Prisons grew by 350% between 1980 and 2005, moving from 319,000 inmates to 1,445,000 inmates (Mears, 2008). These particular statistics are for the United States; however this is a worldwide problem. The reasons why this is happening can be a number of hypotheses, but many feel that a lack of legitimacy within the system can be linked.
Legitimacy within correctional facilities is not widely researched; however the concept of legitimacy is important to the inmates within these facilities, as well as to society. Legitimacy can be defined as a quality that an authority figure has, correctional facility employees in this instance, that allows others to feel obliged to obey its decisions and directives (Bierie, 2010). This sense of legitimacy can diminish in certain aspects if the correctional facility has a negative impact on the inmates. This sense of legitimacy can increase when policies are implemented that the inmates view as positive.
The mission statements of correctional facilities vary across the United States. The following mission statements themes may allude to the reason for a lack of legitimacy among inmates:
- 96% of mission statements focus on a task to ensure the safety of the public, staff, and inmates.
- 65% focus on providing opportunities for inmate self-improvement, treatment, and rehabilitation.
- 54% focus on the task of reducing recidivism, and assisting with integration back into society.
- 31% focus on respecting the dignity of inmates and treating them humanely.
- 27% Promote restorative justice and the rights of the victims.
- 21% offer meaningful work as a goal in and among itself or aid in rehabilitation.
Viewing this list, it can be surmised that the prisoners are often not a concern for the mission of the facility in which they are placed. The concern is for the public and the victims. Many feel that a lenient sentencing process will depreciate the seriousness of the crimes committed (Tonry, 2011). Prisoners are to be locked away to serve their time and be released in most instances, but prisons should be places that fosters rehabilitation and a sense of legitimacy within the system.
In this case, legitimacy is based upon perceptions of the authority figures within an institute or the correctional facility itself (Bierie, 2010). Inmates legitimacy changes over the course of time spent within a correctional facility. Many times their view of legitimacy is more negative when leaving the institution then it was when they entered the institution. This can happen for many reasons including all encompassing reasons, as well as individual reasons.
The major reasons that prisoners feel a lack of legitimacy is due to factors such as crime sentencing policies, prison crowding, and the funds available to operate the facility (Frost, 2012). If there are not funds available to offer rehabilitation programs or other policy implementation, it will not happen. The prisoners will simply be placed in a facility to “do time”, with no regard to the reentrance into society, often being treated inhumanely in the process (Frost, 2012).
The first individual reason that a sense of legitimacy may be lost this is due to unsanitary conditions. If inmates are forced to live in unsanitary conditions, they may feel neglected. This will lead to a lessened sense of legitimacy.
Inedible food may also have an impact on legitimacy. When people are fed sustenance that they feel is not suitable for animals, they will negatively regard the people who are forcing them to eat this. This is a less recognized factor.
Unfair treatment is also an issue in this setting. Unfairness or inequality can be based on race as well as the severity of the crime which was committed. If it is known that certain inmates are treated in different ways, the sense of legitimacy with the facility will diminish.
Not having a voice also gives a negative sense of legitimacy. When the prisoners are not heard, petitions are not filed, or complaints are ignored, the inmates feel ignored (Bierie, 2010). It is important that inmates are treated with respect and heard when it is necessary.
Structure can also lead to a negative sense of legitimacy. Inmates want to know what to expect. Like most people, they fear change. If punishments, rewards, and other aspects of the facilities handling of the inmates changes on a day to day basis or from person to person, the sense of legitimacy can be lost. This was shown when research compared a sense of legitimacy of a prison to a correctional boot camp. The boot camp was more structured, smaller, and inmates always knew what to expect from the authority figures which lead to a higher sense of legitimacy (Bierie, 2010). The prison was crowded, less structured and also inconsistent leading to a lessened sense of legitimacy, as well as more complaints from the prisoners (Bierie, 2010).
One of the last aspects of a correctional facility that can lessen the sense of legitimacy is the availability of the tools to help the inmates’ development and learn from their incarceration (Mears, 2008). When inmates can help themselves to be better people, they feel obligated and empowered to do so. Because authority figures allow them to do this, they have a heightened sense of legitimacy or want to obey the law (Bierie, 2010).
This last aspect of the negative influences that a correctional facility can have on inmates is the center of a new policy implementation. Regardless of race, ethnicity, or severity of offense committed, all inmates should have the ability to development themselves and their lives through the use of effective classrooms, effective work opportunities, and access to a library in which they can choose to utilize any type of self-help, motivational, or psychological books to learn from past mistakes, as well as history, literature, mathematics, or other scholastic areas in which the inmate could help to broadened their career choices and educational opportunities upon leaving the correctional facility.
This policy will be implemented and enforced by the correctional officers and other authorities within the correctional facilities. The classroom teachings will be maintained and available for inmates that wish to participate in this new program. This program will first be offered to any inmates that have a good behavior record within the facility and all new inmates that arrived. Other inmates will be allowed this opportunity as good behavior increases. Counselors will explain the program to all inmates and ensure that they know that this is a reward for good behavior. This program will be encouraged by counselors and all other authority figures within the facilities. Inmates must understand the importance of the program and the rules with which it will be implemented in order to use the program to the fullest extent.
Once the inmates are instructed of the opportunities that this program will afford, they may be more willing to partake in positive behavior. One of the major opportunities is to allow them time out of their cell, as well as an ability to increase their earning potential once they reenter society (Frost, 2012). Since this program does not discriminate against prisoners based on race, ethnicity, or severity of the past crimes committed, but only to current behavior, inmates will feel a sense of equality and justice within the program, leading to increased sense of legitimacy with the authorities within this facility.
They will also see that there is a need for rehabilitation and concern for their well-being. This is an important factor when dealing with inmates who perceive the system as a legal matter with no concern for the offenders. A place they must stay because they disobeyed the law, not a place that will help them understand the necessity for obeying the law.
It is important that inmates are treated fairly and justly. A sense of legitimacy will help them to be better people, more willing to be law abiding citizens, upon leaving the facility. Unfortunately, this sense of legitimacy is often lacking within the correctional system, due to what can be considered poor treatment of the inmates. It is important to society that this legitimacy issue be rectified.
Bierie, D., Franke, D. & MacKenzie, D. (2010). Legitimacy in Corrections. American Society of Criminology , 89-117.
Frost, N. & Clear, T. (2012). New Directions in Correctional Research. Justice Quarterly , 619-649.
Mears, D. P. (2008). Accountability, Efficiency, and Effectiveness in Corrections: Shining a Black Light on the Box of Prison Systems. Tallahassee: Florida State University.
Tonry, M. (2011). Making Peace, not a Desert. American Society of Criminology , 637-649.