American Prison Reform: How We Can Begin to Improve Our Prison System

According to the Centre on Prison Studies at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, the United States houses 25% of the world’s prisoners despite having just under 5% of the world’s population. To break that down even further, 1 in every 110 adults are in a prison or jail in the United States – the highest rate of imprisonment in American History. The Vera institute reports that the average inmate cost in the fiscal year 2010 was $31,286.

“1 in every 110 adults are in a prison or jail in the United States”
These staggering statistics lead to a lot of questions for the average American: Why are there so many people being incarcerated? Why does it cost so much to keep them? How can we fix this corrupt system?

I wish there were a simple answer.

Though there is not an easy solution, there are starting points.

Prison Reform begins with altering policies in place that imprison individuals, and adjusting the standard for incarceration.

Ending the The Drug War

The Drug War, for example, would be a massive step in improving not only the number of inmates, but the economy as well.

The Drug War, a failing campaign since President Nixon started it, contributes millions of unnecessary inmates to U.S. prisons. The movement to fight drugs attempted to decrease drug use and diminish the drug business through imprisonment and other consequences.

However, this was not the case. When anti-drug policies were instituted, the multi-billion-dollar businesses continued to thrive, and still do today. When dealers are imprisoned, customers go elsewhere. Attempting to rid of one drug crop simply spurs relocation to another. No to mention, if drugs were legalized and taxed in the same way alcohol and tobacco are, the U.S. would gain $46.7 billion in tax revenue, according to International Business Times.

Assisting the mentally ill

The next step towards improving our Prison System is to better identify and assist the mentally ill.

A study by the Treatment Advocacy Center shows that in 2012 alone, American prisons and jails housed around 356,268 inmates with a severe mental illness. This number is more than ten times the number of patients in state psychiatric institutions – about 35,000 people.

Mental health screening

Next, we should improve the mental health screening for individuals facing criminal charges, and increase access to assistance for psychotic individuals, rather than imprisonment.


“In 2013, 34% of deaths in jails and prisons were due to suicide.”


The number of undiagnosed psychotic inmates must be decreased, and this starts with improving the research and application of treatments for these individuals, rather than criminalization. During the twentieth century, various efforts aimed to increase help for the mentally ill. Since the late 1950’s, when the number of patients receiving treatment for mental issues was at its highest, psychiatric institutions have seen a drastic decrease in the number of patients. This isn’t because America has fewer individuals who qualify for treatment, but because more people are going undiagnosed than in decades before.

Inmates with mental illnesses often have extensive disciplinary challenges during their time behind bars. Often, these people are not only violent to others, but to themselves. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2013, 34% of deaths in jails and prisons were due to suicide. These individuals are victims to their own minds and are often punished for variables they cannot control.


To many, Prison Reform is an idealistic idea. But, with the proper prioritization and application, Americans will see massive improvements to the quality of our institutions.

Beginning with reevaluating anti-drug legislation, we can both maximize our individual liberties and save millions in tax payer dollars. From there, we can make improvements from the inside out while working to take better care of those who are in need of psychiatric help.

As a country, we will be able to criminalize those better suited for prison time, while simultaneously gaining assistance for the mentally ill. This step will help us begin to compare better with other nations when it comes to caring for the mentally ill, the number of imprisoned individuals, and our commitment to civil liberties.

About Riley Jensen

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Riley is a 17 year old political activist from Oklahoma. Her writing can be found on OUTSET, Future Female Leaders, and Hypeline News. Riley plans to pursue a degree in Law. When she isn’t writing or studying, she can be found shooting guns or petting dogs. Riley loves leading worship, the outdoors, and proving people wrong.