Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

Incarceration: Psychosocial Pro's and Con's

Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

Incarceration: Psychosocial Pro's and Con's

Article excerpt


Throughout history and across cultures, the criminally adjudicated, as well as the indigent, homeless, and mentally ill have been subjected to mass incarceration. Society has waxed and waned on the issue of whether to incarcerate or treat the aforementioned groups in some form of community-based rehabilitation programs. With over 2.2 million people in American jails and prisons, and another 4.9 million on probation and parole, it is a daunting task. Reports also indicate that between 45 and 64 percent of those incarcerated suffer from some form of mental illness. This paper reviews some of the current research on incarceration, in-prison rehabilitation and the mentally ill in prison, as well as subsequent release and community support networks.


What does society do with someone who has no remorse about hurting others, nor has the ability to adhere to commonly agreed upon societal norms? Traditionally they are punished. Historically, punishment ranged from social ostracizing to a painful death. Occasionally financial ruin, torture, or even exile was the results. Essentially, societies have always sought to gain restitution and hold the offending party responsible for their actions. The criminal justice systems of the world are varied and tend to reflect the values and mores of each culture; hence, the diverse forms of punishment. In most industrialized and technically advanced cultures, common or statutory laws abide, and a fine or prison sentence is imposed upon the finding of a guilty verdict. This paper will explore whether or not imprisonment, at least according to American standards, is a viable, productive, and humane outcome when dealing with criminals. Also, it will look at the merit of some available options and reintegration into society for those released from prison. Additionally, this paper will address the issue of incarceration of the mentally ill. Do they deserve special treatment, or are they to be held just as accountable for their actions as the general prison population?


According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2008 there were 1,409,166 people incarcerated in state prisons and 201,280 in federal facilities. Another 785,556 persons were being held in local jails; with an additional 72,852 persons serving sentences under supervision in their communities (USDOJ, 2009). As a clarification, a jail is considered a locally administered holding or correctional facility intended for short-term imprisonment prior to trial or sentencing, with stays usually less than a year. A prison, on the other hand, is run by a state or the federal government, and is designed for long-term incarceration of prisoners who are almost exclusively convicted felons (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009). In addition to the immense prison population, another 7.3 million adults were also reported to be on probation or parole in 2008. This number has increased from 200,000 since the 1970's, making the United States the highest ranked country in prison populations: 724 people incarcerated per 100,000. For reference, Canada has a rate of 116 per 100,000, and Finland has only 50 people in prison per 100,000 (Sturr, 2006).

Sturr (2006) recognizes three main factors that have contributed to the meteoric rise in the U.S. prison populations. One is the "War on Drugs;" with tougher laws, harsher sentences, and larger enforcement networks. Second is the new "Tough on Crime" policy that many states have adopted. These initiatives have taken a harder stance on crime in general with the implementation of the "Three Strikes law" and mandatory sentencing guidelines. Cohen reported that according to Human Rights Watch (2003), state and federal governments began adopting:

punitive criminal justice policies that encouraged increased arrests, increased the likelihood that conviction for a crime would result in incarceration, including through mandatory minimum sentencing and "three strikes" laws; increased the length of time served, by increasing the length of sentences, and reducing or eliminating the availability of early release and parole; and increased the rate at which parolees are returned to prison, (p. …

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