The Changing American Prison

Citation metadata

Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
American Decades
From: American Decades(Vol. 9: 1980-1989. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1350L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 


Beginning the Decade with a Bang

The New Mexico State Penitentiary, near Santa Fe, was lauded as one of the "most advanced correctional institutions in the world" when it opened in 1954. During the next twenty-six years it became one of the worst. By 1980, 1,136 inmates were packed into cells designed for 800, and young inmates with little criminal experience were being housed with some of the worst offenders, Inmates complained about substandard food and medical care. The correctional officers were underpaid and undertrained. In February 1980 the conditions proved too much for the inmates, and a riot lasting thirty-six hours occurred, Remarkably, no shots were fired and no officers were killed, but the brutality committed by inmate against inmate was the worst in U.S. history. Thirty-three inmates were killed before the riot was over. Many of the dead were believed to be informants to prison authorities. Inmates used acetylene torches to break into other inmates' cells, dragged the men out, and tortured them to death with the flames. Another had a steel rod shoved in one ear and out the other. Several were slashed to death, and at least one was hanged. The killing and beating was so bad that a group of eighty-four inmates cut themselves out of a cellblock in order to surrender to authorities. By the time it was over, the main questions in everyone's mind were, "What went wrong and how can we keep it from happening again?"

What Are Prisons For?

In 1790 a group of Quakers began an experiment in penology with noble aims but with mixed results. They wished to create a prison system that would engage in "such degrees and modes of punishment…as may…become the means of restoring our fellow creatures to virtue and happiness." Certainly, few would disagree with the concept of making an offender serve his debt to society and at the same time succeed in turning him into a useful member of society. Other Americans had their own ideas about their prison stays, and for the most part during the ensuing two hundred years have not conformed to this Quaker ideal. Neither of course have our prisons. Prisons do punish offenders by depriving them of their rights and their dignity, but by doing so, appear to have turned many inmates into more-hardened criminals. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s prison reform along the lines of thinking of the early Quakers was tried but failed miserably. Given less discipline, prisoners took more advantage of the system, and an increase in inmate riots and disturbances occurred. Gradually modern penologists have learned that prisons punish but cannot rehabilitate unless the inmate wishes to be rehabilitated. Of more concern in the 1980s was the cost of housing an increasing population of offenders, as more and more states pass mandatory minimum sentencing statutes. In 1982 the price of a cell in a new prison in Nevada was reported to be $37,000. The nationwide annual cost of housing inmates in 1982 was $15,000 per inmate. State officials were facing increasing costs on one hand and an increase in inmates on the other and were beginning to explore possible alternatives to the growing problem of prison overcrowding.

Sidebar: HideShow


On 8 December 1980 a twenty-five-year-old former mental patient who had recently worked in the hospital where he had once been a patient struck out at what he saw as the phoniness of the world. He assassinated John Lennon. Mark David Chapman was a music fan who had been attracted to John Lennon in a most unusual way for years. He held that Lennon was the most talented of the Beatles, and for a period of some twelve years he was obsessed with Lennon's music and his writing. Perhaps as a result of his LSD use, patterned after Lennon's, or more likely because of a personality disorder that caused him to rely on others for his identity, Chapman found himself in a mental hospital in 1977, after attempting suicide. A year later, when he worked at the same hospital in Hawaii, he taped the name John Lennon over his identification tag. "I'm going nuts," Chapman wrote a correspondent in September 1980, and his fragile mental state worsened when he read an article in the November 1980 Esquire that questioned John Lennon's adherence to the ideals expressed in his music, calling him a phony. Upon reading the article Chapman bought a gun, left Hawaii for New York City, and took a room half a block from the Dakota Hotel, where Lennon lived. After struggling for a month with his demons, Chapman acted. He shot John Lennon dead, and told arresting officers they could find the reason for his action in the book The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, which Chapman carried with him when he committed the murder.


John Wiener, Come Together: John Lennon in his Time (New York: Random House, 1984).

Sidebar: HideShow


In a conflict reminiscent of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee, on 19 June 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana state law requiring the teaching of creationism alongside evolutionary theory was unconstitutional. "The Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act" had been passed by the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1981 by a vote of 71 to 17, and it passed in the Louisiana State Senate by 26 to 12. The act never went into effect, however, because it was almost immediately challenged in the courts. In a 7-2 decision the United States Supreme Court's majority ruled that the Louisiana law's "primary purpose was to change the science curriculum of the public schools in order to provide persuasive advantage to a particular religious doctrine that rejects the factual basis of evolution in its entirety." Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, noted that the law "advances a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety." The Louisiana law ran afoul of the First Amendment prohibition on laws "respecting an establishment of religion."


"High Court Rejects Creationism Law," Science News, 131 (27 June 1987): 404;

"High Court: The Day God and Darwin Collided," U.S. News and World Report, 102 (29 June 1987): 12;

"Memories of the Monkey Trial," Time, 129 (29 June 1987): 54.

The Corporate Warden

A new concept in prison administration appeared in the mid 1980s. The Corrections Corporation of America and other corporate entities began urging state and local officials to allow them to run for-profit prisons. The concept would theoretically allow businesses to help alleviate the overcrowding problem to some degree by charging the state a fee to house an inmate for a year. Most Americans believe that when successful, a business tends to run more efficiently and economically than does the government, and that was the main attraction to this new idea. The keys to success were that these companies could build prisons quicker and more cheaply by using nonunion labor and obtaining tax credits for construction. Critics argued that abuses might occur once strict state supervison was removed, but this would not stop the inmates' right to go to court to correct any such abuses. In 1984 nearly twenty states were negotiating to use private jails in some circumstances, and the proliferation has continued since then. Only time will tell how successful the effort will be. And the lawsuits arising from the first riot at a privately held prison will be the make-or-break test. Will the business absorb the loss, or will it go bankrupt? Regardless of the outcome, some form of private correctional business seems sure to survive in the future.


Are Prison's Any Better? Twenty Years of Correctional Reform (Newbury Park, Cal.; Sage, 1990).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468303090