How Prisons Work

Prisons are most commonly used to jail criminals, but they have also been used to lock away political dissidents, the mentally ill, prisoners of war and even people who couldn't pay their debts.
Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

­As an abstract term, prison is quite simple: it's a place where your freedom, movements and access to basically everything is restricted, usually as punishment for committing a crime. But for anyone who has ever done hard time, a prison is so much more: it's a place where dignity, privacy and control are given up to guards and prison administrators, where isolation and boredom can drive someone insane, and where the simplest of necessities seem like luxuries. In the United States, where more than two million people are in prisons and more than 400,000 work at them, prisons are big business [Source: U.S. Department of Justice].

Prisons have historically been used for a number of purposes. They are most commonly used to jail criminals, but they have also been used to lock away political dissidents, the mentally ill, prisoners of war and even people who couldn't pay their debts. The prison camps of the American Civil War were notorious in both the North and South for being unsanitary places with horrendous living conditions. Overcrowding, disease and malnutrition lead to hundreds of deaths [Source: AltonWeb]. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people who couldn't afford to pay their debts were often thrown into jail, or used as forced labor. The time spent working or in jail was an alternative way to pay off the debt. Today, certain debtors still get sentenced to jail -- those who don't pay child support or tax bills can be convicted and given a prison sentence.


The cultural functions of prisons are more complex. A prison sentence is a punishment. In this regard, it serves both as a form of justice (we believe people who commit crimes should suffer some form of retribution) and as a deterrent(prison is unpleasant, so people are reluctant to commit crimes for fear of going there). Prisons often serve as a safeguard, keeping dangerous people locked away from society so they cannot commit any more violent crimes. In some cases, prisons are used to rehabilitate criminals and set them up for a new life with an improved education, job and social skills and a new outlook.

U.S.P. Marion, located in Marion, Illinois, is one of two SuperMax, or high-security, federal prisons in the United States.
Photo courtesy Federal Bureau of Prisons/U.S. Department of Justice

U.S. prisons are broken down into three basic levels of security: maximum, medium and minimum. Minimum security prisons often resemble camps or college campuses. They are reserved for non-violent offenders with relatively clean criminal records, or prisoners who have served most of their term in a higher-security facility and displayed exemplary behavior. A medium security prison restricts the daily movements of the inmates to a greater extent, but instead of cells they usually have dormitories, and the prison is usually enclosed by a razor-wire fence.

Maximum security prisons are what most people think of when they think of prison. However, only a quarter of all prisoners in the United States are housed in a maximum security facility. These types of prisons are reserved for violent offenders, those who have escaped (or tried to escape) or inmates who could cause problems in lower security prisons. They are surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire, and armed guards in observation towers shoot at anyone who makes it "over the wall." We'll describe life in a maximum security prison in more detail in the next section.

When an incident occurs at a maximum security prison, all the inmates are confined to their cells for several days, with absolutely no freedom whatsoever. This is known as lockdown. In 1983, two guards at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois were murdered in separate incidents on the same day. That prison went into permanent lockdown. Since then, several prisons have been built and run under permanent lockdown -- they are known as SuperMax prisons. Most maximum security prisons have a SuperMax unit within the prison that has permanent lockdown status. Officially known as a Security Housing Unit (SHU), prisoners simply call it The Hole.

We'll examine what life is like inside a prison next.

Life in a Prison Cell

A cell on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison in Point Quentin, California.
Photo courtesy California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

­When a person is first arrested and placed in jail awaiting bail, there usually isn't much processing beyond a search for weapons. Someone who has been convicte­d and sentenced faces a longer and more extensive procedure when they arrive at the prison where they will be spending the next few months, years or decades.

New arrivals can be dropped off by taxi, or by a friend or relative. The other option is to be picked up at the local sheriff's headquarters by the prison bus. The bus, which is generally uncomfortable, will make quite a few stops at other police departments and prisons, picking up and dropping off convicts. Cons refer to this as a diesel tour.


Once the new convicts arrive at their home prison, they are usually stripped, disinfected and subjected to a very thorough inspection to make sure they aren't smuggling anything into the prison. Their possessions are catalogued and boxed up -- convicts are allowed to bring in little from the outside. Usually not much more than eye glasses, a few books and their legal papers are allowed. State prisons may be a bit more lenient than federal prisons in this regard.

­Cons (and often guards) usually refer to new arrivals as fish. Some portions of the initial processing may take place in full view of other prisoners in their cells, in a special section of the prison reserved for new cons -- this is known as the fish tank. Prisoners are held here for at least 30 days while prison officials process their paperwork, find room for them in the prison and possibly assign a prison job to them. The vast majority of the menial labor performed in prisons, including laundry, maintenance,janitorial services, cooking and landscaping are performed by the prisoners for as little as 10 cents an hour.

