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The Myth That Prisoners Have It Easy
By John Dewar Gleissner, Esq
Published: 05/23/2011

Prisoner g The public expects life in prison to be worse than life for the lowest class of free individuals, for otherwise prison is not fully considered punishment. Any amenities enjoyed by prisoners are swiftly condemned by free people who disdain prisoners or do not have those same advantages.

Federal prisons have historically been more pleasant than state prisons. Some street people intentionally commit federal crimes to obtain the easier conditions in the federal prison system. The Zimmer Amendment was passed in 1996 after disclosure of a federal penitentiary with an all-channel cable TV, movies seven days a week, pool tables, handball, tennis and miniature golf; a federal prison camp providing a movie theater, musical instruments, a softball field, and game rooms; a federal Correctional Institution with "dormitories" with cathedral ceilings, carpeting, skylights, built-in checker and chess tables, and handball courts; and a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. offering HBO and Cinemax to its resident drug dealers and killers. The Zimmer Amendment made sure federal inmates were not allowed things like weight-lifting equipment, R-rated movies or musical instruments. This was in accordance with the punitive model and accurately reflects the public's views. But federal institutions hold a small minority of America's prisoners. In state prisons and local jails, conditions are rougher than in the federal system.

Many Americans want prison to be a miserable experience for inmates, even if it conflicts with rehabilitation efforts. They think prison life is not all bad, that prisoners have it too easy. This is based largely upon the old public perception of a few federal prisons. The public does not view the insides of state penitentiaries much. Many bad things happen in state prisons and local jails that are never reported to the outside world. Out of sight, out of mind. Television coverage of crime skews the public's perception. Crime is decreasing nationwide, yet a large percent of the public believe it is on the increase. Probation and parole are considered slaps on the wrist. Public anger rises when a probationer or parolee commits a serious crime.

Reality differs from public perception. Most members of the public will never visit a prison or talk to anyone who has experienced life behind bars. Prison takes offenders away from their families, marriages, jobs, friends, communities and churches and puts them in an extremely bad moral environment for years at a time. Social organization in prison revolves around vicious prison gangs, motivated by racism, hate, satanic influences and violence. Life among these mostly uneducated felons, including opposing gang members, the insane and the diseased, is generally unpleasant. Overcrowding makes it all worse in most prisons today. Many prisoners are beaten, raped, brutalized or live in fear. Deviant and forced sex increases because members of the opposite sex are unavailable. Guards can be unpleasant and brutal. Annoying noises and bad odors are everywhere; sunlight and fresh air are limited. In most prisons today, overcrowding makes everything worse. Bland and unappealing food, clothing and extremely confining shelter are the norm. Freedom is gone. Some 16% of prisoners are mentally ill, and high percentages suffer from communicable diseases, including HIV-AIDS, hepatitis C, staph infections and tuberculosis. Families and friends often stop communicating with incarcerated family members. Boredom and inactivity take their toll. Depression is common. Suicide is 5 to 15 times greater than in the U.S. generally.

Offenders take on sick institutional values, procedures and thoughts. Prisonization or institutionalization often makes prisoners worse. While people on the outside are making money, having fun and learning things, the social contacts and skills, sanity, vocational prospects and remaining wealth of convicts decline. When released, many are branded for life as "felons." Yes, their food, clothing, shelter and most healthcare needs are met, but most everything that makes life enjoyable disappears while they rot in prison. It's pure myth that prisoners have it easy.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author John Dewar Gleissner, Esq. graduated from Auburn University (B.A. with Honor, 1973) and Vanderbilt University School of Law (1977), where he won the Editor's Award and participated in the Men's Penitentiary Project. In addition to practicing law in Alabama for the last 33 years, Mr. Gleissner is the author of the new book "Prison and Slavery - A Surprising Comparison"
Reprinted with permission from ezinearticles.com.

Other articles by Gleissner:


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  16. irish assassin on 04/30/2012:

    Whoever wrote this crap needs to quit being such a hug-a-thug activist over issues they know nothing about. Get a REAL job in a real prison and rewrite this garbage after they have some real world experience.

  17. msrahayes on 11/16/2011:

    Everyone has a opinion on how prison is and whether prisoner are living too good in the system. Try doing one day of a person's sentence, serving life in the penititary. Do this person deserve the sentence, probably so, but whether they are living good is another. If the issue of too much tax money going towards incarceration, stop shouting for harsher sentences. Stop focusing on drug dealers and help the drug users. Focus on more work release facilities and show these people the value of a job and the benefits of being a productive citizens. In other words Stop Complaining if you're contributing for something better.

  18. ebooksbc on 06/29/2011:

    As the author pointed out, State prisons, historically, have been considerably less "comfortable" than Federal facilities, even today. While prisons were never intended to cheer up residents and have punishment as the intended, goal, there ought to be social obligation to provide positive programming aimed at attitude adjustment and skills development. After all, 97% of those going in will one day come out. How well they respond returning to the community depends on the preparation they receive inside.

  19. Librarian on 06/02/2011:

    Response to "Newtime": I agree 100% with your sentence, "This country has many factors which contribute to a whole culture of anti-authority and criminal thinking as a norm. The research of Stanton Samenow and many others points to the criminal's thinking that leads to incarceration." The "irrefutable fact" is that there are now 64 million U.S. citizens that have been incarcerated and that number is growing. What that fact means is what we are arguing about. In the early 1980's the conclusion was made in the U.S. that "prison programs" did not reduce crime. However, Canada did not accept that finding at face value. They looked at the same data and found that drug & alcohol programs, mental health programs and GED education had a positive impact on reducing recidivism. Your sentence "more tax dollars being wasted to support criminals" does not take into account the millions of tax dollars being saved by reducing a small faction of recidivism. It is warehousing inmates that is expensive (check out California) because it reinforces and ingrains criminal thinking. Oregon is doing something right. According to the recent PEW Report April 2011, we have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country. My conclusion is that the "war on drugs" has not resulted in less abuse of drugs. Just because there are more people incarcerated does not mean we are winning the war!

