Prison is the place where people are confined after sentencing, after the bail bond agency has done everything in its power to help their cases and get them released from jail. Generally, prisoners are incarcerated in a different location than that where they were sentenced.
United States' system of confinement is controlled by different entities and this administration reality creates a very fragmented scheme. That is why the arrangement of prisons might be hard to understand. Prisoners are sent to a certain detention facility depending on the law that was broken (federal, state, military) and on the type of crime committed. The existence of different types of prisons is meant to confine offenders in a convenient manner.
The institutions that confine young offenders are also a part of the system of detention. Moreover, separate prisons exist for women; they are a smaller proportion of all inmates in detention facilities.
It is interesting to note that, in recent decades, United States' detention facilities have housed the largest number of prisoners in their history. This has also lead to the network of prisons' expansion. California is one of the states where the number of prisons has highly increased in the past twenty years. 59 percent of California counties are home to a detention facility.
By using relevant criteria, prisons can be differentiated, rendering a clearer image of the detention system:
Federal Prisons and State Prisons
Using the criterion of custody, prisons can be divided into those run by each state or by the federal government.A person will serve his/her sentence in a federal prison when he/she has committed a crime that affects some federal or national interests. For example:
- a theft on a military base,
- an internet crime that has victims in multiple states,
- or international human trafficking.
As a rule, a federal penalty will be longer than a state penalty for a similar crime. Also, federal prisons offer no parole. The federal prison system dates from 1981. In the beginning, only three such prisons existed. Currently, there are 102.
Comparatively, 1,719 state prisons exist. Considering that states have different laws governing prisons, it is understandable that how a state prison looks and is operated varies throughout the United States.
In 2015, federal prisons held 205,795 inmates, while in all the state prisons in 2014, there were almost 1,4 million inmates. Analysts that looked in depth at the federal prison system found that in the last decades more people have been sentenced and for longer terms. This has lead to overcrowded prisons and increased expenses. They observed that a large percent of those incarcerated in federal prisons have been convicted of drug offenses and that a small percent is guilty of violent crimes. Therefore, both inmates and taxpayers would benefit if fewer drug offenders were sent to prison.
Offenders under the age of 18 are locked up in separated facilities, designed especially for them. The American criminal justice system operates 942 juvenile detention and correctional facilities. They are described as very structured places where everything is scheduled and everyone is under constant supervision.
It has been observed that many young people are incarcerated for offenses defined as most serious that are not crimes. For example, out of 34,000 incarcerated young people, 7,000 are guilty of technically violating their probation, although not committing a new crime. Another 600 are incarcerated for status offenses, for example running away or incorrigibility. As in the case of the war on drugs, youth incarceration seems excessive, affecting both inmates and taxpayers.
Minimum, Medium, and High-Security Prisons
Minimum security prisons are intended for people that commit non-violent crimes, for example, fraud. They can also house people that start in medium type prisons and are rewarded for good behavior.
A minimum security prison camp will offer confinement in dormitory-type rooms and more freedoms. However, the conditions might not necessarily be better, inmates described beds as being steel racks covered with minimal mattresses. People have no privacy, everything is shared. The advantage is that these prisons have no or little level of violence and less tension. Also, the level of liberty is much higher. For the most part, inmates can organize their time as they see fit.
Medium security prisons are the facilities that hold the majority of inmates. Several factors are taken into consideration when classifying an offender and sending him/her to a specific prison. For example:
- the crime they committed,
- their education level,
- mental health state,
- criminal history,
- prior behavior,
- gang affiliations,
- or a flight risk.
A medium security prison will hold prisoners in cage-like cells, they will be guarded by armed officers, and their daily activities will be more structured compared to a minimum security facility.
Maximum security prisons are reserved for high-risk individuals. They are better guarded and offer fewer freedoms. Some detention facilities are notorious. For example, Pelican Bay, which is a state prison in Corcoran, holds California's worst-behaved prisoners. Louisiana State Penitentiary or Angola is famous for a strange statistic. 90% of the inmates die in prison. The explanation is that the state of Louisiana restricts granting parole.
Federal prisons of high security are ADX (also known as supermax) in Florence (Colorado) , Marion (Illinois ), Terre Haute (Indiana). This house the most dangerous inmates. Some of them are convicted of treason, terrorist crimes, espionage.
Women make a small percent of the inmate population. They are housed in separate facilities that are designed, for the most part, in the same way as men's prisons. Comparatively, a women's prison will be more relaxed and less violent. However, inmates still have to face the lack of privacy, tensed situations, and a conscripted schedule.
These are designed to hold military personnel guilty of various offenses or prisoners of war. The environment is much more controlled than in state or federal prison. The treatment that prisoners of war have been subjected to has raised questions in the last years.
However, convicted militaries have better opportunities. They are offered the option of serving time in a retraining brigade. This means they get out of prison and train like soldiers. If they complete the training period, they are assigned to army units and after the enlistment time, they can be discharged to civilian life.