are prisons getting safer? a view from the inside…


Yesterday, I wrote about Bert Useem and Anne Piehl’s new book manuscript that talks about the exploding prison population (click here). A key empirical puzzle driving the work is the increasing safety of prisons. Useem and Piehl explain in detail how prison riots, assaults & murders have drastically declined during the post-1980 prison build up. How could that be?

As usual, google can solve all your problems, or at least facilitate armchair research. A search on the phrase “surviving in prison” yields an article by James Donald Anderson, a prison inmate who published a 1997 article in the journal of the Institute for Psychological Therapies, which focuses on issues relating to criminal behavior, child abuse, sexual problems, and related psychological issues.

The article is written from the perspective of a man who asserts his innocence (he was convicted of sex crimes) and wants to explain how to survive in prison. The relevant parts of the article have to do with the state of the modern prison. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Anderson claims that while prisons are certainly dangerous, they are no longer the Darwinian death traps they once were:

With all the new prisons being built in the U.S., doing time has become quite sterile — even safe — because all the new prisons are so controlled and high-tech that prisoners now spend most of their time in their cells.


Some of the older prisons are still dangerous, but these are slowly being phased out. It used to be that only the worst, most dangerous, and most hardened criminal was sent to prison. It was no wonder that penitentiaries were dangerous. But these days, with so many first-time offenders doing mandatory prison terms and so many people being sent to prison, the nation’s lock-ups have become diluted with nonviolent prisoners. Today most prisons can even be considered safe.


In all my years behind bars, I’ve never seen a murder, a stabbing, or a rape. I believe some prisoners try to brag how tough prison is to make themselves look tough. They romanticize their prison experience by telling their friends and family how brutal prison was and how they had to fight for their lives every day.

Anderson mentions a number of prison practices that reduce violence. For example, the weakest prisoners are routinely isolated from the rest of the population:

Another option is hiding for years in Protective Custody (PC), totally separated from the rest of the prison, and locked in a cell for 24-hours a day. But only the weakest prisoners go PC, and I don’t recommend it.

If Anderson is to be believed, we have a fairly intuitive explanation of the increasing safety of prisons: (a) jails are now filled with non-violent offenders, probably in for drug related infractions; (b) the weakest and most violent prisoners are routinely segregated from the rest of the population; (c) the staff is probably more professional and has more technologies to control prisoners, which are developed to prevent riots, litigation and political intervention. Strangely, if we are jailing a larger portion of our population, then are we making jails safer?

Written by fabiorojas

October 10, 2006 at 3:44 pm

Posted in fabio, sociology

3 Responses

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  1. Really intersting comments; Anderson interview is a gem.

    I’d go along with all points, with the partial exception of a *strong* demographic explanation. While drug offenders have grown at the fastest pace (246,000 new state inmates between 1980 and 2002), violent offenders have added the greatest numbers (451,600). Thus, if demographics were the main driving force, we’d see (say) an increase in the absolute number of riots, and a modest decline in the ratio of riots to inmates. But we don’t. (Note the demographics in federal prisons are quite different.)

    State prisoners by most serious offense, 1980-2002
    Violent Property Drug Public order
    1980 173,300 89,300 19,000 12,400
    1981 193,300 100,500 21,700 14,600
    1982 215,300 114,400 25,300 17,800
    1983 214,600 127,100 26,600 24,400
    1984 227,300 133,100 31,700 21,900
    1985 246,200 140,100 38,900 23,000
    1986 258,600 150,200 45,400 28,800
    1987 271,300 155,500 57,900 31,300
    1988 282,700 161,600 79,100 35,000
    1989 293,900 172,700 120,100 39,500
    1990 313,600 173,700 148,600 45,500
    1991 339,500 180,700 155,200 49,500
    1992 369,100 181,600 168,100 56,300
    1993 393,500 189,600 177,000 64,000
    1994 425,700 207,000 193,500 74,400
    1995 459,600 226,600 212,800 86,500
    1996 484,800 231,700 216,900 96,000
    1997 507,800 236,400 222,100 106,200
    1998 545,200 242,900 236,800 113,900
    1999 570,000 245,000 251,200 120,600
    2000 589,100 238,500 251,100 124,600
    2001 596,100 233,000 246,100 129,900
    2002 624,900 253,000 265,100 87,500



    October 10, 2006 at 4:35 pm

  2. But looking at the same data, violent offenders have actually decreased as a proportion of all inmates. In 1980 violent offenders constituted 59% of all inmates. In 2002 they were only 51%. In 1990 they hit a low point of 46% of all inmates. So it appears to be somewhat true that violent offenders are more diluted thany they used to be.

    What seems strange to me is that we’re told over and over again that prisons are more crowded than they used to be. If the inmate density is higher, intuition would tell us that the rate of prison violence would increase. So I’m left to assume that these other factors must be having a pretty strong dampening effect on violence if they outweigh the propensity to violence that increased density causes. But then again, I may be mistaken about the nature of the crowding problem.

    Another issue not discussed here – although overall violence appears to be down, what has happened to the quality of life of prisoners? Are they using their time in prison to do any kinds of rehabilitation, or are they just wasting away in their cells? When we think about our current prison policies, we should consider the long-term net effects that sitting around in a cell could have for society.



    October 10, 2006 at 5:31 pm

  3. […] in Sociological Theory. The critique is authored by Jack Goldstone and Bert Useem. (Click here and here for orgtheory’s review of Useem and Piehl’s book on prisons.) As I read it, the […]


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