The role of prisons or correctional systems (as the vast array of prison or prison-related facilities, programs, and services are called) is to make society a safer place.  Prisons are based on the idea that some people are so inherently evil that they must be cut off from the rest of society and closely monitored.  Theoretically, however, they should be based on some type of philosophy or rationale for punishment - such as deterrence, retribution, reintegration, incapacitation, or rehabilitation.  Throughout most of the twentieth century, the dominant philosophies have been incapacitation, deterrence, and retribution (this combination being called the custodial model) except for a brief period from 1954 to 1974 when rehabilitation (also called the medical model) was experimented with.  Rehabilitation died in 1974 with publication of the so-called Martinson Report (Martinson 1974) that "nothing works" and was further delivered the death blow in 1989 with Mistretta v. United States which allowed judges to sentence defendants without regard to the amenability toward treatment or potential for rehabilitation.  Martinson's findings that all 231 different ways of treating criminals had failed were called into question by others (Gendreau & Ross 1987; Palmer 1991), but the general consensus remains in criminal justice that prisons not only don't work, but are an expensive way of making bad people worse (Waddington 1992; Blumstein 1995).  The Canadians and Brits are about the only ones left in the world who believe in the correctional rehabilitation of criminals, although there is a trend in contemporary jurisprudence for courts to take a more therapeutic approach.

    Corrections is believed by many experts to be the most challenging and frustrating component of criminal justice. There are the challenges of managing the inmates daily as well as the frustrations of inevitable mismanagement at attempting to accomplish multiple goals.  New challenges present themselves every day.  In a very real sense, employees in a correctional system are doing time the same as the inmates are doing time.  It's easy to conduct a trial and sentence somebody; what's difficult is what to do with them after they're sentenced.  Everything in corrections is done on a large scale because there is an endless stream of prisoners.  On average, one new jail or prison is built every week in America. 

    Operating the American correctional system is quite costly.  Expenses run about $32 billion a year, and a conservative estimate is that each prisoner costs the American taxpayer about $21,000 annually ($35,000 a year is the most commonly cited figure), two or three times that amount if the prisoner is aged or sickly, and about $100,000 a year at high-cost facilities like Riker's Island.  On any given day, there are about 5 and a half million people under some form of correctional custody, which is a figure that includes things like community corrections. There are about 600,000 correctional employees with a variety of job titles, and corrections is the fastest growing part of the criminal justice system. The average pay for correctional officers is around $30,000, but an extra $10,000 is usually available by working overtime.  Most of the employees work at the state-level (62%), the second largest group in city and county jails (34%), and the rest in federal prisons (4%).  The average employee is white and from a rural background; only 34% of correctional officers belong to minority groups, and only 22% are women.  There are 4500 correctional facilities in the U.S.; 1084 state prisons, 3304 city and county jails, and 112 federal prisons.  Then, because we've only been talking about adults so far, there is the additional group of one and a half million juvenile delinquency cases each year that produces about 70,000 people for the juvenile prison system, 40,000 into private juvenile prisons, and the rest into a variety of detention centers, halfway houses, camps, ranches, and shelters.  In addition, approximately seven million Americans spend at least a day in jail every year.

    Prison overcrowding is a global problem.  Although official numbers are hard to come by, some countries are believed to have the overcrowding problem worse than the U.S., for example, Australia, Russia, Brazil, and most Asian countries.  Housing more inmates in a cell than what it is designed for is common in the U.S. and anywhere else overcrowding is present.  The average prison cell built today is at least 70 square feet (7x11 or 8x9), but only about 60 square feet are usable, resulting in 30 square feet per prisoner if double celled.  Some older prison and jail cells provide 40 to 56 square feet (5x8 or 7x8).  Federal judges in many states have ruled since 1977 that every prisoner deserves at least 60 square feet of cell space.  The fact is that cell size varies depending upon the type of facility.  In state prisons, the average inmate is male (females only make up about 7% of the prisoner population), around 30 years of age, a high-school dropout (only 22% have finished high school, and between 50-75% are unable to read), and African-American (46%), white (33%), Hispanic (18%), or other (3%).  The majority of inmates (60%) have served time before, at least twice, primarily for a violent crime.  In federal prisons, one is more likely to find a preponderance of drug and property offenders.  More than half of all prison and jail inmates report some type of employment at the time of their arrest, and those that did have a job reported an annual income of less than $10,000 a year.  Forty-two (42%) percent of state prison inmates report that they had at least one other family member - usually a brother, parent, or sister -- incarcerated at some time.  Globally, the world has some 9 million people incarcerated at any given time.  The following table, from Dammer (2005), shows 2005 figures of the total prison populations and imprisonment rates by country:

