A place of sudden violence, unexpected explosions of anger, and unanticipated consequences of seemingly rational choices—not a place for the faint of heart.
In the decade between 2007 and 2017, thirty-four states engaged in efforts to reduce their bulging prison populations by removing—through a variety of strategies—non-violent offenders from the incarceration mix.
The federal prison system joined this effort with the passage of the First Step Act of 2018 and Mississippi followed suit last year with its Fresh Start Act of 2019.
Prison reform advocates have long pushed for, and given praise to, the reduction of non-violent offenders in jails and prisons throughout America. They say these efforts are necessary to bring about badly need reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system from point of arrest and offense charging, through trial and sentencing, and into the conditions of penal systems.
There is no doubt that these reforms are sorely needed up and down the criminal justice pipeline.
Equity and fairness must replace the privilege of wealth decision-making that has historically undermined the integrity of this nation’s methods for dispensing justice. While crime most certainly demands social accountability, it should never be a license to punish based on wealth and social status.
But the current wave of criminal justice reforms, like all good deeds, have produced unexpected consequences.
The removal of non-violent offenders from the prison setting has crested more violence within that setting.
Non-violent inmates generally have the best, most trusted jobs in the prison. More often than not, they are involved in rehabilitation programming, allowing them to rise to positions of leadership and responsibility within the prison community. They are, for the most part, rule-abiding, responsible individuals. In effect, they are a stabilizing influence in any prison system.
Removing that stabilizing influence allows more violent prisoners to fill the void. These are individuals who respond to any personal conflict or territorial dispute with violence—knives, pipes, locks in socks, acid, fire and gang assaults.
Prison staff do not interact with violent prisoners as well as they do with non-violent ones. There is constant tension–always rife with the potential for violence—between prison staff and violent prisoners, most of whom who are members or have some affiliation with prison gangs formed along racial lines. This tension inevitably creates the need for the use of force—many times too excessive—by prison staff to maintain some semblance of control of these violent prisoners.
The failure of staff to control violent inmates has disastrous results, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in violent inmate-on-inmate fatal assaults, suicides, and staff corruption that have plagued the Mississippi prison system in recent years. The state’s former corrections secretary is currently serving a 20-year federal prison system for corruption and its entire prison system is now under a U.S. Justice Department investigation.
In a recent excellent article for the Texas Tribune, Jolie McCullough pointed out that in 2009 there were 6,624 instances in which Texas prison staff used major force in a wide variety of situations against inmates.
The numbers explain why. As the state’s non-violent inmate population decreased over the past decade, the number of major force instances rose to nearly 11,000 in 2019.
But the problem inherent in the use of major force as a control tool is that the force too often becomes excessive, even fatal to the inmates.
In the past three years, three Texas prison guards have been investigated for the use of fatal excessive force on inmates with one of those investigations resulting in a criminal conviction.
McCullough discovered that there are 3,000 more violent prisoners today in the Texas prison than there were in 2009. During that time, there has been a 12 percent increase in inmate-on-staff assaults which were responded to with a 69 percent increase in the use of major force by staff on inmates.
The penal picture in Texas now is this: the state’s prison system is doing what the Mississippi prison system failed to do over the past decade. As the Texas non-violent prisoner population decreased while the violent prisoner population increased, the state’s prison staff has used major force as a tool to maintain control and provide as much inmate safety as possible.
Bottom Line: prison is about control. Loss of control by prison staff inevitably increases the level of violence, both in inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults.
With more than 162,000 inmates in the nation’s prison system serving life sentence, with roughly 44,000 of them being life sentences without parole, and with another nearly 45,000 inmates serving sentences of 50 years or more with few parole and goodtime prospects, prisons across the country have become roiling caldrons of potential violence in need of control.
But how to control violent inmates without hope is the dilemma.
This will be the major penal challenge each state will have to face over the next two decades.
Right now Texas is maintaining control with the use of major force.
But that is a short-term solution.
Texas, and other states, had better consider significant prison reforms:Increased use of conjugal visitation, better paying prison jobs, improved physical conditions such as air-conditioned living areas, increased availability of diverse religious programming, strong emphasis on sports programs, a free penal press, healthier food, improved medical delivery systems, and humane hospice care units run by inmates—just to name a few.
The current Mississippi prison system.