  20. Newtime on 05/31/2011:

    Once again a swarm of people come out of the woodwork supporting more tax dollars being wasted to support criminals. Whenever I see comments stating that statistics used in an advocacy article are an "irrefutable fact" that shows me that they don't even want their political tripe argued. This country has many factors which contribute to a whole culture of anti-authority and criminal thinking as a norm.The research of John Douglas, Stanton Samenow,Glenn Walters,and many others points to the criminal's thinking that leads to incarceration.It is only when society allows people to not accept their own responsibilities that jails get full. I have seen many liberal programs and schemes for years that failed to reduce crime but only cost many more tax dollars. We need to have the emphasis on personal responsibility of the offenders.We have been subject to a couple of decades of extortion by the criminals and their advocates. Many people have hard times but don't justify crimes. More money spent on social welfare programs is NOT good for the "general welfare".

  21. shelia on 05/31/2011:

    I grew up under militant law - my dad is a veteran police officer. My motto was, "whatever the perp did should be done to him/her"... Thirty years down the line someone I loved dearly ended up serving a life sentence in prison - a very "unlikely" person. It was a drug-related crime. He has been incarcerated 32 years now - I have been with him for 15 of those years. I have since learned that we are all responsible for the atrocity of excessive incarceration. The real target of our anger should be this society we have created focused on drugs, alcohol, and sex. God has been eliminated from our homes, schools, jobs... It IS our responsibility to set an example and stop the cycle of juvenile delinquency while reaching out to those we have failed. I can tell you firsthand, prison is a death sentence. Some survive, but the scars are forever. Don't ever think for one moment that prisoners have it easy... there is NOTHING easy about coming to the realization that you have made the most horrible mistake of your life and everyone you love has to suffer alienation, ridicule, loneliness, poverty and hardships. For those who have sincere remorse for their crime, it is a life of hell to live with the pain of their victims and loved ones! I am very thankful that prisons do offer faith-based programs, clubs, classes, and self-help avenues in order that a prisoner can attempt to turn a really bad situation into something helpful for others. I have learned to be careful of judging others and thinking I am a better person. One day can change your entire life and reach the very core of your soul where the pain will force you to see your own crimes of the heart. God help us all.

  22. Librarian on 05/26/2011:

    Oh yes, and furthermore, JP your statement "PRISONS ARE FOR PUNISHMENT" is a decade outdated (unless you advocate the return of chain gangs). Criminals are sent to prison AS punishment, not FOR punishment.

  23. Librarian on 05/26/2011:

    The statistics that John Gleissner state are irrefutable fact. Crime is down in the U.S. yet incarceration is up. Are 2 million Americans unable to handle their freedom so that they end up in prison? Why are Americans are not as free as citizens of Europe or Canada or Australia? There are many possibilities for why more U.S. citizens are in prison per capita than any other country in the world. Perhaps it is as simple as lack of public transportation providing ample opportunity to alcoholics to keep getting arrested for DUIs and receiving longer sentences. Another unpleasant reality is that U.S. citizens also provide the largest market for illegal drugs per capita than any other country in the world. Most would agree that the number of incarcerated exploded with the “war on drugs” from the 1980’s. Sorry JP but your statement, “It is liberal fools that feel sorry for these offenders that has cost our state and federal prison budgets to explode” is silly. Liberals want to spend money on promoting the general welfare, not prisons. Remember the phrase “Tough on Crime”? That is the badge of the Right Wingnuts.

  24. Newtime on 05/25/2011:

    Having worked in Ohio's system over 23 years, I can attest to the many examples of criminals manipulating while in prison and ,when given the cushy housing,medications,and other freebies, they am better able to continue their criminal lifestyles. They frequently threaten staff with no charges. They lie to get medications. They play games like basketball and other recreational activities almost as much as young adolescents do. If they don't like a job assignment,they either refuse to work until they get a cushier job. They are masters at portraying themselves as "victims". Only a small portion actually try to be good citizens but these are usually not given systemic support. Of course the article was written by a PC lawyer.

  25. JP on 05/25/2011:

    Dear John How about when we have to release our prisoners that they come and live with you...Then you can try to save as many of them and take a bite out of repeat offenders.....Most of these prisoners are where they are because they take what they want , when they want, at all costs.....they are in prison because they refuse to comply with compromised laws that this country has, to be able to remain diverse and free.... It is liberal fools that feel sorry for these offenders that has cost our state and federal prison budgets to explode...PRISONS ARE FOR PUNISHMENT PERIOD....John you really need to see the inside of a real prison and interact with real prisoners before you write your so called books..... Thanks...... By the way...I think that if you do some research you will find that most GUARDS that you refer to are now called CORRECTIONAL OFFICERS...Have been for some time now...

  26. Kenya on 05/24/2011:

    @Stew I think there are many reasons that people come back. I think one of the reasons is lack of opportunity on the "outside". It is very difficult for a person to get a job that earns a living wage with a felony on their record. As a matter of fact, some employers are now denying people with misdemeanors employment. There are so many people out of work that employers can weed out those with blemishes on their record and still have plenty of people to choose from. Another reason that comes to mind is that some people come from backgrounds were prison has been the only place they know where they are guaranteed "three hots and a cot". Many people respond to the structure of prison and it has become their lifestyle.

  27. stew on 05/23/2011:

    And you can tell the writer has never worked in a real prison. these inmates are so baby. If prisons were so hard why do they keep coming back.

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