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What is Prison Reform?

Prison reform refers to changes and improvements made to a prison system with the goal of creating a more just, humane and effective model. Reformers generally aim to reduce recidivism rates through rehabilitation and education programs for inmates, improve living conditions and healthcare inside prisons, decrease the prison population and sentencing lengths, and establish oversight to prevent abuses.

Prison reform has a long history in the United States, with various efforts made over decades to improve a system that many consider outdated, inhumane, and ineffective. While progress has been made in some areas, the US still has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Many challenges remain in creating a truly rehabilitative correctional system.

Major Developments in US Prison Reform

Here is a brief overview of some notable developments in efforts to reform the US prison system over the years:

  • 1790s – Early reformers aim to create a more humanitarian system focused on reflection and spiritual growth rather than harsh corporal punishment. The nation’s first true penitentiary is built in Philadelphia.
  • 1800s – The Auburn model emerges, with inmates isolated in cells at night and laboring together with enforced silence during the day. Later the Elmira Reformatory promotes education and skills training.
  • 1890s – Parole is introduced for good behavior as an incentive for rehabilitation. The juvenile justice system is established.
  • 1900s – Prison populations rise rapidly. Controversial reforms include sterilization laws and solitary confinement.
  • 1970s – Lawsuits fight inhumane prison conditions. Congress passes the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
  • 1980s – Harsher sentencing laws increase incarceration rates. “Tough on crime” policies gain support.
  • 2000s – Media attention increases on excessive sentencing. Lawmakers reduce sentencing disparities.
  • 2010s – Congress passes the Fair Sentencing Act. States take various reform measures. Activism rises.

Key Figures in Prison Reform History

Many prominent figures have led efforts to reform prisons over the last 200 years:

  • Benjamin Rush – A physician and founder of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in the late 1700s. He believed crime was a disease and punishment should focus on reform.
  • Dorothea Dix – A schoolteacher who crusaded for better treatment of incarcerated people with mental illness in the early 1800s. Her lobbying led to widespread reforms.
  • Zebulon Brockway – An early pioneer of parole and rehabilitation. As superintendent of Elmira Reformatory in the late 1800s, he focused on vocational training and released youth early for good behavior.
  • Thomas Mott Osborne – A prison reform activist in the early 1900s. He voluntarily had himself incarcerated at Auburn Prison to secretly report on conditions.
  • Franklin Roosevelt – As New York Governor in the 1920s, he expanded vocational training, built new prisons, and increased oversight through a parole board.
  • Jessica Mitford – Her seminal 1963 book Kind and Unusual Punishment was critical in exposing prison abuses and energizing reform efforts.
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Key Organizations for Reform

  • The American Correctional Association – Founded in 1870 as the National Prison Association, it establishes standards and pushes for rehabilitation.
  • The Osborne Association – Founded in 1933, it provides services to current and former inmates and advocates for humane reform.
  • Families Against Mandatory Minimums – Organized in 1991, it fights for sentencing reform, particularly at the federal level.
  • The Innocence Project – Using DNA evidence, this non-profit works to free wrongfully convicted people and reform the system.
  • #cut50 – Launched in 2014, its bipartisan mission is to cut the US prison population in half over 10 years.

Current State of US Prisons

Despite past reform efforts, many systemic problems remain today in America’s prisons and jails. Here is a look at some key statistics and issues:

  • The US incarceration rate peaked in 2007 at 1 in 100 adults behind bars. It remains the highest in the world despite recent declines.
  • The total prison population stands at around 2.1 million as of 2020. Nearly 200,000 are held in solitary confinement.
  • African Americans are incarcerated over 5 times the rate of whites, highlighting vast racial disparities.
  • Overcrowding is a massive problem, with many facilities at 150% or more of capacity.
  • An estimated 15% of prisoners have a mental illness. Resources for treatment are scarce.
  • Inmates frequently face violence, sexual assault, gang activity, unhealthy conditions, inadequate healthcare and staff misconduct.
  • State prisons have a average yearly cost per inmate of $36,000. The total budget exceeds $80 billion annually.
  • Nearly 75% of released prisoners are rearrested within 5 years, and over half return to prison.
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have played a major role in high incarceration rates since the 1980s.
  • Private prisons holding state and federal inmates have grown into a $5 billion industry, creating heated debates.

Incarceration Rate of Selected Countries (2020)

CountryInmates per 100,000 population
United States639
El Salvador590

Source: Institute for Criminal Policy Research

With less than 5% of the global population, the US holds over 20% of the world’s prisoners. Bringing America’s incarceration rate in line with international norms is a key goal of reformers.