A cell at the Maine State Prison in Warren, Maine.
Photo courtesy ©2007 The Associated Press/Photographer: Joel Page

The typical prison cell is eight by six feet (about 2.5 by 1.8 meters), with a metal bed tray (either bolted to the wall or free-standing on metal legs), a sink and a toilet. There may be a window allowing a view outside the prison. Prison overcrowding has forced most prisons to keep two prisoners in each cell, so an additional metal bunk is placed above the bed. In severe cases, three prisoners have been placed in a cell. A few cell blocks have a dormitory set-up, with eight or more prisoners in a larger cell with multiple bunks, but this is uncommon.

The typical maximum security prison is divided into wings or blocks, each of which has its own staff and can be sealed off from the rest of the prison. A block may have multiple tiers. The cells are arranged around an open central space that contains a security booth, a kiosk protected by metal mesh and glass for a clerk/guard who keeps an eye on the prisoners. Additional armed guards may be positioned in glassed-off cubicles (bubbles) in observation posts within each cell block. Guards who come into contact with prisoners usually do not carry a firearm because a prisoner could steal it.

In general population cell blocks (cell blocks other than the fish tank and the maxium-security unit), the prisoners are allowed to roam outside their cells most of the time. They can walk around the cell block to visit other prisoners in their cells or go outside to the prison yard, a large area used for exercise and socializing. The yard is watched by armed guards in towers high above.

The exercise yard at the Central California Women's Facility.
Photo courtesy Central California Women's Facility

At various times throughout the day, the guards conduct counts. During a count, all prisoners must stand in front of their cells while the guards do a head count to make sure no one is missing or in a place where they aren't supposed to be. If a prisoner is in the wrong place and doesn't make it to his cell for the count on time, he will face disciplinary action. Counts are conducted at regular intervals at the same time every day. There are counts in the middle of the night as well, but for those, the prisoners can usually stay in their beds while the guards count them from outside the cell.

We'll look at commerce inside the prison and prisoner contact with the outside world in the next section.

Prisoner Commerce and Outside Contact

Prisoners can purchase a variety of items at the prison commissary. The commissary is basically a warehouse of goods that are approved for inmate ownership. Prisoners get a list of all the items and their prices, and on the day they are allowed to go to the commissary, they fill it out for the items they want. After waiting in a long line, they reach a window where a guard (or possibly a working inmate) deducts the money from the prisoner's account and retrieves the items. Prisoners are not allowed to carry cash -- money they earn in their prison job or sent to them from the outside is kept in an account. In modern prisons, each prisoner ID card is electronically linked to the account, much like a debit card. Some prisons also issue commissary stamps, which can be used like cash within the prison.

In addition to the commissary, every prison has a thriving black market. In the absence of cash, prisoners use a complex barter system. Prisoners who want something that can't be purchased at the commissary, such as better books, illegal drugs, nicer clothes or a weapon might trade cigarettes, commissary stamps or personal protection from other inmates to get what they want. These outside items might be smuggled in by visiting relatives or guards who make their own profit from the black market. In some cases, inmates have produced bootleg alcohol or illegal drugs inside the prison itself.


Prisons generally have visiting hours that roughly coincide with regular business hours. Each prisoner gets a limited number visits per month, depending on his behavior in prison and the nature of his sentence and crime. When someone is first incarcerated, their paperwork includes a list of family members who are allowed to visit them, as well as a limited number of friends. Anyone who wishes to visit who is not on this list may face a lengthy delay before they are approved. Visits from investigators, employers or the inmate's attorney are not limited, but they must still be approved by the warden.

At lower-level security facilities, the visitation room looks much like a waiting room. It is usually very crowded, and there is little privacy. Excessive physical contact between prisoners and visitors is discouraged. Conjugal visitation rights are extremely rare in today's prisons.

In a maximum security prison, inmates speak to visitors through a glass partition using telephones. Visitation time is limited and monitored by armed guards, and prisoners and visitors are subject to searches before and after the visit.

Other than visits, prisoners can have contact with the outside world via letters and packages. However, all mail going in or out of the jail is opened and examined by prison officials, and all phone calls are recorded.

In the next section, we'll look at some of the violence that occurs within the prison walls and the punishments that occur when a convict breaks the prison rules.

Crime and Punishment Inside Prisons

Inmates at Attica Correctional Facility are guarded by police officers, after helicopters dropped tear gas as part of the retaking effort.
Photo courtesy ©2007 The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

While in prison, cons are subject to the rules set by prison officials. If a con commits an infraction, he gets a hearing before the warden or some lower ranking officials. If the committee finds the prisoner guilty of the infraction, penalties can be issued. Some examples of punishment:

  • Time in solitary confinement (The Hole)
  • Removal of accumulated "good behavior" time
  • Transfer to a less desirable prison job
  • Confiscation of items
  • Transfer to another, higher-security prison

Relatively minor infractions result in "shots." A shot is a mark against the prisoner, placed on his prison file. When the prisoner comes up for parole or requests permission for some kind of additional privilege (like a better prison job or a work release program), the number of shots on his record will be considered.


There are more informal punishments as well. Guards can mete out discipline without any hearing in many circumstances. A common tactic is to ransack the prisoner's cell searching for contraband, possibly damaging some of the inmate's possessions. If any contraband is found, the inmate will be in even more trouble. Guards can also use physical force on inmates who disobey direct orders. It is not uncommon for guards to fire shotguns at prisoners whenever they see any commotion.

