Our Brother’s Keepers: Choosing the Best Course in American Corrections


By C. J. Oakes

The Issue: Tougher laws combined with shrinking budgets have resulted in overcrowding in many correctional facilities within the criminal justice system.

The Essay: Our Brother’s Keepers:  Choosing the Best Course in American Corrections


Years ago, an episode of I Love Lucy provides a very good description of the problem faced by Corrections administrators nationwide.  Lucy and Ethel found themselves working at the end of an assembly line.  Initially, the two women found it fun and were playful.  However, the line began to move faster until the two were racing around trying desperately to keep up:  Product was flying and the women were frantically attempting to keep up with the pace, but doing so was impossible.  If one were to ask a prison Warden in 2012 if he feels at times like the characters from that sitcom, the answer would likely be a resounding yes.  Overcrowding has become the defining issue for Corrections:  This paper will present likely solutions.

The events of September 11, 2001 will be written about for decades.  This was the day in modern history when an entire generation of American’s came together in a way that none believed possible.  This was a day when race, religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status meant nothing.  People were simply people and the nation acted like a family for the first time since Pearl Harbor.  When considering the goals of sentencing in Criminal Justice, the nation may do well to remember that people tend to act as if those termed criminal among us do not belong among us:  Convicts are not outsiders, but rather a part of the national family.EXCELLENT POINT  As such, these members of society deserve to be treated as family.  An issue facing the nation after the first decade of the 21st Century came to a close was what to do with the innumerable convicts crowding the prisons.  As of 2012 no easy solutions exist, for although the data supports rehabilitation programs as the best way to reduce recidivism and control crime, the public continues to cry for tougher sentencing proposals.  Hence, this paper will consider the future of prisons in light of critical issues along with possible and likely solutions. VERY GOOD INTRO

The Future of Prisons

Nationwide, prison overcrowding has become a serious issue for Corrections officials, legislators, and courts.  In 2005, the State of California faced a Federal judge assuming control over the Department of Corrections.  Unable to build additional facilities, the only solution found involved shifting the prison populations to local and county jails.  This, in turn has resulted in local officials refusing new inmates and releasing others much earlier than anticipated.  Hence, the very situation taxpayers sought to avert through mandatory minimums and determinate sentencing guidelines has returned (Muraskin & Roberts, 2009).

Such issues call into question the future of the prison system as it exists in 2012 for many currently recognize that the situation cannot continue as is without some serious changes.  In addition, as much as overcrowding is a problem, this gives rise to additional problems of a more critical nature.

Critical Prison Issues

Any time humans are kept in close quarters there are bound to be problems.  Some of these naturally include fighting, discord, and disease, all of which create serious issues for prison administrators.  In most prisons, large, powerful gangs have developed that control many of the daily activities of inmates within; many manage to operate organized crime outfits on the outside.  This makes a dangerous environment, not only for inmates, but also guards (Morgan Jr., 2009).

In addition to increased violence in prisons, the close contact with other inmates increases the spread of communicable diseases that threaten life and drive up operational costs.  Likewise, longer sentences mean that inmates will age and require additional high-cost medical attention resulting in further cost increases (Pfaff, 2008).

Finally, though touched on above, the problem of costs must be restated.  Nationwide, States, and the Federal government are stretched to a near breaking point with programs requiring massive outlays of funds.  Most simply cannot afford to continue building prisons, nor maintain the current populations and associated costs.  Correctional choices will soon be nothing more than a matter of fiscal solvency (Shaw, 2009).

Solutions to Overcrowding

Solutions are not easy in a society bent on a hard-line approach for soft-on-crime budgets.  As more governments nationwide begin to cut budgets in an effort to remain in the black, creative solutions are required to satisfy an insatiable public.

Some such solutions include the privatization of Correctional facilities as has been done in California and Louisiana (Chan, 2009).  Other solutions rely simply on the addition of bunk-beds and use of space, such as gymnasiums built during the rehabilitation period of the 70s and early 80s.  Another solution, as mentioned above in the emergency case in California, is to send inmates to local and county jails (Muraskin & Roberts, 2009).  However, these solutions do nothing to curb overcrowding but simply shift the problem elsewhere; in time, the problem will simply explode in the faces of legislators and prison officials who will then be hard-pressed to find viable solutions.

The Return of Community Corrections

Some recommend the complete abolition of prisons with a commensurate return to community corrections (Shaw, 2009).  However, this seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, for most researchers recognize that although the current system has serious problems, it can be fixed (Pfaff, 2008).

