American Prison Culture in an International Context: An Examination of Prisons in America, the Netherlands, and Israel

By Dervan, Lucian E. | Stanford Law & Policy Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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American Prison Culture in an International Context: An Examination of Prisons in America, the Netherlands, and Israel

Dervan, Lucian E., Stanford Law & Policy Review


In 2004, British authorities arrested Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Egyptian-born cleric sought by the United States for his involvement in instigating terrorist attacks. (1) As authorities prepared to extradite him in July 2010, the European Court of Human Rights issued a stay. (2) According to the court, al-Masri's claims that maximum-security prisons in the United States violate European human rights laws prohibiting torture and degrading treatment warranted further examination. (3) Regardless of the eventual resolution of the al-Masri case, the European Court of Human Rights' inability to summarily dismiss these assertions demonstrates something quite troubling. At a minimum, the court's actions indicate that a perception has developed in the world that the American penal system has gone astray. But are prisons in the United States that much different from those found in other parts of the world?

In the spring and summer of 2010, I traveled to prisons in the United States, The Netherlands, and Israel to compare the way each country detains its most violent and culpable residents. (4) The results of this research indicate something quite striking about what makes prisons around the world successful and offer a sobering examination of the deficiencies present in many underfunded American institutions. (5)

This Article will begin by examining the cultures of four prison facilities: two prisons in America (one federal and one state), a prison in The Netherlands, and a prison in Israel. For each institution, this Article will offer a narrative of my observations regarding the prison's structure and security, living conditions, and programming. (6) In particular, the examination of each prison facility will include discussion of the apparent significant impact of each prison's culture on the perceived rates of violence, the financial costs of administration, and the achievement of moral obligations regarding the treatment of prisoners. Through this analysis, this Article will first propose that prisons with cultures that create a sense of community within the inmate population benefit from lower rates of violence. Second, the Article will contend that lower rates of violence also lead to reduced costs of administration. Finally, this Article will argue that regardless of the above-described benefits it is also morally correct to create positive prison environments rather than permit prisons to become warehouses for societal outcasts.


Upon visiting any prison, one inevitably journeys over the cusp that separates the outside world from the self-contained community within. (7) In some settings, such as The Netherlands, the transition from one world to the next is subtle. One is simply buzzed through an unassuming door into a waiting room with tables and chairs before proceeding out into the main prison courtyard. In other settings, including several federal and state prisons in the United States, one passes through a large intimidating metal doorway. Once safely inside the confines of the prison, an enormous steel wall slides noisily into place behind you, leaving nowhere to go but deeper into the bowels of the facility itself. Regardless of the exact types of sounds and sensations that accompany one's transition into a prison, the noises indicate that the outside world is now a mere memory, and, instead, one has entered a new community with its own rules, customs, values, social structures, and consequences. (8)

A. The American Federal Prison System

There are 195 prison facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons: the facilities house approximately 211,000 prisoners. (9) One such facility is located on a large wooded tract of land in a rural region of the Midwest. (10) Built in the 1960s, the prison, which houses approximately 1000 inmates, is an imposing structure with several guard towers and layers of razor-wire fencing sufficient to not only stop but, in some cases, kill any prisoner attempting escape.

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American Prison Culture in an International Context: An Examination of Prisons in America, the Netherlands, and Israel


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