Prison Population and Imprisonment Rates Around the World

United States
South Africa
United States
Virgin Islands


    During the 1500s and 1600s, prisons evolved alongside the practices of banishment (exile into the wilderness) and transportation (sending offenders to one of the nation's colonies).  Prisons were also seen as a humane alternative to such practices as branding, flogging, and mutilation.  Around the year 1550, England created what were called workhouses, also known as houses of correction (London's famous Bridewell workhouse being an example).  These became horribly unsanitary and overcrowded places where inmate labor was exploited to turn a profit.  When the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia during 1790 was converted from a jail to a prison, this event is generally marked as America's first state prison.  Also in the 1790s, a group of reformers started what became known as the penitentiary movement (Cesare Beccaria 1738-1794; John Howard 1726-1790; Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832).  This movement lasted almost one hundred years, and was followed in 1870 by the reformatory movement (Enoch Wines 1806-1879; Zebulon Brockway 1827-1920).  The reformatory movement was short-lived, however, and only lasted about twenty years, as by the turn of the century, America was seeking a way to make prison systems more industrial and punitive.  During the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, some older penitentiaries and reformatories were expanded in size and became known as big house prisons.  Other penitentiaries and reformatories, along with other architectural models became the basis of various correctional center designs throughout the twentieth century.  The late 1940s saw a resurgence of interest in rehabilitation again, but like the reformatory movement, only lasted about twenty or thirty years.  Most prisons built since 1980 are designed for warehousing or custodial purposes which is sometimes called the just deserts model (a get tough philosophy involving the multiple purposes of incapacitation, deterrence, and retribution).

The 1790 penitentiary followed a hub and spokes pattern (as shown in the birds-eye view to the right).  This is also known as the radial design.   The subtype known as the Pennsylvania system placed the administration building in the center, and the Auburn (NY) system placed this building on the outer wall.  The Pennsylvania system (pictured) was based on solitary and silent confinement, with the Auburn system based on congregate work and meals with silent confinement (but inmates developed hand signals).  The administration building in the Pennsylvania system is centered.

The 1950 panopticon, or roundhouse design, was a type of modern penitentiary advocated long ago by Jeremy Bentham.  Only two were built in the world.  The guard tower is a cylindrical structure going up the middle of the inside, hence the name, panopticon, or all-seeing-eye.

The 1870 reformatory is a large structure like a penitentiary, but notice how the cell doors open inward into a mass hallway (like a hotel). Penitentiaries, by contrast, either have cells with windows on the back of them, or the cells are centered inside the cellblock so inmates can look out their cell doors to see the outside thru the cellblock windows.  Reformatories became used for special populations, like juveniles and women.  If extra floors are added to the top of a reformatory or penitentiary, the design is called the big house prison design.  The original reformatories were designed for rehabilitation, and inmates earned early release, or parole, based on how many points they accumulated for good behavior. 

The 1890 courtyard design is also known as a Taggert Fortress, named after an ex-civil war entrepreneur, Colonel Taggert, who bought up a few Army forts, and converted them into prison camps.  Convicts were often leased out as laborers or on road crews, or made to exercise, drill, or become industrious. 

The 1945 campus design tried to blend in with the environment by allowing trees, rolling hills, etc., and the grounds aren't usually surrounded by a wall, but concertina razor wire instead.  The outer perimeter is patrolled by guards on foot, vehicle, and sometimes by a mini-train.  The educational center is usually the largest building on campus.

The 1950 telephone pole design, which was advocated by the federal government, is based on a long hallway with living or work quarters as add-on module units attached to the sides.  Many federal BOP prisons are based on this model.  A few states, like New Mexico, have experienced some terrible riots in them. 