Serious crimes that occur in prison, such as murder or assault, can result in charges being pressed and a full trial.

Not everyone in a prison is a psychopathic murderer, but in maximum security prisons, a larger percentage of the inmates are violent offenders -- people who are willing to use violence to get what they want. Prisoners often maintain a "might makes right" philosophy. Inmates who show cowardice or fail to stand up to threats are quickly marked as pushovers and forced to run errands and provide contraband for other prisoners. They may also be beaten or abused.

When a beating or even a murder happens in prison, there are rarely any witnesses. Cons have a strict rule against "snitching," so even a murder in a crowded prison yard can go unsolved. This rule isn't upheld by any sense of honor -- snitches are repaid by swift, violent retribution. Other inmates often learn quickly to keep their mouths shut, no matter what they saw.

Prisoners outnumber guards in prisons. If the prisoners rise up violently, they may gain control of sections of the prison (or even the whole prison), take guards hostage and capture weapons. Many inmates take advantage of the momentary lawlessness to commit violence against other prisoners. In some cases, the prisoners have a genuine grievance because of poor conditions in the prison.

The most notorious prison riot in U.S. history is the Attica Riot of 1971. Inmates complained of deplorable conditions at Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, but were ignored. They assaulted a guard and took over most of the prison, attempting to negotiate for better conditions. Eventually, state and local police stormed the prison. In the riot and the retaking of the prison, 39 guards and prisoners were killed.

In 1980, the New Mexico State Penitentiary near Santa Fe was the scene of a brutal uprising. While no guards were killed, seven were severely beaten and 33 inmates were killed. Some of the inmate killings were reportedly the result of torture.

We'll look at some more of the controversies associated with prisons in the next section.

Controversy: Rehabilitation or Punishment?

As of December 31, 2005, 2,193,798 people were in federal, state or local jails and prisons. That equates to 491 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. citizens. In addition, imprisonment rates have been increasing steadily since the 1980s, and most prisons are overcrowded. A 2005 Department of Justice report shows that the federal prison system and those of 23 states are operating at or above maximum capacity. Prison populations do not reflect the gender and racial make-up of the rest of society: 39.5 percent of inmates in 2005 were black, 20.2 percent Hispanic. Less than 10 percent of all prisoners are female.

Prison conditions and the treatment of inmates are regulated at several levels. The highest level is the U.S. Constitution. The Eighth Amendment reads: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Legal precedent is used to determine what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, since the amendment's wording is vague. International law also regulates prisoner treatment through the treaties known as the Geneva Conventions.


Essentially, these treaties require that prisoners be clean, safe, and properly fed with access to adequate medical care. Records should be kept of their presence and status within the prison, and all their basic human rights should be recognized to the extent possible within a prison. Torture is forbidden, along with other forms of brutality. Some people (some of them prisoners) claim that maximum and medium security U.S. prisons in the 21st century continue to violate many of these rules.

When most people hear about unpleasant conditions in prisons, they don't feel particularly bad for the convicts. However, there has been a prison reform movement since at least the 1700s, when religious groups such as the Quakers objected to prison conditions. Reformers lobby for better treatment by guards, better equipped medical facilities, well-funded education programs and more humane treatment. These people aren't criminal sympathizers -- they simply have strong beliefs, for ethical or religious reasons, that even convicted criminals should be granted basic human rights.

There's another reason people want to reform prisons. More than 90 percent of all prisoners are eventually released [Source: U.S. Department of Justice]. When they are released, often the only skills they acquired in prison were those that allowed them to survive. They may be paranoid or bitter. They may have learned that the only proper response to a problem is violence. Their social skills have atrophied. Getting a decent job as a convicted criminal is hard enough -- add in these factors and it can become very difficult for ex-cons to reassimiliate themselves into the outside world.

A study of state prisoners from 15 states who were released in 1994 showed that more than half of them ended up back in prison within three years [Source: U.S. Department of Justice]. Sixty-seven and a half percent of them were arrested for a new crime, unrelated to their prior charges. The goal of many prisoner reformers is to reduce these rates by providing education and job training for inmates. All prisons offer a GED course (it is often a requirement for parole) and a few vocational courses. In many states, there are plenty of programs "on the books" that inmates can use to better themselves, but not everyone is willing to devote budget money to people who can't vote (only four states allow inmates to vote, while 11 states ban convicts from ever voting again for the rest of their lives).

On the day a prisoner finally completes his sentence, he is given little. He may get the clothes and items he had with him when he arrived at the prison, although some things may be missing. He will get whatever money is in his prison account, though it doesn't usually amount to much. If the prisoner has no street clothes, he is given a prison uniform to wear. If he has no money, he'll get $5 so he can afford bus fare home, if he has a home to return to after his time in prison.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links


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  • Clinto, Susan. Correction Officer (Careers Without College). Capstone Press, March 1998. ISBN 0516212796.
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