Correcting the U.S. Prisons Crisis: Experts Weigh in

Mike O'Brien

With approximately two million people locked up in state, federal and private prisons, the U.S. has the highest rate of inmate population in the world

About $70 billion a year is spent on corrections and the per capita cost of incarceration for all inmates has jumped from $19,571 in FY 2000 to $26,094 in FY 2011.

Overcrowding is a major issue and now more than ever, at a time of unprecedented budget cuts, innovative solutions are needed towards reducing prison costs while maintaining public safety.

Related: [INFOGRAPHIC] The Cold Hard Facts About Prisons

The key issues facing prison institutions will be addressed in full at IDGA’s Prisons & Correctional Facilities West summit in June.

Cheri Nolan is Managing Director of Federal Prison Consultants and Vice President of its parent company Justice Solutions of America.

Ms. Nolan, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the United States, is a firm believer that in a time of financial constraints, sentencing policies need to be revisited in order to optimize budget efficiency.

She told "In these difficult budget times it is more important than ever to look at current law and sentencing that is incarcerating first-time non-violent offenders to long prison terms. The legal limits on home confinement, electronic monitoring and halfway house placement remove the discretion of the Judge at sentencing and the Warden during incarceration to alleviate the costs of incarceration.

"In addition, the aging prison population puts additional financial pressures on State and Federal Correctional budgets.


"The costs of incarcerating these aging men and women with multiple and serious medical problems as well as those terminally ill can be minimized by easing the policies and procedures regarding home confinement and compassionate release."

Ms. Nolan added: "Of the thousands of requests made to the BOP each year, only a handful are granted, and many times the inmate will die during the process."

The growing prison population is also taking its toll on the infrastructure of the federal prison system. The Bureau of Prisons last year reported that it had a backlog of 154 modernization and repair (M&R) projects.

Art Beeler, Visiting Professor and Corrections Expert, North Carolina Central University, believes there should be better co-operation and communication between lawmakers and correctional authorities.

Related: How to Avoid a Prison Break

Mr. Beeler told "We have to keep our eye on what is important. We must realize that we cannot do everything if the resources are not available. Probably the most important aspect here from a public policy standpoint is deciding just what our prisons should do.

"The prioritization of issues is strengthened by a strategic thinking process which highlights mission and purpose. And while correctional professionals typically can manage these strange and often contradictory issues, it is the political influences and dictates that often rearrange priorities and cause conflict.

He added: "The political agenda and the correctional agenda need to be more acutely attuned, not because you will always agree with what is decided upon, but having an agreed upon agenda posits moving forward and not retreating."

As the Associate Director of Training at the Corrections Training Academy of the Colorado Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Brent Parker has had to facer the current fiscal challenges head on.

"Colorado DOC is actively engaged in ‘Lean process improvement’ to more effectively and efficiently use resources to meet the mission of the department," he told

"Strategic performance goals further the DOC vision to improve offender success and reduce recidivism through evidence-based practices and other best correctional practices.

"Performance goals include improvements such as motivational interviewing for improved staff offender communication and a standardized parole violation decision-making process to reduce technical violations.

"The goals also include re-validation of the offender classification system for effective use of prison beds, modified processes to appropriately reduce the use and duration of administrative segregation, and in-reach behavioral health services for continuity of care from prison to parole.

"As appropriate, Lean process improvement and strategic performance goals are combined to optimize fiscal efficiencies and improve system performance."

But despite the mounting problems, industry analysts believe there have been positive developments in correctional training and prison management in the last decade.

Ms. Nolan said: "From our standpoint as advocates, the main developments relate to cancellation of programs such as Boot Camps and the tightening of requirements and qualifications for programs such as the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program. We would like to see more inmates eligible for programs that will assist in their transition from prison to home and make their return to prison less likely."

The use of technology has by far been the major change in correctional training over the last decade, with many correctional systems in the U.S. now conducting the vast majority of their training on-line.

Mr. Beller said: "This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that costs are reduced. Staff can complete the training in modules, therefore eliminating much of the need for shift changes, etc.

"On some occasions, staff complete the module while assigned to their primary duties. Of course that is depending upon the tasks of the participant. A disadvantage is that there is synergy in having staff come together to train; not only from the synergy but for staff to get to know each other better.

"In times of danger and disturbance, it is critical that staff know each other. With budgets chipping away at every non-essential venue, training becomes more important. But often, it finds itself under the budget knife as well.

He went on to outline the complexities and difficulties of being a prison manager.

Mr. Beller said: "You have a diverse and heterogeneous offender population of all different levels of security and need. The risk they bring to the environment is varied. However, we have attempted through good actuarial classification to confine them with safety and humanity.

"And while everyone recognizes the rehabilitative ideal, there are fewer and fewer programs, because of funding, where the creative work of educators, drug specialists, and cognitive therapists can make real gain in changing the thinking patters of those confined.

"The deficit-based philosophy profited to most offenders cause serious long-term difficulties when planning for the successful reentry of those confined. And if we were only confining the long term violent offender, then this philosophy might be appropriate. Yet, we house many others than violent, dangerous offenders," he said.

"Toward that end, public philosophy must move away from confining offenders who could be punished and held accountable in the community. It must move to reserve prison to the most dangerous and the most violent. Now there may be exceptions, like large scale white collar offenders, but these should be the exception and not the rule."

The Colorado Corrections Training Academy has made several improvements in the delivery of training over the last five years. Mr. Parker said: "We offer programs in the classroom, on-line and in roll calls. All training is multi-disciplinary, reviewed each year, and designed or updated to be current, applicable and dynamic. All training is based on national standards and best practices, and must include engaging, skill-building activities."

Mr. Parker is among the impressive lineup of speakers at IDGA’s Prisons & Correctional Facilities West event in Denver, Colorado from June 17-19. For full details, go to