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Land of the Free, Home of the Prisoners

Is U.S. prison system the cure for crime, or just masking the symptoms?

Isn’t it great to be number one? In a recent New York Times article, the U.S. prison system has been thrust into the spotlight, highlighting the fact that we lock up more of our citizens than any other country. We beat out our competitors by a long shot. If we do not reform our prison system in a meaningful progressive way, our situation will continue to worsen from a psychological, economic and cultural standpoint. However, with a few simple steps that address the real issues, we could dramatically improve our society and the lives of future generations.

In 2012, 2.2 million Americans were locked up. The United States imprisons 710 persons for every 100,000, which when compared to other nations is in a league of its own. The second highest comparable rate is Chile at 266 per 100,000. Israel follows at 223, Britain is at 147 and Germany is a mere 79 per 100,000. The amount spent by state and federal governments on prisons in 2010 was about $80 billion, or roughly an average of $36,000 per inmate per year. This translates to about $260 per person in the country.

Most people are not going to riot in the streets over $260, but as Eduardo Porter eloquently explains in his NY Times article, “the cost is much steeper than prisoners’ room and board.” He cites a number of reasons why, but the one that resonates most strongly hits home. “More than half of inmates have minor children,” states Porter. “Their children are almost six times as likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Family incomes fall 22 percent during the years fathers are incarcerated.”

If all we do is incarcerate criminals and offenders, we solve the immediate problem and the streets may feel safer. But this does nothing to address the long-term issues. Crime rates will continue to be high and we will maintain the highest incarceration rate in the world. Inmates will do their time, they will be released and many will re-offend and go back to prison. Their children will be five times more likely than their peers to follow in the same footsteps as their parents. And without providing the proper intervention or treatment, the cycle will continue to go on.

Land of the Free, Home of the Prisoners

New Orleans

There is a better way: Behavioral health treatment needs to be mandatory in prisons. In my experience as a forensic psychologist and having worked in a correctional facility, nearly two-thirds of prisoners had some form of mental illness. Recent reports estimate that there are as many as ten times more mentally ill people in prison than there are in U.S. hospitals. If we do not help people with their mental illnesses or addictions while they are in prison, it is very unlikely that they will seek the help on their own once they are back out on the street.

Also, basic skill building classes need to made standard practice in all prisons across the country as is being done in the UK. Many of those who resort to crime feel that they had no other choice. Skill building gives them opportunities to be successful, build relationships with other pro-social adults and hold down a job. These factors are proven to help reduce the risk for future violent behaviour and crime. It also can give them the skills to be a better parent once they are outside the system. Remember, incarceration impacts families and generations – not just one individual.

Lastly, GED completion courses should be made more readily available in prisons. 68% of state prison inmates did not complete high school (2003). Continuing from the last point, GED testing provides an opportunity to increase success in life. In a study carried out by the American Council on Education, the top three reasons inmates provided for taking the GED test were for personal satisfaction, to be a positive role model for their family, and to get a better job. Research has shown that inmates who complete their GED while they are serving their sentences are less likely to re-offend once released.

While treatment is taking place with the individuals who are currently in the prison system, we also have to ramp up our prevention efforts for those on the outside. Schools should offer mental health treatment programs that are easily available and accessible to students. Every student with emotional or social difficulties (estimated to be 20% of the youth population) should have a mental health professional that they talk with so that we can provide preventative measures before larger issues arise. These visits should be considered no different than seeing your primary care physician; we must reduce the stigma that’s associated with mental illness.

Communication between social services, correctional departments, behavioral health facilities, parents and educational institutions can be improved too. Often times there are individuals who have gone through all of these programs (kids that go from Social Services to juvenile justice departments have been termed “crossover youth”), but each agency continues to work in a vacuum. The information that one agency or individual has could be invaluable to the other, but we need to find better ways to cooperate and communicate. Such was the case with Seung Hui Cho.

While these solutions are certainly not as simple as just tucking away offenders in prisons, out of sight and out of mind, they are the only real cure for violence and crime. They don’t just mask the symptoms, but they treat the root cause of it: the hearts and minds of men and women, boys and girls. By taking a prevention and treatment-minded approach to violence and crime instead of a reactive and punishment-oriented approach, we can create a better, safer and more productive society for ourselves and our children.

Written by: Dr. Kathryn Seifert

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