When an individual is sentenced to a prison term, the goal is to reform that individual’s behavior. Prison reform programs have long been a part of the incarceration model, providing rehabilitation and life skills for America’s prisoners. Unfortunately, many correctional facilities in the United States are maintained in deplorable conditions, negating any benefits that reform programs may have on prisoner behavior. Poor conditions, including safety violations, inadequate medical care, and the looming specter of violence have led prisoners to shun rehabilitation programs out of fear, potentially increasing the risk of future criminal behavior.

Prison Conditions: Reform vs. Survival

The U.S. Marshals Service released a damning report in November 2018, detailing the deplorable conditions of the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The jail is the second-largest in the state. The report stemmed from complaints filed by incarcerated prisoners and their family members. Numerous safety and constitutional rights violations were rampant in the Jail, which houses an average daily population of over 2000 inmates and manages over 26,000 inmates on an annual basis. Prisoners at the jail faced deprivations of food and water. Inadequate medical care was common, placing prisoners’ health at severe risk and leading to several deaths of inmates in custody. Safety violations included rampant sexual abuse and housing youthful offenders with adult inmates.

Similar conditions were found at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, a facility operated by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons and housing about 1600 inmates. Prison officials cut electricity, including building heating, for more than five days in February 2019 as a form of punishment for the prisoners. For prisoners with certain medical conditions, the lack of electricity and heat led to severe risks.

Alabama’s prison system was in the spotlight, having been investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice over a two-year period. Prisons throughout the state were kept in unsanitary conditions. Inmates at several facilities were denied access to medical care, leading to several deaths. Rampant sexual abuse and violence are common in Alabama’s prisons, and prison staff often turn a blind eye to the problems and risks inmates face.

In each of these situations, inmates often feel fear leaving the confines of their individual cells, placing survival over any interest in participating in rehabilitation programs like job skills courses. Some prisoners were unable to participate due to poor health; being denied health care over long periods of time caused a significant number of inmates to become bed-ridden. In numerous studies, rehabilitation programs were shown to have been cut in an effort to save money; many of the prisons were reform programs were not available to inmates were operated by for-profit third-party contractors that placed profits before public safety and inmate rehabilitation.

Public Safety Risks: a Direct Result of Poor Inmate Rehabilitation

What happens when an inmate is released back into the community when his or her sentence is completed? For many prisoners, the lack of adequate rehabilitation during their incarceration means that these prisoners are woefully underequipped to rejoin society. Under ideal circumstances, inmates are exposed to reform programs that teach valuable skills like money management, job skills, and behavioral coping mechanisms. Recidivism, or the return of prisoners to lives of crime, has risen as a result – many former inmates cannot and do not have the skills needed to function as members of society.

Health concerns further create complications for public safety. Inadequate medical care during incarceration means that many prisoners have developed serious or even life-threatening diseases, including HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases as well as respiratory conditions like tuberculosis. Upon release, these individuals are at risk of infecting others as they transition in and out of correctional facilities.

While many inmate advocates and legislators on the state and federal levels are calling for prison reform, the process to implement rehabilitation programs is slow-going. If we want safer communities, inmates must be given access to the programs and services to help them reform their behavior. More importantly, inmates are human beings, and as such deserve certain factors that preserve their own safety, health, and dignity. Time will tell if prison reform programs will take hold in America’s prisons, but for now, the picture is very grim.


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