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Smaller prisons are smarter

There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States incarcerates far too many people and that this has tragic and unjust consequences that fall disproportionately on disadvantaged socioeconomic and minority communities. Yet, not only do we lock up too many people, but all too often they are incarcerated in prisons that are also much too large. Prisons should instead be built to hold significantly fewer people. The prison system in England and Wales provides a helpful example to demonstrate why smaller prisons are better.

Smaller prisons offer several advantages. Officials can govern smaller prisons more easily. It is less likely that large groups of prisoners will challenge officials’ authority and control. Officials can more easily see prisoner interactions in places that are less crowded. In smaller prisons, officers and prisoners can more easily get to know each other and develop respectful relationships. Smaller prisons tend to have less bureaucratic hierarchy, leading to greater responsiveness to prisoner needs. Larger prisons require more regimentation, and they tend to take on an assembly line quality and the sense that officials are merely warehousing offenders. Smaller prisons often have more opportunities for privacy and autonomy, leading to less conflict. Prisoners recognize this too: prisoners report that in smaller prisons, they feel less stress, safer, and more respected by staff.

In smaller prison populations, prisoners can also resolve problems among themselves more effectively in informal ways. Gossip and ostracism are powerful tools of social control in small communities. It hurts when someone disapproves or disrespects you. It hurts when no one will associate with you. One British prisoner tells sociologist Coretta Phillips about the social dynamics of the prison, explaining “with like 50 of us that’s been on this wing for ages, we all know each other, it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Indian.” The small size of the facility means that they know each other and ethnic divisions are not strong. To be shut out of this community would be painful. But, these tools become less effective as the size of the community grows. Gossip is less hurtful if no one knows anyone else’s reputations. Ostracism is not a credible threat if there are many other prisoners with whom to associate. In large prison populations, by contrast prisoners often turn to organized prison gangs to exert control. In smaller prisons, people rely on softer, less violent ways of establishing order among prisoners.

Consider the California prison system, which is the second largest prison system in the United States. The typical prison in California holds about 3,500 people. Ethnically-segregated prison gangs have a dominant influence on the everyday life of prisoners. They have written rules and regulations that prisoners must follow. Many gangs even have written constitutions. They regulate social interactions and regulate and tax the underground economy. They rule with the threat of violence. One formerly incarcerated person from California describes how gang leaders ordered an assault, “I knew this guy that ran his mouth a lot, made lots of problems, called people names and stuff… He’s a loose cannon, he’s going to cause trouble you know what I mean, we work hard to keep that race shit calm and here is this prick causing trouble, no one wants that so we had to check him. We took him down a peg or two, it came right from the top, the asshole needs a lesson.”

Yet, gangs have not always existed in the California prison system. For more than one hundred years, no prison gangs existed. Instead, prisoners relied on the “convict code,” a set of informal norms that determined one’s rank in the social hierarchy. The code told prisoners not to lie, steal, or snitch. It told prisoners to be tough, not to whine, and to pay back one’s debts. The more someone adhered to the code, the more his peers respected him and the safer he was. Prisoners who deviated from the code were ostracized and more likely to be victimized. But, this system could only work when prison populations were small and people knew others’ reputations.

England adopted many penal practices and criminal justice policies from the United States, including mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws, honesty in sentencing policy, zero tolerance policing, the drug war, a national drug czar, drug courts, juvenile curfews, private prisons, and electronic monitoring. However, their prisons are not controlled by prison gangs like those found in California. One reason for that is that the typical prison there only holds about 750 people. The figure below shows how many facilities hold different numbers of prisoners in each prison system. For example, England and Wales have 32 prisons that hold between 501 and 750 people. By contrast, the most common size prison in California holds between 3,501 and 3,750 people. California has a few, incredibly large prisons, while England and Wales have a large number of relatively small prisons. For comparison, the largest prison in England and Wales still holds fewer people than the smallest prison in California. The largest prison in California holds more than double the number of people held in the largest prison in England and Wales. These are radically different approaches to incarcerating people.

figure 1: prison facilities and inmates in England & Wales and California
The number of prison facilities and inmates per facility in England & Wales and California

The small prisons in England and Wales have an additional advantage: they are sited close to a prisoner’s home. This is based on a correctional philosophy that incarcerating people close to their hometowns allows people to maintain healthy ties with family and friends. It also means that social norms are even more important. A person’s reputation is often known as soon as he arrives at prison. Criminologist Ben Crewe reports on how reputations spread across social networks at Wellingborough prison, where one prisoner explained, “The first things you ask someone new are where they’re from, which jail they’ve come from, and what they’re in for. Then you drop some names, and if they know them they’re alright.” While incarcerated, friends and family back home might also hear about one’s behavior. After release, one’s actions while incarcerated will be known to many back home. Taken together, this means that maintaining a good reputation is incredibly important so prisoners are heavily influenced by social norms. They do not need gangs to govern and control social and economic interactions. The prison system is able to house people closer to home, in part, because England and Wales has about three and a half times as many prison facilities as California does, and they are spread throughout a geographic area that is only about a third of the geographic size of California. As a result, it is far easier to incarcerate a prisoner closer to his or her home.

figure 2: geographic spread and number of prison facilities in California and England & Wales
The geographic spread and number of prison facilities in California and England & Wales

To be sure, we should be greatly concerned about the total size of the US prison population. Given the incredibly high rates of incarceration, the prison population could certainly be reduced substantially without risking increasing crime rates. However, we should also place greater importance on reducing the number of people held in particular facilities. Smaller is better.

Feature image by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash 

Recent Comments

  1. Julian Le Vay

    Data? I am not aware of evidence in the UK that smaller prisons holding similar types of prisoner are ‘better’ than large ones. Rather, the important factors seem to be level and continuity of staffing and quality of facilities and regimes, plus leadership.

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