The Changing Structural Characteristics and Conditions of U.S. Prisons, 1974-2000

Assata Richards, The Pennsylvania State University

While scholars have been particularly concerned with recent incarceration trends that have resulted in record numbers of individuals been imprisoned, much less attention has been given to understanding how prisons and their inmates are being affected by these trends. Speifically, we lack a comprehensive account of how prisons themselves have changed along with rising rates of imprisonment. The current paper provides such an account. Employing data from six surveys conducted by the U.S. Justice Department for the years of 1974, 1979, 1984, 1990, 1995 and 2000, I detail how the structural characteristics an conditions within state prisons have changed over the last quarter century. Particular attention is given to the level of interpersonal and collective social unrest in prison, whicn includes inmate-on-inmate assaults and inmate-on-staff assaults, fires, disturbances and riots. Major findings include a decline in interpersonal unrest but an increase in collective unrest. In addition, prisons are becoming more heterogeneous due to the influx of minority and young inmates. At the same time, the opportunities for the diverse inmate population to interact in formal settings are becoming scarce as there is a decline in the number of inmates participating in prison education, work and drug programs. Also, there is some indication that managing prisons is becoming more challenging as evidenced by the rise in the number of prisons under court orders and decrees for violations, such as overcrowding, inadequate medical serices and unresolved problems with staff. Finally, the findings indicate that characteristics of prisons vary considerably from one another from state-to-state in their structural characteristics and conditions. Although the central objective of this paper is to provide an important overview of how the population of prisons have changed in the past 25 years, it is also a preliminary step in a forthcoming analysis explaining unrest in prisons as a function of their changing characteristcs and conditions.

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Updated 05/20/2006