race and Ethnicity is the great divide in
 The level of racial antagonism appears to
vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with
prisons in many Southern states being
particularly tense.
 Ethnic gangs exist in every prison system
and every large jail, Mexican Mafia, Black
Gangster Disciples, Aryan Circle, White
Knights, Latin Kings, etc.
Cost of High Prisonization Rate
 Nearly $40 billion annually is spent on
prisons and jails, making corrections
one of the largest single items on many
states' budgets, above their spending
on higher education or child care.
 Increase in privatization to reduce costs.
Appears to be increased problems of rioting
and abuse in private prisons and not
particularly cost effective.
Super-maximum security, or "super-max," are
one of the fastest-growing types of prison
being built in America.
 60 super-max facilities in 36 states holding
approximately 20,000, 2% of the prison
 UW anthropologist Lorna Rhodes believes the
actual number is more likely between 40,000 and
45,000 and estimates that between 15 and 25
percent of them are mentally ill.
 First one opened in 1963.
Characteristics of Supermax
 Typically, inmates are confined in 8 x 10 foot cells
for 23 hours a day in enforced idleness.
 The cells are windowless and have solid doors, so
that the inmate cannot see or hear anything going
on outside the cell.
 Inmates are "cell fed" -- their meals are delivered
through slots in the cell doors, with no verbal or
visual contact with the guards delivering the
 No furniture or other amenities are allowed
beyond the concrete and steel furniture in the cell - no television, no radio, no tobacco.
There is always a physical barrier
between the inmate and other human
 Inmates in Super Max units are allowed one hour
a day of solitary "recreation" in a concrete
enclosure, their movements monitored by video
 Inmates are within close proximity of staff only
when they are being visually searched as they
stand naked before a control booth window before
their one hour of "recreation."
 Typically, they remain shackled in front of their
families during non-contact visits conducted
behind clear partitions.
Criticisms of Super Max units fall into
five general areas.
 Potential for physical abuse by guards.
 Excessive confinement periods.
 Broad Assignment criteria.
 Treatment of Mentally Ill Inmates.
 Effect Upon Release.
Long Term Effects – destruction
of the inmate’s ties to society.
 Inmates in isolation retreat further and further into
 They start to discourage the few visitors they have
because they become increasingly uncomfortable
around people.
 Men in long-term isolation are more likely to see
their marriages break up and their relationships
with their children wither.
 By the time they are released, they have little
prospect for adjusting to society and nobody left to
help them.
Long term effect of High
Prisonization Rates.
 Opportunity costs.
 Underdevelopment of bridging programs.
 Increase in number of population marginal
to society.
 Increase in poverty and inequality.
 Cycle of Violence.
 Increased dependence on repression and
social control.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment