Reforming America’s Prisons: A Path Toward Rehabilitation and Community Safety

By: Mandy Martin

In recent years, the issue of prison violence has gained significant traction. In large part this comes from media attention surrounding high-profile cases involving public figures. Former USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, imprisoned for molesting young female athletes under his professional medical care and for possession of child pornography, was stabbed multiple times in federal prison in Florida.[1] Derek Chauvin, the police officer famously imprisoned for the murder of George Floyd in 2020, was stabbed twenty-two times by his cellmate in November of 2023.[2] Beyond the spotlight on violence against well-known inmates, the escalation of violence within correctional facilities over the past two decades has also contributed to heightened concern.

Shocking statistics reveal the alarming prevalence of violence within American correctional facilities. Approximately 80,000 individuals per year are subject to sexual abuse in American correctional facilities.[3] A staggering 2% of inmates fall victim to homicide each year, far exceeding the national homicide rate.[4] Compounding this issue is overcoming the hurdle of actually obtaining accurate data, as prison statistics often remain undisclosed or inaccessible.

Prisons are not effectively serving as correctional facilities. Of the 1.5 million people incarcerated in prisons in the United States, over 95% will be released back into the community at some point in their lives, at a rate of 600,000 people per year. [5] This large statistic means that prisons should be ensuring that prisoners go home better off, but they are failing miserably. A recent study of former inmates released from state prison between 2005-2014, revealed that 68% were arrested within three years and 83% were arrested within 9 years of release.[6] American prisons are dangerous, overpopulated, and understaffed, leaving prisoners at risk for re-incarceration or post-traumatic stress symptoms.[7]

Experts contend that mental illness plays a significant role in fueling prison violence, exacerbated by the detrimental effects of incarceration on mental health.[8] In his research on prison inmates, Craig Haney has identified six common symptoms: dependence on institution, hypervigilance and distrust, emotional over-control, social withdrawal, incorporation of exploitative norms, and diminished sense of self-worth.[9]

Moreover, the pervasive culture of secrecy within prisons enables abuses to persist unchecked. In a study by the Justice Department, Alabama’s three US attorneys revealed that correctional officers were using excessive force against those incarcerated in men’s prisons in twelve of the thirteen prisons surveyed.[10]

Legislation has not been successful in addressing this issue. In 1995, President Clinton signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act into law, making it more difficult for prisoners to file lawsuits in federal court.[11] This legislation has inadvertently exacerbated the prevalence of violence within prisons by erecting barriers that hinder inmates from seeking legal recourse for grievances. Consequently, instances of violence persist unchecked, perpetuating a climate of impunity within correctional facilities.

In some states, including Florida, access to higher education remains a formidable challenge. Out of approximately 80,000 Florida inmates, a mere 326 are enrolled in college programs—a stark indication of the limited avenues for self-improvement within the state’s correctional system. This disparity cannot be attributed to a lack of interest among inmates but rather stems from systemic barriers that restrict their opportunities for educational advancement.[12]

The United States Department of Justice has proposed a comprehensive strategic plan aimed at transforming prisons and curbing violence within correctional facilities. Central to this initiative is a shift toward preparing individuals for successful reintegration into social upon their release.[13] This begins with a thorough assessment of each inmate’s needs upon entry into the prison system, facilitating the development of tailored treatment plans to address their specific circumstances.[14] The plan emphasized the implementation of personalized education programs aligned with each inmate’s educational background and learning needs.[15] Online education is a tool that can be used to diversify education.[16] The plan underscores the importance of prioritizing mental health support within prisons, advocating for the adoption of evidence-based treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy to address underlying psychological issues.[17] Similarly, inmates grappling with substance abuse are to receive treatment to facilitate their recovery.[18] In a bid to promote humane conditions and foster social connections, the plan advocates for a reduction in restrictive housing measures and solitary confinement, while emphasizing the importance of facilitating regular contact between inmates and their families.[19] As inmates prepare to transition back into their communities, they should be met with information and assistance to help ensure that their transition is as smooth as possible.

Following these key steps will help ensure that inmates are safer in prison and return to their communities reformed and unlikely to return to prison. This keeps communities safe, promotes family stability, and protects prisoners from continued increase in violence and fear that is currently permeating the prison system.

[1] C.A. Bridges, Ex-USA Gymnastics Doctor Larry Nassar was Stabbed in a Florida Prison. Here’s What We Know, TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT (Jul. 12, 2023),

[2] Esme Murphy & Uba Ali, Derek Chauvin was stabbed 22 times in federal prison attack, according to new charges, CBS NEWS (Dec. 1, 2023), 

[3] Chandra Bozelko, Why We Let Prison Rape Go On, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Apr. 17, 2015), Bozelko, Chandra (17 April 2015),

[4] Total Number of Homicides in the United States, by State, STATISTA,,,of%20victims%20were%20African%20American.

[5] Shon Hopwood, How Atrocious Prisons Conditions Make Us All Less Safe, BRENNAN CENTER FOR JUSTICE (Aug. 9, 2021), 

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Eleanor Taylor-Nicholson & Barry Krisberg, Contagion of Violence: Workshop Summary, NATIONAL LIBRARY OF MEDICINE,

[9] Id.

[10] Lauren-Brooke Eisen, The Violence Against People Behind Bars That We Don’t See, TIME (Sept. 1, 2020),

[11] The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), ACLU,

[12] Ryan Moser, College in Prison? In Florida, Not So Much, MIAMI NEW TIMES (Jan. 30, 2024),

[13] Prison Reform: Reducing Recidivism by Strengthening the Federal Bureau of Prisons, US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE,

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Prison Reform: Reducing Recidivism by Strengthening the Federal Bureau of Prisons, US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE,

[19] Id.

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