Go Directly to Jail

Black men in prison. Afrcian American males greatly outnumber all other races, though crime rates are largely equal. This indicates that racism is the cause of such disparities.

By C. J. Oakes

Prison Cell
Prison Cell (Photo credit: danielkoehlersfotos)

When playing the game Monopoly, one of the best events takes place when an opponent lands on the space “Go directly to jail.”  What makes this so much fun is that the goal of the game is to obtain all the property and by way of extension all the money—creating a monopoly.  When the opponent lands on this space, they cannot move ahead until three turns have passed or they pay a fine.  Either way, the player is setback in achieving the goal giving other players a slight advantage.  This imitates life; the Criminal Justice system today.  In life, breaking a law and going to jail sets a person back.  Going to prison, sets a person way back.

Jail or Prison? What’s the Difference?

In real life, when arrested a person goes directly to jail.  He does not go directly to prison, but rather jail, because the two facilities are not synonymous.  Jails house people for many reasons whereas prisons house only convicted persons; those sentenced to long periods of detention; at least a year.

Jails by contrast, house people convicted of relatively minor crimes resulting in sentences less than a year.  In addition, jails also serve to hold people until arraignment, provide protection for high-profile witnesses, and other needs as determined by local law enforcement (Schmalleger, 2009).

Although most arrestees will spend at least some time in jail not all will see the inside of a prison. Some will be released and some sentenced. Sentencing could include probation, which is a form of parole; this means that rather than serving time, the convict will remain conditionally free.

Parole developed as a means of returning convicts to productive society as soon as possible.  This serves very practical ends as it reduces costs to the state and protects the tax base.  It helps convicts to maintain family and social ties that may be beneficial to their rehabilitation, if that is the sentencing goal.  Even in cases whereby a sentenced convict serves time, parole will shorten the time served.  In all cases of probation or parole, there are certain conditions that must be adhered to if the convict is to remain free.  Some of these include maintaining steady employment, avoidance of other felons, drugs, alcohol, or firearms and other conditions as determined according to the specific of the case (Schmalleger, 2009).

+ Midyear 2009 Incarceration Rates by Race and...
+ Midyear 2009 Incarceration Rates by Race and Gender per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same race and gender. Prison Inmates at Midyear 2009 – Statistical Tables – US Bureau of Justice Statistics, published June 2010. See tables 16-19 for totals and rates for blacks, Hispanics, and whites. Broken down by year, gender, and age. See page 2 for “Selected characteristics of inmates held in custody in state or federal prisons or in local jails”. It has the overall incarceration rate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Parole Under Fire

In recent years, parole has come under fire by proponents of truth-in-sentencing, three-strikes, and mandatory minimum laws.  Aimed at ensuring that criminals serve all or most of the time sentenced (truth-in-sentencing requires 85% of time served) or as much time as possible (three-strikes requires life and mandatory minimums set minimum time frames) such laws are causing serious problems for the criminal justice system.

One of the most pronounced problems is overcrowding.  Because of such laws coupled with cutbacks in programs for rehabilitation, prison populations are exploding, most because of drug violations.  In times past, Parole officers would provide parolees with the means necessary to survive outside prison as well as maintain a healthy lifestyle:  Today most time is spent watching and waiting for the ex-con to slip so as to return them to prison.  Nearly a third of all prison entrees occur as a result of failed drug tests (Anderson, 2002).

Parole boards are nearly extinct; laws such as truth-in-sentencing severely curtail the boards that do remain.  Opponents argue that such rules fail to account for known research and that such rules do more harm to society than good (Hughes, 2007).  Solutions are not easy and the debate is likely to continue for some time before the pendulum swings the other way (Mauer, 1996).  For now, truth-in-sentencing is the rule as the Prison Industrial Complex continues to grow (Schlosser, 1998).

The United States prison system has become a complex.  Numerous forms of prisons exist, such as specific units to house men, women, juveniles, and those with mental disorders.  Numerous levels of prisons exist as well: Level one being maximum security and Level five, minimum security.  In addition, prisons can be either state or federal and local jails often house long-term prisoners until space becomes available in a prison (Schmalleger, 2009).  Finally rounding out the picture of an industrial-complex of the justice system is the opportunity for profit; there are currently numerous private corporations operating prisons such as Wackenhut and Cornell Corrections (Schmalleger, 2009).

Prison as a Sub-culture

The concept of prison is to control completely the inmate population for the duration of their sentence.  Prison is a total institution.  As such it “is an isolated, enclosed social system” (Johnson, 2000, no page number), a sub-culture all its own.

