Prison Reform amid the Ruins of Prisoners' Rights
James B. Jacobs
Prisons and jails need continuous “reform” because there are constant financial, political, administrative, psychological, and even biological pressures threatening to undermine conditions, practices, and programs. Penal institutions often seem to be in decline if not in crisis (Christianson 1998). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it remains a tremendous challenge to keep prisons and jails safe, clean, hygienic, operational, and humane (Stern 1998).
In our 1,400 federal and state prisons and many thousands of county jails and local lockups, conditions and operations are only to a limited extent determined by correctional ideologies and philosophies. Humane values and correctional “philosophies” are important, but they are insufficient to ensure humane conditions. Resources and administrative competence are far more important (see Lin 2000; Bottoms 1999).
Money does not guarantee decent prison conditions and operations, but lack of money assures the opposite. At present, our states and localities are experiencing very serious budget crises that may persist for years. State and local officials are combing through their programs to identify places to make budget cuts. Jails and prisons will certainly be a prime candidate. While imprisonment has been wildly successful in the late twentieth century in garnering support for more beds in more facilities, that is entirely different than garnering support for maintaining and improving intra-prison conditions, operations, and programs.
Unlike practically all other programs, penal institutions have no political constituency, except perhaps for the prison officers' unions in some states (e.g., California). Prisoners are not seen as among the “deserving poor.” Allocating scarce resources to improve or maintain humane prison conditions (in contrast with spending money to provide more beds) will not win votes or acclaim. Thus, when it comes to choosing whether to cut funding for prisons and jails, schools, higher education, roads, and health care, prisons and jails will always be the first choice unless public officials