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Main Elements of Prison Reform

Advocates argue major reform is needed in nearly every aspect of the US prison system. Some key changes frequently proposed include:

Sentencing Reform

  • Curtail mandatory minimums and “three strikes” laws
  • Reduce sentencing lengths for non-violent crimes
  • Reform drug offense penalties
  • Limit repeat incarceration for technical parole violations
  • Increase use of alternative sentencing like probation

Prison Conditions

  • Improve healthcare and mental health treatment
  • Provide rehabilitation and vocational programs
  • Allow family visits and phone/computer access
  • Reduce solitary confinement usage
  • Oversight to curb staff misconduct and violence

Release and Reentry

  • Expand parole eligibility and good behavior releases
  • Increase transitional services pre- and post-release
  • Ban questions about criminal records on job applications
  • Lift barriers to federal benefits, voting and public housing

Vulnerable Groups

  • Curtail prosecuting minors as adults
  • Alternative programs for drug addiction and mental illness
  • Support pregnant inmates and family connections
  • Specialized reentry for older ex-convicts

Oversight and Accountability

  • Increase transparency and data collection
  • Independent citizen boards to inspect conditions
  • Grievance resolution processes
  • External investigations into corruption, violence and deaths

Arguments For and Against Prison Reform

Prison reform is a complex issue with good-faith arguments on both sides. Here are some key points made by advocates and opponents.

Arguments For Reform

  • The current system is inhumane, overly punitive and fails at rehabilitation
  • Non-violent offenders fill prisons for too long for minor crimes
  • Vulnerable groups like minors, mentally ill and drug addicts need treatment, not incarceration
  • Overcrowded prisons are unconstitutional and dangerous
  • Accountability is needed to prevent abuses of prisoners
  • High recidivism shows the system fails at its goals of public safety and rehabilitation
  • Current costs are unsustainable for taxpayers

Arguments Against Reform

  • sentence lengths deter crime and keep dangerous criminals off the street
  • drug trafficking and other low-level crimes can still seriously harm communities
  • existing parole and good behavior release provide leniency for deserving inmates
  • prisons help capacitate inmates through existing drug treatment and education programs
  • reducing prison populations will negatively impact public safety
  • reforms like more parole will put dangerous individuals back on the streets
  • cynicism that system-wide change is possible given entrenched attitudes

Overall, advocates for reform say the many flaws and failures in the current prison system are well documented and demand urgent action. Opponents argue that while improvements can be made, excessive reforms could undermine the core functions of prisons in administering justice and protecting the public.

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Key Prison Reform Legislation

While broad reform has been elusive, some important legislative achievements have been reached over the years through bipartisan compromises.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 – Made it harder for prisoners to file federal lawsuits over their conditions. Aimed to reduce frivolous cases.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 – Established a zero tolerance policy for sexual assaults in prisons. Led to national standards released in 2012.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – Reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine penalties. Lowered sentences for thousands of inmates.

The First Step Act of 2018 – Increased vocational training, early-release credits and other rehabilitation programs in federal prisons.

Second Look Legislation – Laws adopted in recent years by many states allowing those incarcerated as minors to have their long sentences re-evaluated.

While advocates argue much more transformation is needed, these measures show progress is possible through political cooperation and public pressure.

The Path Forward: Priority Areas for Reform

With broad prison reform extremely challenging politically, experts recommend focusing on more practical changes that can gain bipartisan support and gradually humanize the system. Here are some top priorities advocated for the years ahead:

Reducing Excessive Sentencing

Laws like mandatory minimums and “three strikes” that require rigid, often disproportionate sentences need reform. Even with recent changes, the US imposes much longer prison terms than other nations for many crimes.

Expanding Release Programs

Parole and earned time credits for rehabilitation program participation should be amplified to responsibly reduce populations while targeting those most prepared for reentry.

Improving Prison Conditions

Healthcare, mental health services, education programs and oversight of staff conduct all need improvement. Settlements in lawsuits have driven reform in some states.

Supporting Vulnerable Inmates

Youth, the mentally ill, and pregnant women could benefit greatly from alternative programs focused on treatment over punishment. Many states are creating such programs.

Increasing Transparency

Better data collection and reporting on key metrics like deaths, recidivism and populations can increase accountability and drive data-based reforms.


The era of wholesale prison reform in the United States promised in recent years remains elusive, with political complexities slowing large-scale transformations. However, important legislative steps and state-level innovations have made gradual progress.

Growing public awareness of the system’s failures has increased pressure for reform. While concerns over public safety and opposing views remain barriers, evidence shows well-designed changes can reduce incarceration and recidivism without harming communities.

Targeted, data-driven reforms focused on sentencing policies, alternatives to incarceration, prison conditions and support programs offer the most politically viable path forward. Through such efforts, the US prison system can potentially be transformed over time into a more humane, rehabilitative and socially beneficial institution.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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