27 Feb
  • By Aoife Dillon

Alarming reality of the United States’ prison system

It is not surprising to say that the United States is experiencing a phase of uncertainty and ambiguity. Donald Trump’s election triumph in 2016 was the tip of the iceberg regarding major political change in the country, a victory that can be summed up using four hopeful words; “Make America Great Again”. But this raises the question of how exactly we ought to measure ‘greatness’. For some it may be indicated by vast career opportunities, exceptional educational institutions, or perhaps a low rate of immigration. However if the country’s rate of incarceration and questionable treatment of inmates is anything to go by, America was never particularly ‘great’ in the first place.

While the U.S is often seen as the beacon of innovation and modernisation in the developed world, the country has the world’s highest rate of incarceration, as 2.3 million individuals were locked up as of 2017. This means that despite having only about 5% of the world’s population, the US is responsible for housing approximately 25% of the global inmate population. It is thought that one of the biggest factors influencing this colossal level of imprisonment started back in the 1970’s with President Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’, a campaign that aimed to reduce the illegal drug trade. The country’s preference of punishment over rehabilitation is embodied by Nixon’s ‘Controlled Substances Act’ (CSA), which imposes draconian prison sentences for drug related crimes. For example, in Texas an individual who possesses 4 ounces of marijuana can expect up to two years in prison paired with a maximum fine of $10,000. These laws have the power to devastate families, as almost 500,000 people were locked up due to drug offences in 2017. This weakens and destabilises the lives of these individuals, as their job opportunities are diminished due to their new criminal record, leading to a higher rate of unemployment and a greater chance of reoffending. Not to mention that 72% of those incarcerated have a pre-imprisonment income of less than $22,500. This means that while they might be able to do the time, the matter of paying the fine is impossible, so often inmates turn back to crime as a means of earning, as their chances of securing decent employment are dashed.


However one of the most disturbing aspects of the prison system in the U.S is the existence of private, for-profit prisons. Private prisons advertise themselves as a cost-effective solution for struggling states, as instead of being owned and operated by the state itself, they are ran by private companies. Research into this matter throws light on the fact that for-profit prisons lengthen the stay of prisoners by an average of two or three months. In 2012, for-profit organisation CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America –CCA) offered to buy and manage public state prisons under the condition that states must sign a contract guaranteeing a 90% rate of occupancy. Further research into the subject revealed claims that CoreCivic included terms in its contracts to stop the most costly prisoners –those with health problems- from being moved into their prisons, in a bid to keep costs down.  And it seems like these tactics were effective as in 2015, the company reported a net income of over $221 million, translating to over $3,300 per prisoner. The mistreatment of inmates in private prisons is evident through the discovery of information which revealed instances where food which was ‘eaten or pawed at’ by rats was served to prisoners by a private prison in Michigan. Not only this, but a higher level of violence exists in these for-profit prisons as inmates in a privately run Mississippi juvenile detention facility were two to three times more likely to be assaulted.

These are just some of the cruelties recorded against private prisons in the U.S. Although in 2016, the US government announced plans to end the reliance on privately run prisons due to compromised levels of safety.


While without a doubt this announcement can be deemed a success, it remains to be seen why prisons that benefit from fully stocked beds were allowed to flourish in the first place. Until every for-profit prison has been eradicated from the U.S, the country ought to abandon its celebrated reputation as “the land of opportunity”, as prospects for those who are unfortunate enough to have been caught in the prison system continue to shrink, despite their best efforts to reform and change. America’s inclination to severely punish those who break the law is often indirectly targeted at those who already suffer from poverty and a poor standard of living. Instead of helping these individuals through a process of rehabilitation, a criminal record coupled with a low education level and a meagre wage, creates a somewhat unbreakable cycle of re-offense. The current system of unusually harsh punishments disproportionate to the crime, means many poverty stricken individuals and families will continue to suffer. The American dream will remain to many as that of a dream, meaning Trump will have to work a great deal harder if he hopes to make it a reality, as he has so vehemently promised to do.


“Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017.” (2017)

“Texas Law and Penalties” (2018)

“Here’s the Latest Evidence of How Private Prisons are Exploiting Inmates for Profit” (2015)

“6 Shocking Revelations About How Private Prisons Make Their Money” (2013)

“The Corrections Corporation of America, by the numbers” (2016)

“Corporation Served Prisoners Cake Contaminated By Rats, Covered Over Evidence With Icing” (2015)

“Report: Most Inmates In Mississippi Private Prisons Are 2 To 3 Times More Likely To Be Assaulted” (2013)

“Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned” (2015)

Aoife is a final year student studying Politics and Philosophy in University College Dublin. She is particularly interested in ethics and political theory, and admires the work of John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hobbes. She has helped to raise funds for the area of Liloan in the Philippines, with the funds being used to build schools, feed school children and plant crops. In her spare time she enjoys playing basketball, debating, and spending quality time with her temperamental cat.