The 1980 skyscraper design, like the one shown here, which is the Piedmont Correctional facility in North Carolina, was designed for little more than warehousing offenders, although some of the floors may contain classrooms and/or work rooms.  Exercise yards are usually located on the roof.  Most major cities (and the feds) have what are called Metro prisons of this type, and often local jails are of this architectural design, as are many private prisons operated by corporations who contract with the government.  

The 1990 modular design is also known as a pod prison, direct supervision jail, or new generation design, and like the TV show OZ, consists of living quarters with tall ceilings, mezzanine balconies, sharp architectural angles, Plexiglas panels, and hi-tech environmental control equipment.

    Prisons are operated on the basis of care, custody, and control. Of these, control is probably the most important.  Prisoners are classified by security level (type of crime) as well as by custody level (flight risk and privileges earned by good behavior), but prisons are only classified by security level (maximum, medium, and minimum).  A maximum security prison tends to put the cellblocks near the center of the facility, and inmate movement is severely restricted.  Medium security prisons still have some restrictions on movement, and frequently require inmates to be at a certain place to stand for count.  Minimum security prisons usually allow inmates to walk around freely.  Maximum security prisons are often the main problem in terms of perpetuating an "institutional" environment with norms and values far different from those that operate in the "free world."  As observed by Crouch and Marquart (1989, p. 273):

The ghetto like atmosphere of a maximum-security prison is quite overpowering to the uninitiated. Perhaps as many as 2000 men live, eat, work, urinate, sleep, and recreate in a very limited concrete steel building. This concentration of life presents the new guard with an unfamiliar and at the very least distracting sensory experience as simultaneously he hears doors clanging, inmates talking or shouting, radios and televisions playing, and food trays banging; he smells an institutional blend of food, urine, paint, disinfectant and sweat. What he sees is a vast array of inmate personalities portrayed by evident behavior styles.

    The correctional enterprise is ultimately evaluated on how well all its activities, its treatment as well as security programs, come together and eventually allow for the replacement of correctional control with self-control.  There are no simple way to do this. Corrections is affected by laws, political appointments, judicial decisions, and demographics.  It has no power to restrict the flood of people that enter its doors every day. Yet it must do something, anything, to treat, rehabilitate, and reintegrate its clientele. It is a fascinating area of study, full of challenges and frustrations, and ripe for new ideas.


    There are many paradoxes when it comes to the study of corrections. A paradox is simply something you wouldn't expect to find, kind of like irony.  The industry seems particularly vulnerable to cyclical patterns in the ebb and flow of ideas, but as much as things change, things remains the same.  Ironies and paradoxes are some of the least-researched areas in criminal justice, and a few of them are mentioned below for the sake of triggering thought about them.

Paradox 1: Corrections is an unarmed paramilitary organization. Sure, there are a few guards who have guns up in the towers, but by-and-large, weapons are not a routine part of everyday life, and most guards don't carry guns. No one really knows for sure why, but corrections adopted a military model, like the police; but unlike the police, they're comparatively unarmed.

Paradox 2: Corrections is an organization where everyone is a supervisor. Everyone, all the way up to the front-office secretary, is expected to keep an eye on any inmates who might be working in that area. Another way of putting it is that every job position has some inmate supervision responsibilities. Non-custodial staff do not normally put "correctional administrator" down on their resume, but technically, they could. Such people are also pressed into security service during lockdowns and other periods of institutional crisis.

Paradox 3: Corrections has the loosest set of executive titles imaginable. While many job titles are set by the state's civil service authority, once you start talking about the upper-echelon of management, you run into the widespread use of discretion to make (political) appointments, set salaries, and create job titles. This is one of the places where you run into the proliferation of titles like "assistant-to-the-assistant," "deputy-under," and "vice-executive," to name a few.

Paradox 4: Corrections is the only profession where a significant majority of employees will tell you that they entered the field by accident. I defy you to name another field of work, other than truck driving, that people simply fell into out of unemployment or insecurity. This complete lack of any recruitment mechanism has enormous consequences. For one, employees can be regarded as expendable; and two, it limits professionalism as long as the field is perceived as one of easy entry--"hire 'em and throw 'em the keys."

Paradox 5: Correctional officers are regarded by inmates as the lowest form of human life possible. They believe that only the worst form of human being would take a job locking up other human beings. They hate guards worse than police. This unique stereotype defies analysis by the usual methods of studying inmate subculture. It appears to be something picked up as soon as you walk in the gate, and has some societal currency.