Erving Goffman was the first to explain the concept of a total institution as a social construct.  He argued that such institutions result in a death to individuality while creating a new person according to the leadership of the ruling authority (Credo, 2008).  This could explain the prison sub-culture currently adopted by many members of society today such as rappers and gangstas.  After serving time in prison, many such persons continue to live and spread the lifestyle adopted during their period of incarceration.

US incarceration timeline
US incarceration timeline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prison lifestyle includes almost daily rations of violence.  Much of the violence in prison population is conducted by those holding supervisory oversight, the guards.  In some cases guardian violence is a result of overzealous attempts to control inmates, while in others it is nothing more than sadism (Gross, 2008).  In still other cases, guardian violence is more a result of guards unable to control unruly inmates with a history of mental defect (Toch & Kupers, 2007).

Because of the economic boom of the 1990s the get-tough legislation found ample support for the building of new prisons.  The new millennium brought with it large-scale deficits and states responded by cutting back on guards and other programs.  This has made a tough job even tougher, resulting in stress-related violence from guards while making it easier for inmates to rest violence upon each other (Seabrook, 2005).

While there are no easy solutions to the problem of violence in prisons the first step would be to ensure that guards set the right example.  In light of the concept of total institutionality (sic), guards and wardens become the ruling authorities, the leaders of the social construct or sub-culture.  These must set the proper example.

What Does the Future Hold for Prisons and Jails?

Whether the prison system continues to maintain the standards of truth-in-sentencing or returns to the former parole system there will always be persons in need of assimilation released back into proper society.  In such cases, community-based corrections programs take over.

The primary use of community corrections is persons sentenced to probation but also may include parolees.  Most such programs are in place so as to permit the convicted person the freedom and ability to continue to be a functional, productive member of society while maintaining a degree of control over behavior (Schmalleger, 2009).

Halfway houses, bodily global positioning tracking devices, and breath analyzers on automobiles are examples of community corrections programs.  Many such have been in effect for years but with the recent increase of prison populations many states are exploring methods for expanding these programs (DeMichele & Paparozzi, 2008).

Many states are turning to so-called community-based supervision (probation and parole officers) so as to meet the budgetary shortfalls created by the get tough laws of the former decade (Kinsella & Fuller, 2003).  It is just a rose by another name but for politicians seeking to avoid looking like crawfish, it works.

Finally, to ease overcrowding in prisons, some are diverting convicts to local jails. Sure, the local jails are then overcrowded, but that is a separate issue. California did just this in 2011 to the alarm of some, the applause of others. Regardless of how one may feel about the move, it did stave off a Federal takeover of the California Penal System.

Prison Industrial Complex #occupysanquentin
Prison Industrial Complex #occupysanquentin (Photo credit: @bastique)

If the object of society with the criminal justice system and law was to crush and eliminate all competition like a game of Monopoly, the get tough legislation of locking criminals away forever could be plausible.  However, common sense and economics dictate that crime, not convicts must end.  While law-breakers will continue to go directly to jail, whether they remain should depend more on culpability than affordability.

You May Also Enjoy

US State and Federal Prisons List

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  • Anderson, G. (March 4, 2002). Parole Revisited. America, 186(7), 10.
  • Credo Reference Library. (2008). Total Institutions. Retrieved from http://credoreference.com/entry/bksoc/total_institution
  • Schuessler, K. (1954, November/December). Parole Prediction: Its History and its Status. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Political Science, 45(5), 425-431.
  • Seabrook, N. (2005, September). Prison Violence on the Rise. USA Today Magazine, 134(2724), 28-29.
  • Toch, H., & Kupers, T. (2007). Violence in Prisons Revisited. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 45(3/4), 1-28.
  • DeMichele, M., & Paparozzi, M. (2008, October). Community Corrections: A Powerful Field. Corrections Today, 70(5), 68-72.
  • Gross, B. (2008, Winter). Prison Violence: Does Brutality Come With the Badge? The Forensic Examiiner, 17(4), 21.
  • Hughes, G. (Aug. 2007). Parole Boards Are Worth Saving. Corrections Today, 69(4), 86-87.
  • Johnson, A. (2000). Total Institution. The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, (), .
  • Kinsella, C., & Fuller, K. (2003, May). Community-based Supervision Dilemma. State Government News, 46(5), 15-17.
  • Mauer, M. (1996, February). The Truth About Truth in Sentencing. Corrections Today, 58(1), .
  • Schlosser, E. (1998, December). The Prison-Industrial Complex. Atlantic Monthly, 282(6), 51-72.
  • Schmalleger, PhD., F. (2009). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century (10th ed.). : Prentis Hall.

One thought on “Go Directly to Jail”

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