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8 Myths about Prisons & the Criminal Justice System in the United States

8 Myths about prisons & the Criminal Justice System in the United States

8 Myths about Prisons & The Criminal Justice System in the United States

The Prison Policy Initiative recently released a report on prisons and the prison population. It sheds a little light on the criminal justice system in the United States that not only fails the people it imprisons but also the citizens it was created to protect.

This report offers some much-needed clarity by piecing together the data about this country’s disparate systems of confinement. It provides a detailed look at where and why people are locked up in the U.S, and dispels some modern myths to focus attention on the real drivers of mass incarceration and overlooked issues that call for reform.

Prison Policy Initiative’s description of their report

I will be highlighting the myths surrounding our prison system which are featured in the report. To read the report in its entirety visit the Prison Policy Initiative.

8 Myths about Prisons & the Criminal Justice System in the United States

Prison Myth #1

Prisons exist to provide companies with a huge slave labor force.


The truth is that private companies using prison labor are not standing in the way of ending mass incarceration. They are also not the source of most prison jobs.

Only about 5,000 people in prison — less than 1% — are employed by private companies through the federal PIECP program, which requires them to pay at least minimum wage before deductions.

(A larger portion work for state-owned “correctional industries,” which pay much less, but this still only represents about 6% of people incarcerated in state prisons.)

Prison Myth #2

Releasing “nonviolent drug offenders” would end mass incarceration.


4 out of 5 people in prison or jail are locked up for something other than a drug offense. However, sometimes their crimes are much less severe than a drug offense.

To end mass incarceration, we will have to change how our society and our criminal legal system responds to crimes more serious than drug possession. We must also stop incarcerating people for behaviors that are even more benign.

Releasing “nonviolent drug offenders” would end mass incarceration
Drug Offender myth infographic.

Prison Myth #3

Violent crime involves physical harm.


State and federal laws apply the term “violent” to a surprisingly wide range of criminal acts — including many that don’t involve any physical harm.

In some states, purse-snatching, manufacturing methamphetamines, and stealing drugs are considered violent crimes.

Burglary is generally considered a property crime, but an array of state and federal laws classify burglary as a violent crime in certain situations, such as when it occurs at night, in a residence, or with a weapon present.

So even if the building was unoccupied, someone convicted of burglary could be punished for a violent crime and end up with a long prison sentence and “violent” record.

Prison Myth # 4

People in prison for violent or sexual crimes are too dangerous to be released.


Recidivism data do not support the belief that people who commit violent crimes ought to be locked away for decades for the sake of public safety.

People convicted of violent and sexual offenses are actually among the least likely to be rearrested, and those convicted of rape or sexual assault have rearrest rates 20% lower than all other offense categories combined.

People in prison for violent or sexual crimes are too dangerous to be released, myth

One reason for the lower rates of recidivism among people convicted of violent offenses: age is one of the main predictors of violence.

The risk for violence peaks in adolescence or early adulthood and then declines with age, yet we incarcerate people long after their risk has declined.

Prison Myth #5

The victims of Crime support long prison sentences.


Contrary to the popular belief, most victims of violence want violence prevention, not incarceration.

Harsh sentences don’t deter violent crime, and many victims believe that incarceration can make people more likely to engage in crime.

National survey data show that most victims support violence prevention, social investment, and alternatives to incarceration that address the root causes of crime, not more investment in carceral systems that cause more harm.

This suggests that they care more about the health and safety of their communities than they do about retribution.

Prison Myth #6

Expanding community supervision is the best way to reduce incarceration.


Community supervision, which includes probation, parole, and pretrial supervision, is often seen as a “lenient” punishment or as an ideal “alternative” to incarceration.

But while remaining in the community is certainly preferable to being locked up, the conditions imposed on those under supervision are often so restrictive that they set people up to fail.

The long supervision terms, numerous and burdensome requirements, and constant surveillance (especially with electronic monitoring) result in frequent “failures,” often for minor infractions like breaking curfew or failing to pay unaffordable supervision fees.

Prison Myth #7

Some people need to go to jail to get treatment and services.


It’s true many people caught up in the legal system have a lot of unmet needs. But the “services” offered in jails and prisons are not a reason to lock people up.

Local jails are filled with people who need medical care and social services. However, jails have repeatedly failed to provide these services.

Some people need to go to jail to get treatment and services.
1 in 3 people behind bars is in jail.

Most people end up cycling in and out of jail without ever receiving the help they need. People with mental health problems are often put in solitary confinement, have limited access to counseling, and are left unmonitored due to constant staffing shortages.

The result has led to suicide becoming the leading cause of death in local jails. Given this track record, building new “mental health jails” to respond to decades of disinvestment in community-based services is particularly alarming.

Prison Myth #8

Private prisons are the corrupt heart of mass incarceration.


Less than 8% of all incarcerated people are held in private prisons; the vast majority are in publicly-owned prisons and jails.

Private prisons are a parasite on the massive publicly-owned system — not the root of it.

The real harm to prisoners comes in the form of private companies being granted contracts to operate prison food and health services.

Infographic 8% of prisoners are in private prisons. 8 Untrue Myths about the United States Prison System.
Only 8% of prisoners are held in private prisons

The prison and jail telecom and commissary functions have spawned multi-billion dollar private industries.

By privatizing services like phone calls, medical care, and commissary, prisons and jails are unloading the costs of incarceration onto incarcerated people and their families, trimming their budgets at an unconscionable social cost.

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8 Myths about Prisons & The Criminal Justice System in the United States