Paradox 6: Correctional officers are usually white, low-income people from rural areas (in part, due to the fact that most prisons are located in rural areas). Inmates are usually black, low-income people from urban areas. The rural-urban dimension stands out in stark contrast, and its effects go far beyond what sociology and other disciplines claim to know about rural-urban differences. In many ways, it goes to the heart of many prison issues.

Paradox 7: Correctional officer attitudes are surprisingly liberal. Survey after survey shows that guards actually believe in things like rehabilitation. They're optimistic about inmate chances for success when they get out. They believe that they (the guards) are important "change agents" and that incarceration does have a rehabilitative effect. This is surprising, since we would expect criminal justice employees who come into the closest contact with criminals, manipulators, and so forth, to have hardened attitudes (like the police do) about criminals, but not so with correctional officers. There's some research indicating that if guards were allowed to have more input into the counseling and rehabilitation of inmates, they might do a better job.

Paradox 8: There's no proof that higher education has any benefit to correctional employees. In fact, it may actually lower job satisfaction. This is because, in part, no bona fide job task analysis has ever been thoroughly conducted on the benefits of higher education; another reason might be because employees with higher education have more career options than remaining in corrections work.


    Big institutions are places where riots happen, and there has been no shortage of riot studies in criminal justice.  Most of this study has been oriented toward predictors of riots, as the following information illustrates.


Precipitating factor = biological urges, instincts, etc.
Attracting factor = psycholgical factors, perceptions, etc.
Predisposing factor = sociological factor, environmental, etc.

(1) ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS -- a model based mostly on predisposing factors, although the word "preconditioning" is sometimes used. The prison is likely to be "a bomb waiting to explode"

(2) SPONTANEITY -- a model based mostly on precipitating factors. Here, any incident or a string of incidents trigger an emotional outburst.

(3) CONFLICT -- a model based mostly on attracting factors like the perception of a repressive power regime with perceived limited options available for conflict resolution.

(4) SOCIAL CONTROL -- a model based mostly on attracting factors. The perception is that "something's broke" and needs fixing, but nothing is being done.

(5) POWER VACUUM -- a model based mostly on attracting factors. The perception (or reality) is that there have been abrupt changes in the administrative personnel; i.e., nobody's in charge.

(6) RISING EXPECTATIONS -- a model based mostly on predisposing factors and the concept of relative deprivation.  An external group (like the Courts) have created higher levels of expectation.


    Simple, clear, and easy-to-understand disciplinary, grievance, and classification appeal processes go a long way at allowing inmates to "vent" their frustrations.  There should always be at least the perception of fairness no matter how arbitary and bureaucratic the grievance/appeal process actually is.  Data collected from the inmate grievance process is also more valuable information than that collected from a snitch system.  Management of information should include establishing channels of communication to both staff and inmates to eliminate misinformation and quell destructive rumors.  Rumor control is essential.

    Security audits are also helpful.  Almost every major riot in U.S. history began with some breach of security.  Riots also occur when visitors, dignitaries, and the news media are in the prison, so special security measures should be taken to protect visiting dignitaries.  Routine and random shakedowns for contraband will only go so far, as there should also be surprise integrity and security checks.   First-level supervisors who are on "friendly" terms with inmates should be consulted, not just the gung-ho, heavy-handed security types, on security matters.

    Top-level management can assist by practicing MBWA (Management by Walking Around).  They should appear to be paying attention, identifying and addressing problems, and interacting with staff and inmates.  An unannounced or random walk can also be a performance audit, with the administrator assessing various outcome measures, such as:

staffing adequacy
freedom of movement
suspicion of alcohol/drug use
perceived control
strictness of enforcement
involvement in work/education/recreation
space/social density and privacy
noise, sanitation, food
dangerousness of inmates
environmental safety issues
inmate stress levels, illnesses, syndromes
adequacy of counseling, staff concern
fairness of staff decisions, delays
use of force
legal resources and access
staff stress and burnout, educational benefits


