The purpose of state and federal prison systems is to confine individuals who have committed serious offenses for the duration of their sentences. These systems also prepare inmates for reentry into society. Prisons typically manage a wide variety of programs for inmates, including G.E.D. instruction, substance abuse treatment, vocational skills development and anger management classes. The vision and goals of a prison system are usually found on the state's or federal department of corrections’ "About Us" webpage or mission statement.
Federal Goals for Penitentiaries
The American prison system is not a monolith. Each state operates its penal system in a distinct way. Every state has a prison population with different needs and a different ethnic makeup, yet most state departments of correction see deterrence, or crime prevention, as one of their goals. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is a federal agency that oversees federal prisons. Its goal is to provide more progressive and humane care for federal inmates.
States’ Goals for Correctional Facilities
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) aims to reintegrate individuals in its care back to their communities. It wants former convicts to exit a California state prison with the tools to be drug-free, healthy and employable. The CDCR offers education, treatment, rehabilitative and restorative justice programs.
The Montana Department of Corrections seeks to reduce recidivism and disrupt the cycle of incarceration. It has the goals of increasing the safety of communities, staff and offenders and increasing offender success. The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) has developed rehabilitative programs that support the improvement and readiness of individuals in its care. The FDOC works to increase security and public safety by providing programs that encourage productive learning, positively transform behaviors and teach pro-social skills that assist with reintegration into communities.
The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) aims to help incarcerated individuals redirect their lives. The idea is for the individuals to become productive, law-abiding members of society. DOCCS programs include guidance and counseling services, religious services, library and law library services, educational and vocational training, family development, alcohol and substance abuse treatment and other programs to address individuals’ progress and needs.
Understanding the Criminal Justice System
America’s criminal justice system involves a number of actors, including state and federal courts, private corporations, nonprofit organizations and state and federal prison systems. Private corporations provide resources like goods and services to ensure prisons stay operational. Nonprofit organizations provide guidance and volunteers to assist state and federal government workers.
State and federal court judges order offenders to serve sentences in prisons. The state and federal prisons systems house the inmates and ensure that each serves their time and makes progress to potentially exit prison life. The state and federal prison systems also provide health care to inmates, manage the facilities, train the staff, and educate and inform the public about correctional and rehabilitative goals.
Prison sentences are one form of punishment. Other forms of punishment include fines and restitution, payments that offenders make to the victims or family of a victim for damages. An offender typically suffers the loss of civil rights, such as the right to vote, and may be required to complete certain programs in prison, such as substance abuse treatment. When an offender is released, they may have to complete other conditions of their sentence, such as attendance at a victim impact panel, community service hours and preventative programs like anger management classes.
Differences Between Prisons and Jails
A prison sentence is typically reserved for offenders who have committed a felony, a criminal offense punishable by over one year in prison. A prison is a state or federal facility, in contrast to a jail. Jails are county or parish facilities where an individual spends less than a year incarcerated. An inmate in a state or federal prison may be held in a jail if they have a court date for a proceeding. The time that they spend in jail usually counts toward time on their prison sentence.
Eligibility for Release
A prison system may house offenders who are ineligible for release. These offenders may be serving life sentences for serious crimes such as murder. Yet prison systems that manage them still have a purpose – to care for them in a safe and humane manner. Prisons also seek to offer such offenders the opportunity to engage in work, and rehabilitative and educational programs.
The majority of offenders in prisons will be eligible for release through probation or parole programs. Prisons take many actions to evaluate, understand and address the issues that people in their care face. This helps staff and volunteers at prisons prevent the released offenders from reoffending and returning to prison.
Different Levels of Security
Various prisons operate differently depending on the offenses and issues of their inmates. For example, federal prisons are classified as minimum, low, medium, high, complex or administrative. Each type of institution has a distinct purpose and way of treating its residents.
A minimum-security institution has dormitory housing, a relatively low staff-to-inmate ratio and limited or no perimeter fencing. Such institutions are oriented toward work and advancement programs. A low-security institution has a double-fenced perimeter, mostly dormitory or cubicle housing and strong work and program components. The staff-to-inmate ratio is higher than in minimum-security facilities.
A medium-security institution has strengthened perimeters, mostly cell-type housing, a wide variety of work and treatment programs, a higher staff-to-inmate ratio than a low-security institution and greater internal controls. A high-security institution has a highly secured perimeter, the highest staff-to-inmate ratio and close control of inmate movement. This type of prison seeks to control inmates at a higher level since the inmates’ behaviors and criminal histories put other inmates and staff at high risk.
Federal Correctional Complexes
A federal correctional complex is a group of institutions with different missions and security levels located close to one another. A complex enhances emergency preparedness because there are more resources in close proximity. Administrative facilities serve special missions, such as treating inmates with serious or chronic medical problems, detaining pretrial offenders and containing extremely dangerous, violent or escape-prone inmates. Almost all administrative facilities can hold inmates in different security categories.
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals
- Montana Department of Corrections: About Us
- Florida Department of Corrections: Programs and Re-Entry
- Federal Bureau of Prisons: About Us
- New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision: Program Services
- U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics: The Justice System
- Federal Bureau of Prisons: About Our Facilities
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.