Beginning in the mid-1970s, enormous changes governed U.S. punishment of criminal offenses, leading to harsher laws and longer prison terms than convicts in earlier decades served for the same offenses. The stark policy shift resulted in soaring prison populations that are disproportionate compared with most Western nations. The United States, with 5% of the world population, has more than 20% of the world’s prisoners. Its prison population rose 700% from 1970 to 2005. Today, one in 34 adults is under correctional control. The rates are disproportionate for minorities, especially less-educated black men (Lee, 2015; Pew, 2007, 2014; U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2012).
Shifts in physical treatment of prisoners accompanied the population boom. Jails and prisons adopted control technologies that would likely have been considered inappropriate and inhumane decades earlier. These included the stun belt and the restraint chair, devices that can cause considerable pain. These also included extensive use of solitary confinement in Supermax prisons, an echo of a method used in 18th- and 19th -century American penitentiaries and discarded because of the dangers it posed to inmate mental health. And, following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, treatment in U.S. prisons seemed to echo overseas in abuse of foreign prisoners in American hands. The Bush administration attempted to declare physical coercion as legal during interrogations, in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions (Shane, Johnston, & Risen, 2007).
What caused such a shift? Much of the change appears to be cultural in nature, connected strongly to forces such as politics, religion, pervasive beliefs about evil and children, popular culture, and economic realities. This also means that American punishment is historically more influenced by such cultural forces than by more seemingly related phenomena such as research on effective punishments, prisoner experience, or crime statistics.
That American cultural trends strongly influence American punishment also means that American daily lives respond to shifts in punitiveness. Such evidence of American punishment trends appear in popular television shows and treatment of children.