    Planning is an important part of riot control.  A riot plan should exist which includes a predetermined use-of-force policy as well as clear lines of authority in case of loss of key personnel.  Training is also essential, and simulated riot exercises make the best training.  Hostage negotiation training is also helpful.  After a riot occurs, about the only options are: (1) forcible retake; (2) negotiate an end; and (3) wait it out.  A riot can always be put out, of course, by overwhelming force, but the lessons of Attica are important to know.  Overwhelming force as a tactic works best if done soon after the riot breaks out, in order to prevent inmates from fashioning weapons, fortifying positions, and so forth.   Intelligence information about leadership, location of hostages, and inmate weaponry should be obtained.  Sometimes, bringing in an outside negotiator is helpful since persons in command authority should refrain from speaking directly with inmates, but whoever is the negotiator should stay the negotiator to ensure continuity.

Lofgreen's Model of the Life Cycle of Inmate-Staff Power Relationships:

Stage I - Staff dominant, inmates submissive; prison is probably on lockdown
Stage II - Staff dominant, inmate labor groups active (essential services, food, laundry, etc)
Stage III - Inmates dominant, staff reactionary (inmates press for more privileges, rights)
Stage IV - Inmates dominant, staff compromised (riot-prone)

Some Famous Riots

    The first prison riot in America was in 1774 at Newgate Prison in Simsbury, CT.  More recent riots include: Attica, NY (1971), Santa Fe, NM (1980), Atlanta, GA and Oakdale, LA (1989), and Lucasville, OH (1993).


After Martinson: The Case for Reintegration

Canada's Correctional Service
Cook County Jail
Corrections Connection; "unofficial" sites
Corrections Education Connection
Departments of Corrections for all States
Federal Bureau of Prisons; UNICOR; National Institute of Corrections
It's Official: Prison Does Work After All (UK)
New York City Jail
John Howard Society Article on Prison Overcrowding
PreventingCrime Report on Rehabilitation and Treatment

Prof. Logan's Page on Privatization in Corrections
Sentencing Project
Yahoo's Headlines in Corrections News

American Correctional Association. (1996). Preventing and Managing Riots & Disturbances. Lanham, MD: ACA.
Blumstein, Alfred. (1995). "Prisons," in Crime, ed. by J.Q. Wilson & J. Petersilia. San Francisco: ICS Press.
Clear, Todd & George Cole. (1997). American Corrections. 4e. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Crouch, B. & Marquart, J. (1989). An appeal to justice: Litigated reform of Texas prisons. Austin: UT Press.
Dammer, H. (2005). "Prisons Around the World." Pp. 91-98 in M. Natarajan (ed.) Introduction to International Criminal Justice. NY: McGraw Hill.
Gendreau, Paul and R. Ross. (1987). "Revivification of Rehabilitation: Evidence from the 1980s." Justice Quarterly 4(3):349-407.
Haney, Craig. (1977). "Psychology and the Limits to Prison Pain." Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 3:499-510.
Irwin, John. (1985). The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society. Berkeley: Univ. of CA Press.
Lofgreen, Victor. (1991). "A Model of the Dynamic Power Relationship between Staff and Inmates in a Secure Correctional Facility" Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Reno, NV.
Logan, Charles (1993). Criminal Justice Performance Measures in Prisons. Washington D.C.: USDOJ.
Martinson, Robert. (1974). "What Works? - Questions and Answers About Prison Reform," The Public Interest, 35: 22-45.
McShane, Marilyn & Frank Williams. (Eds.) (1996). Encyclopedia of American Prisons. NY: Garland.
Meranze, Michael. (1996). Laboratories of Virtue. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of NC Press.
Morris, Norval & David Rothman. (Eds.) (1995). The Oxford History of Prisons. NY: Oxford Univ. Press.
Palmer, Ted. (1991). "The Effectiveness of Intervention." Crime & Delinquency 37:34-49.
Van den Haag, Ernest. (1975). Punishing Criminals, Basic Books, New York.
Waddington, David. (1992). Contemporary Issues in Public Disorder. London: Routledge.
Zimring, Franklin & Gordon Hawkins. (1995). Incapacitation: Penal Confinement and the Restraint of Crime. NY: Oxford Univ. Press.

Last updated: Aug 15, 2010
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T.  (Date of Last Update at bottom of page). In Part of web cited (Windows name for file at top of browser), MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from of URL accessed on today's date.