The variables impacting how one experiences imprisonment are far ranging. George Jackson (1994), a pivotal character in American penal history, wrote that, “[b]lackmen born in the [United States] and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison” (p. 4). Ruth Wyner (2002), incarcerated 40 years after Jackson under vastly different circumstances, describes a very different sort of bleakness associated with her incarceration:
One evening, just before I settled down to try to sleep, I allowed myself to remember my daughter in a way that I usually suppressed: remembering and feeling all the love that I had for her, every bit. A huge chasm grew inside me, dark and raw, and my throat constricted as I felt enveloped by the sadness. This was what was inside of me when I allowed myself to touch it.
Such personal experiences of incarceration offer a window into how prisons function, or often more correctly, fail to function, from the point of view of the prisoner. These perspectives are vitally important to a fulsome understanding of incarceration because prisoners and their experiences paint a picture of confinement that is patently different from those described by penal officials and governments.
There are numerous issues that shape the experiences of confinement, both historically and in the present day, a list longer than can be adequately addressed in this entry. Still, there are key concerns that recur in the literature and in ongoing debates about incarceration. Included here are human rights abuses, overcrowding, the overuse of solitary confinement, the situation of women prisoners, the incarceration of indigenous peoples, and health, especially mental health concerns.
Ashley T. Rubin
Prisons are government-sanctioned facilities designed for the long-term confinement of adults as punishment for serious offenses. This definition of prisons, frequently belied by actual practice but an accurate representation of the prison as an ideal type, emerged relatively late in human history. For most of Western history, incarceration played a minor role in punishment and was often reserved for elites or political offenders; however, it was rarely considered a punishment in its own right for most offenders. The notion of the prison as a place of punishment emerged gradually, according to most accounts, over the 17th through 19th centuries. Although there were several precursors to penal incarceration, the most influential was the 17th-century Dutch workhouse, the first formal uses of penal incarceration in a prison as a distinct institution began with the American proto-prison in late 18th century and evolved into the modern prison in the early to mid-19th century. These modern prisons proved influential around the world. In late-19th-century America, however, the modern prison experienced a series of re-imaginings or iterations beginning with a proliferation of different forms, including distinctive forms of Southern punishment (convict leasing, chain gangs, and plantation-style prisons), specialized prisons across the country (women’s prisons, adult reformatories, and maximum-security prisons), and efforts to reduce reliance on prisons (drawing on innovations from Australia and Ireland). This flurry of activity was followed by a period of serial re-creation in the 20th century in the form of the big-house prison, the correctional institution, and the warehouse prison, including its subtype: the supermaximum-security prison. In this recent period, American prisons have once again become models copied by other countries.
David E. Olson
Despite all the attention paid to the growing prison populations in the United States since the early 1990s, it remains, as it has throughout recent history, that probation accounts for the largest portion of those under the custody of the criminal justice system. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that at the end of 2015, there were more than 3.7 million adults under the supervision of U.S. probation authorities, compared to 1.5 million in prison, 870,000 on parole, and 728,000 in local jails. And while probation is not often thought about within the context of “mass incarceration” in the United States, probation directly impacts prison and jail populations in two specific ways. First, a sentence of probation for a felony offense is the most frequent alternative to a prison sentence. Second, the revocation of probation can directly lead to the imposition of a sentence to prison or jail, depending on the nature of the original conviction offense. During 2015, in the United States, it is estimated that 12% of all probationers exiting supervision were incarcerated due to probation revocation, which translates to an estimate of more than 233,000 probationers annually.
Probation revocation means that the sentencing court has determined that a violation of the conditions of probation have occurred, and because of this, the original probation sentence is no longer appropriate. As a result of a probation sentence being revoked, the sentencing court imposes a different (usually more serious) sanction on the offender. Often, those on probation for a felony offense who have their probation revoked are sentenced to prison, leading to their admission to prison. Indeed, given this link, scholars and practitioners have identified reducing probation revocation as one strategy to reducing prison populations, and jurisdictions often focus on reducing probation revocations as a means to lowering their commitments to prison. Probation revocation can result from either new arrests or violations of technical aspects of the sentence, such as missed appointments or non-compliance with treatment orders. However, whether or not a probation sentence is revoked as a result of these violations varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This variation in the use of probation revocation as a response to violations of probation illustrates the localized nature of revocation proceedings, and attempts to reduce these disparities have taken many forms. These efforts to reduce the impact of probation revocations on prison admissions have ranged from providing local jurisdictions with financial incentives to respond to revocation-eligible violations with sanctions other than incarceration, to legislative efforts to prohibit sentences to prison as a response to probation revocations stemming from technical violations or instances where public safety is not threatened.
