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10 Myths: Prisoners & Prison Life

© 2015 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved

Ken Arnold Most of us will only ever see prison on the television or movie screen. For those looking for accuracy, however, these portrayals rarely fit the bill.

Ken Arnold, former prison warden and current Correctional Consultant with the American Correctional Association, identified for Clouded in Mystery the ten most persistent Hollywood-fueled myths about prisoners and prison life. From the old "bread and water" fallacy to the misconceptions about today's private prisons, Arnold tells CIM's readers the truth about life behind bars in the 21st century.


Myth #1: Prison life has no similarities to the free society.
Reality: While prison populations are separated from communities by secure perimeters, prison life actually has many counterparts in free society. The same thought processes and deficits found in human beings behind bars affect those who are not incarcerated. Prison staff provide services and programs similar to those offered in non-custodial institutions. Individuals on boths sides of the wall experience illness, spiritual voids, and socio-economic disadvantages. Both groups contain persons seeking better education, or the chance to make better choices. Perhaps most importantly, whether free men and women or inmates, the decision to do good and forego criminality is equally available to all.

Myth #2: Prisons are more interested in confinement than rehabilitation.
Reality: Society is best protected by treating inmates humanely, and by providing them with the means to effect positive change. If prisons fail at these two goals it is costly - both from a monetary perspective and a social one. Most critically, though, it means that the underlying cause of criminal behavior has gone unaddressed.

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While no correctional system is perfect, "best practices" are employed in the vast majority of facilities. Systems with more funding and better leadership can provide inmates with more resources and choices, but all facilities share the same goal.

The majority of inmates will eventually be released and they will live in our towns, shop in our stores, and work in our places of business. Prison administrators know this. They want to leave a legacy of successful inmate re-entry into free society, not the failure of recidivism.

Myth #3: Prison overcrowding is common and impossible to control.
Reality: In jurisdictions across the nation, efforts are underway to revise criminal statutes and engage the community in the corrections process. In response, reductions in crowded prison conditions are being realized. Also aiding this process are efforts to treat rather than incarcerate non-violent offenders.

If such trends continue, benefits could be widespread. A smaller prison population means lessened stress on individuals confined. Following this logic further, prison disturbances and inmate acting out should be reduced.

As recently as May 2014, Lancaster County Prison in Pennsylvania was recognized for its efforts to decrease prison population by releasing suitable inmates and instead employing electronic monitoring. This program has saved local taxpayers more than $2 million since its launch.

Myth #4: Food is terrible in prison; barely better than the old "bread and water" cliche.
Reality: While prison food may admittedly be more bland and overcooked that haute cuisine, it is palatable and well-presented.

Prison auditors are required to sample at least one meal from the cyclical menus that include spaghetti, chicken dishes, burgers, egg dishes and turkey bacon. Some cultural foods, as well as religious and medical diets, are also available.

3,200 calorie-per-day diets are not unusual.

Myth #5: Physical abuse is a fact of life in prison, with few controls or remedies.
Reality: While unfortunate incidents arise, inmates - and staff - are expeditiously held accountable.

Corroborated inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults are always addressed with, at a minimum, administrative sanctions. For prisoners, this can mean criminal prosecution and additional time served. If necessary, steps are also taken to separate assailants from victims.

In all cases, physical assaults are viewed seriously by prison administrators who understand that only pre-emptive practices can prevent these disturbances from spilling over into the general population.

Myth #6: Guards can be just as sadistic as fellow prisoners.
Reality: While sadistic guards and wardens make for great "bad guys" in movies, corroborated staff abuse of inmates is simply not tolerated in the prison system. Administrators employ close oversight and monitoring of staff against whom allegations have been lodged. If abuse is proven, sanctions range from disciplinary actions to termination. In cases of egregious misconduct, employees may be referred for prosecution.

Myth #7: "30 Days in the Hole" is more than just an old song lyric.
Reality: In many TV shows, prisoners (whether for punishment or revenge) are tossed into "the hole" - a foreboding, dimly lit space with rusty, dripping pipes and a concrete floor for a bed. But true "jails within jails" bear no similarity to these stereotypes.

Prisoners end up in Restrictive Housing Units (RHUs) for a variety of reasons. Certainly fights and assaults are causes for separation, but any act that threatens the security and good order of an institution may result in placement in an RHU.

RHUs offer the same food served to the general population. Where security needs can be met, the same programs are offered to inmates in these housing units. Recreation, although perhaps limited, is also available.

Although they may be housed alone, inmates generally have visual and auditory access to other prisoners and staff. Toilet, sink and shower facilities are provided, as is clothing and linen exchange.

Myth #8: Prisoners "rot away" in their cells.
Reality: Perhaps the most common stereotype is that of an injured or sick prisoner, left to suffer alone without care or medical intervention. To the contrary, however, inmates are medically screened and receive necessary emergency health and dental treatment. They also receive mental health treatment.

Even more to the point, as in the free society, prisoners can lodge formal complaints about their perceived shortcomings in medical care. These complaints are taken seriously by prison administrators who must maintain a tricky balance between ensuring proper treatment, addressing public perception of their actions, and acknowledging the inmate's ability to litigate his or her claims.

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Myth #9: Private prisons are even less caring than public institutions.
Reality: Private prisons are held to the same standards as federal, state and local facilities. The same passion to preserve inmates' Constitutional rights exists, as does the desire to provide high standards of confinement. As mentioned earlier, effecting positive change in the lives of the incarcerated is the primary goal of prison administrators - whether they work in a private or public facility.

Myth #10: There are no emerging or evolving philosophies in the field of penology.
Reality: The fortunate truth is, the study of American penology is often taught at the college level and new concepts are discussed, sought, and instituted daily. This can only mean a better future for the generations to come. CIM