The repair most often cited is that the system needs to find a balance between the liberal attitude that society is to blame and the conservative attitude that the criminal is to blame.  Many are finding middle ground, recognizing that if society is to blame, criminals, as part of society, must share equally.  Hence, the demand for probation and parole officers is expected to grow as more governments seek to prevent criminals from returning to prison.  Society expects ex-cons to become productive citizens again.  Through a combination of community corrections and stiff sentences for those who refuse compliance with social standards of law many believe that recidivism can be reduced (Byrne, 2008).

However, community correction’s is not without drawbacks.  One major problem is the shortage of trained Probation officers.  During the period between 1980 and 2010 when governments took a get-tough approach, funding for these professionals declined along with personnel.  As of 2008, governments that had decided to alter their course began placing tremendous workloads on current officers.  This, in turn is causing some to leave the field and others to take simply a tougher attitude toward those they are meant to help, resulting in more going to prison than would otherwise (DeMichele & Paparozzi, 2008).

Another problem in this field concerns the greatly increased number of females in the system.  Although crime rates have declined, crime rates among females have increased.  This is resulting in a large number of female convicts sentenced to probation rather than prison and reports of sexual harassment among female probationers is on the rise (Stevens, 2010).

In addition, sex offender registration standards have created a multitude of issues, mostly paperwork, for probation officers, increasing an already difficult workload.  One problem involves residency notifications, for every time a sex offender moves to a new area, he or she is required to register with local officials.  A probation officer must follow up to ensure that all registration requirements are in order (Tewksbury, Mustaine, & Payne, 2011).

However, one very positive situation is coming from all these problems associated with prison overcrowding and the shift back to community corrections.  Most offices that oversee community corrections are looking to empirical evidence for answers to problems.  This is a major shift when one considers that the former attitude completely ignored science in favor of simple public opinion.  Community corrections officials are seeking to avert the kind of problems that caused the get-tough shift in the first place; sound advancements in community corrections are the result (Alexander, 2011).


Although an ignorant public continues to collude with spineless politicians to maintain an unworkable prison industrial complex, the sheer numbers of inmates in America is forcing change.  As of 2012, the prison population in America rivals only that of the former Soviet Union and most states are finding that the cost is not worth the benefit.  Hence, most states are turning to community corrections and science to resolve these issues.  In general, politicians are using a back-door approach for fear of angering their constituents, but change is unavoidable.  Whether this change results in sound improvements or not remains to be seen, but all evidence appears to support a positive outcome for society and those members of the social family who have run astray.


You May Also Enjoy

State and Federal Prisons: A History of Growth

Federal Crime, Federal Time

List of State and Federal Prisons in the United States



  • Alexander, M. (Sept2011). Applying Implementation Research to Improve Community           

            Corrections: Making Sure That “New” Thing Sticks! Federal Probation. 75(2) 47-   51.

  • Byrne, James M. (May2008). THE SOCIAL ECOLOGY OF COMMUNITY


            AND COMMUNITY CHANGE.  Criminology & Public Policy. 7(2) 263-274.

  • Chan, E.  (2010). Prisons for Profit: The Corrections (Contract Management of Prisons)

            Amendment Act 2009.  AucklandUniversity Law Review. 16() 303-309

  • DeMichele, M.; Paparozzi, M. (Oct2008).  Community Corrections: A Powerful Field. Corrections Today. 70(5) 68-72.

            REVIEW AND PATH FORWARD.  Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology.

Winter2008, 98(2) 547-619.

  • Morgan Jr., W. J.  (Nov/Dec2009) THE MAJOR CAUSES OF INSTITUTIONAL

            VIOLENCE.  American Jails.  23(5) 62-70.

  • Muraskin, R., & Roberts. A.R. (2009). Visions for change: Crime and justice in the twenty-first

           century (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

  • Shaw, R. F.;  (Mar2009).  Angela Y. Davis and the prison abolition movement, Part II.

Contemporary Justice Review. 12(1) 101-104.

  • Stevens, K. D.  (Oct2010) Addressing Gender Issues Among Staff in Community

           Corrections.  Corrections Today. 72(5) 32-35.

  • Tewksbury, R.; Mustaine, E. E.; Payne, B. K. (Dec2011). Community Corrections

            Professionals’ Views of Sex Offenders, Sex Offender Registration and Community 

Leave a Reply