Sarah R. Bostrom and Melinda Tasca
The re-entry experiences of women are an important area of inquiry given the continued rise in female imprisonment. Since most inmates will be released, reintegration is a chief policy concern. Like men, re-entering women tend to be disproportionately of color, poor, undereducated, and parents of minor children. What sets women apart from men, however, is the accumulation and frequency of the adversities they encounter. To be sure, co-occurring histories of trauma, mental health, and substance abuse—commonly referred to as the “triple threat”—along with physical health concerns and poverty, distinctly shape female re-entry. Women with children face additional burdens due to their status as mothers. In particular, women’s responsibilities for children before incarceration, contact with children during confinement, and expected parental roles after release are quite different than those of fathers. Pressures to assume mothering roles and challenges with parent-child reunification can further complicate re-entry. Women require social support to successfully transition from prison to home. Social support helps women meet competing demands related to housing, employment, transportation, childcare, and community supervision. This assistance typically comes from informal networks that are invaluable to re-entry success. At the same time, women’s relationships are often highly complicated and can be sources of stress. While prosocial relationships are protective, unhealthy ties can contribute to re-entry failure. With respect to formal social support, gender-responsive interventions that target the unique stressors of formerly incarcerated women offer the most promise for effecting post-release change. Yet, such programs are not widely available or accessible to this population. Finally, it is important to take stock of primary sources used in the study of female re-entry to identify ways to advance research and policy in this area.
James M. Binnall and Maryanne Alderson
Reentry is the process of ending a period of incarceration, leaving jail or prison, and returning to society. Not to be confused with reintegration or recidivism, reentry is not a measure of success or failure. Instead, reentry is a journey, and no two reentries are analogous. The reentry process is individualized and highly dependent on a number of factors including a reentering individual’s sentence structure, incarceration experience, and postrelease resources. Depending on these factors, a reentering individual may find his or her return to the free world a relatively smooth transition or a task riddled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. To navigate such obstacles, most reentering individuals need assistance. Traditionally, reentry assistance was provided by the state, through correctional programming in prison or by parole authorities tasked with monitoring a reentering individual postrelease. In recent years, nonprofit and faith-based organizations have increasingly been a part of innovative reentry initiatives. There has also been a recent expansion of Internet-based reentry resources, such as reentry.net and exoffenders.net, which allow those experiencing reentry to obtain reentry resources online.
Reentry initiatives typically take two forms: deficit-based and strengths-based. Deficit-based reentry models use actuarial assessments to identify a reentering individual’s criminogenic risks and needs. In theory, deficit-based models then address those risks and needs through measured, tailored responses. Critics of deficit-based models argue that by focusing only on risks and needs, such approaches overlook reentering individuals’ talents and skills. Acknowledging these criticisms, many reentry initiatives have shifted away from the traditional deficits-centered model of reentry and toward a strengths-based approach. Rather than focusing on the risks and needs of a reentering individual, strengths-based approaches highlight the attributes of reentering individuals and draw on the experiences of former offenders who have successfully navigated their own reentry and best understand the pitfalls of the process. Recent, albeit limited empirical and experiential evidence supports the strength-based approach to reentry, suggesting that the concerns and insights of those who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system make the transition from incarceration to freedom a smoother one.
Risk is a pervasive feature of contemporary life, and has become a key feature of penal policy, systems of punishment, and criminal justice services across a number of the Anglophone jurisdictions. Risk as an approach to calculating the probability of “danger” or “hazard” has its roots in the mercantile trade of the 16th century, growing in significance over the intervening centuries until it pervades both the social and economic spheres of everyday life. Actuarialism, that is the method of statistically calculating and aggregating risk data, has similar roots, steeped in the probability calculations of the insurance industry with 20th-century extension into the arenas of social welfare and penality. Within criminal justice one of the first risk assessment tools was the parole predictor designed by Burgess in 1928. Since then we have seen a burgeoning of risk assessment tools and actuarial risk practices across the penal realm, although the extent to which penality is totally risk based is disputed. Claims for a New Penology centered on risk have been much debated, and empirical evidence would tend toward more cautious claims for such a significant paradigm shift.
