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In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Prisons operates about 95 federal prisons. The individual states run a total of about 1,250 state prisons. Today, federal and state prisons hold more than 1 million inmates, and the number of prisoners is rising.

Various names have been used for prisons and other institutions that confine convicted lawbreakers or people awaiting trial. The most common terms include penitentiaries, correctional centers, correctional facilities, and reformatories. Institutions for youthful offenders include training schools and juvenile detention centers. In addition, such facilities as city and county jails, federal detention centers, and metropolitan correctional centers hold people who are awaiting trial or serving sentences for minor offenses.

Experts classify prisons by the degree of security or control they provide. The main types are (1) maximum security prisons, (2) medium security prisons, and (3) minimum security prisons.

Maximum security prisons generally hold prisoners serving long sentences. These prisoners have committed murder, robbery, kidnapping, treason, or other felonies. Maximum security prisons hold about 35 per cent of U.S. inmates.

High stone walls or strong chain fences surround most maximum security prisons. Many of these barriers have electronic detection devices and powerful spotlights. Prisoners live in cells with steel bars or heavy gratings on one side. Many cells do not have windows. Inmates eat in their cells or in a dining hall. Prison officials limit the length and number of visits by family and friends. During such visits, thick glass or wire screens separate some prisoners and visitors to prevent the exchange of such prohibited items as drugs and weapons. Some prisons use X-ray devices to check visitors for hidden weapons.

Medium security prisons hold inmates who have committed either felonies or misdemeanors. The inmates in medium security prisons are generally less dangerous than inmates of maximum security prisons. Medium security prisons hold about 45 per cent of U.S. inmates.

Some medium security prisons resemble campuses, though they may be surrounded by fences with guard towers. Inmates may live in dormitories or in private rooms. Many of these prisons have educational and athletic facilities similar to those at some schools.

Minimum security prisons are the most open and least restrictive prisons. They hold about 20 per cent of the U.S. prison population. Inmates of minimum security prisons are not considered dangerous and are unlikely to flee prison. Many of these inmates were convicted of such nonviolent crimes as forgery, cheating on taxes, business theft, perjury, and obstruction of justice. They live in comfortable rooms and usually may move about within the prison as they please. Minimum security prisons range from large institutions to small farm or forestry camps. Some of these prisons have tennis courts, swimming pools, and golf courses.

Juvenile correctional institutions generally hold offenders under the age of 18. The institutions keep young prisoners from the bad influence of dangerous adult criminals. Juvenile detention centers hold young people who have been accused of committing crimes and are awaiting trial. Training schools are institutions where convicted youths serve their sentences. Most of these sentences last about a year. Training schools offer counseling, education, job training, and recreation. The inmates live and eat together in cottages or dormitories that hold fewer than 20 prisoners.

Jails hold people accused of crimes who are awaiting trial. They also house people convicted of the least serious crimes. Jail inmates include people accused of serious crimes as well as such offenders as disorderly and intoxicated persons. Prisoners may stay in jail for only a few hours or for more than a year.

Conditions in most jails are worse than those in other types of correctional institutions. Jails frequently are overcrowded, and the same facility often holds both men and women, and adults as well as juveniles. Some prisoners are kept in small cells, and others are crowded together in large cells. Many jails do not meet minimum health and safety standards, and some cells lack a sink or a toilet. Most jails have few professionally trained staff members.

The nation's prisons, many of which are old and rundown, must operate above capacity to accommodate the number of inmates. Judges have ruled that many prisons are so crowded that they violate prisoners' constitutional protection against "cruel and unusual punishments." Conditions have become so bad that prisoners have been held in warehouses, tents, and house trailers in some places. One way to relieve overcrowding is parole, the conditional release of a prisoner before the term of his or her sentence has expired. Nevertheless, many states, responding to public pressure to get tough with criminals, have changed their laws. For example, some states have imposed longer sentences for serious crimes and have restricted parole. The result of heavier prison sentences is that prisons are filling up before state and federal authorities can find the money to build new facilities.


Ex. 73 Read the following extract from John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, where Joad, a young man realised on parole from McAlester prison tells about his life there. How does this convict’s eye view correspond to the general public’s ideas about the functions of prisons?

“How they treat you in McAlester?” Casy asked.

“Oh, awright. You eat regular, an’ get clean clothes, and there’s places to take a bath. It’s pretty nice some ways. Makes it hard not havin’ no women.” Suddenly he laughed. “They was a guy paroled,” he said.” ‘Bout a month he’s back for breaking parole. A guy ast him why he bust his parole. ‘Well, hell,’ he says. ‘They got no conveniences at my old man’s place. Got no ‘lectric lights, got no shower baths. There ain’t no books, an’ food’s lousy.’ Says he come back where they got a few conveniences an’ he eats regular. He says it makes him feel lonesome out there in the open havin’ to think what to do next. So he stole a car an’ come back.” Joad got out his tobacco and blew a brown paper free of the pack and rolled a cigarette. “The guy’s right, too,” he said. “Las’ night, thinking where I’m gonna sleep, I got scared. An’ I got thinkin’ about my bunk, an’ I wonder what the stir-bug I got for a cell mate is doin’. Me an’ some guys had a strang band goin’. Good one. Guy said we ought to go on the radio. An’ this mornin’ I didn’t know what time to get up. Jus’ laid there waitin’ for the bell to go off.”

Note: Parole is the conditional release of a prisoner before the expiration of the sentence. Parole is usually granted by a separate state agency, or commission, which considers the applications of prisoners for early release from imprisonment. Typically, parole is granted on certain conditions that must be carefully followed. Violating these conditions can result in the agency revoking your parole and sending you back to prison to finish your sentence.

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