Prevention and responsibilization are often seen as core themes within risk-focused penality. Risk assessment is used not only to assess and predict future offending of current criminals, but also to enable early identification of future criminals, “high crime” areas, and those in need of early interventions. The ethics, accuracy, and moral justification for such preventive strategies have been extensively debated, with concerns expressed about negative and discriminatory profiling; net-widening; over targeting of minority groups especially for selective incarceration; and more recently criticisms of risk-based pre-emption or “pre-crime” targeting, particularly of ethnic minorities. Responsibilization refers to the techniques of actuarial practices used to make persons responsible for their own risk management, and for their own risk decisions throughout the life course. In respect of offenders this is best expressed through corrective programs focused on “right thinking” and re-moralizing offenders toward more desirable social ends. Those offenders who are “ripe for re-moralization” and who present a level of risk that can be managed within the community can avoid custody or extended sentencing. Those who are not, and who present the highest levels of risk, are justifiably selected for risk-based custodial sentences. Such decision-making not only requires high levels of predictive accuracy, but is also fraught with severe ethical challenges and moral choices, not least about the desired balance between risks, rights, and freedoms.
Michelle S. Phelps and Caitlin Curry
Over the past half-century, the number of adults under criminal justice supervision increased precipitously in some Western countries, with carceral control in the United States reaching an unprecedented scale. While much of the scholarly attention has been focused on the development of mass incarceration, new research focuses on the parallel expansion of mass probation and, more broadly, mass supervision. In the United States, the number of adults on probation and parole supervision increased from one million in 1980 to a peak of nearly 5.1 million in 2007, more than double the number of inmates in local, state, and federal jails and prisons. Estimates from Europe in the late 2000s suggest that there were approximately 3.5 million on community sanctions, compared to 2 million incarcerated. Individuals on these sanctions serve out their initial sentences (or remaining time after release from jail or prison) while residing in the community under the supervision of a probation or parole officer.
As scholarship increasingly focuses on the expansion of community supervision, we are learning more about this form of punishment. Probationers and parolees are subject to a variety of conditions, including reporting regularly to their supervising officers, finding and maintaining employment, avoiding drug use and re-arrest, participating in therapeutic programs, and paying fines and fees. Failure to comply with the demands of supervision may result in variety of penalties, up to a return to custody for the entire length of the suspended prison sentence. Thus, while probation and parole are often framed as acts of leniency—allowing individuals to avoid incarceration and/or exit early—they can be experienced as quite punitive. In other words, the official discourses and everyday practices of supervision blend both punitive and rehabilitative elements. The composition of this blend varies significantly across countries, states, local departments, individual officers, and the officer-supervisee relationship. This variation has produced a kaleidoscope of different practices, all under the banner of community supervision.
Tackling racism in prisons has a relatively long policy, practice, and research history in England and Wales. However, clear evidence of success in reducing racism in prisons has been, and still is, difficult to find. This article is based on a unique study that was carried out either side of the new millennium (late 1999 to mid-2001), but no equivalent exercise has been repeated since. Due to a unique set of circumstances at the time the study was carried out, it became possible to employ an action research approach that required policymakers, practitioners, volunteers, and researchers to agree on: an emergent research design; implementation; intervention; and measurement. There are many forms of action research, but this study could best be defined as a “utilization-focused evaluation, which is particularly applicable to the criminal justice environment. This approach also included elements of participatory action research.” The emphasis here is to show how the action research approach can be both more systematic and more flexible than traditional social science approaches. This applies to both epistemological and research methods considerations, because, by combining theory and action, action research can provide a more viable way of ensuring that policy works in practice, and is sensitive to unique institutional exigencies. Throughout, discussion is contextualised using policy, research and methodology texts from the period when the research was commissioned, but given an overall methodological context by referencing more recent methodology text books.
The article first outlines the context in which the action research study was commissioned, before providing a summary of the international research findings on race relations in prisons, from which key concepts for the project were initially operationalized. The chapter then explains how the specific participatory action research approach was selected as the most appropriate design, the extent to which the approach was successful, and why. The article ends with a discussion of the implications of findings and conclusions from this study for current policy and methodological approaches.