American prison culture in an international context: an examination of prisons in America, the Netherlands, and Israel.

AuthorDervan, Lucian E.


In 2004, British authorities arrested Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Egyptian-born cleric sought by the United States for his involvement in instigating terrorist attacks. (1) As authorities prepared to extradite him in July 2010, the European Court of Human Rights issued a stay. (2) According to the court, al-Masri's claims that maximum-security prisons in the United States violate European human rights laws prohibiting torture and degrading treatment warranted further examination. (3) Regardless of the eventual resolution of the al-Masri case, the European Court of Human Rights' inability to summarily dismiss these assertions demonstrates something quite troubling. At a minimum, the court's actions indicate that a perception has developed in the world that the American penal system has gone astray. But are prisons in the United States that much different from those found in other parts of the world?

In the spring and summer of 2010, I traveled to prisons in the United States, The Netherlands, and Israel to compare the way each country detains its most violent and culpable residents. (4) The results of this research indicate something quite striking about what makes prisons around the world successful and offer a sobering examination of the deficiencies present in many underfunded American institutions. (5)

This Article will begin by examining the cultures of four prison facilities: two prisons in America (one federal and one state), a prison in The Netherlands, and a prison in Israel. For each institution, this Article will offer a narrative of my observations regarding the prison's structure and security, living conditions, and programming. (6) In particular, the examination of each prison facility will include discussion of the apparent significant impact of each prison's culture on the perceived rates of violence, the financial costs of administration, and the achievement of moral obligations regarding the treatment of prisoners. Through this analysis, this Article will first propose that prisons with cultures that create a sense of community within the inmate population benefit from lower rates of violence. Second, the Article will contend that lower rates of violence also lead to reduced costs of administration. Finally, this Article will argue that regardless of the above-described benefits it is also morally correct to create positive prison environments rather than permit prisons to become warehouses for societal outcasts.


Upon visiting any prison, one inevitably journeys over the cusp that separates the outside world from the self-contained community within. (7) In some settings, such as The Netherlands, the transition from one world to the next is subtle. One is simply buzzed through an unassuming door into a waiting room with tables and chairs before proceeding out into the main prison courtyard. In other settings, including several federal and state prisons in the United States, one passes through a large intimidating metal doorway. Once safely inside the confines of the prison, an enormous steel wall slides noisily into place behind you, leaving nowhere to go but deeper into the bowels of the facility itself. Regardless of the exact types of sounds and sensations that accompany one's transition into a prison, the noises indicate that the outside world is now a mere memory, and, instead, one has entered a new community with its own rules, customs, values, social structures, and consequences. (8)

  1. The American Federal Prison System

    There are 195 prison facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons: the facilities house approximately 211,000 prisoners. (9) One such facility is located on a large wooded tract of land in a rural region of the Midwest. (10) Built in the 1960s, the prison, which houses approximately 1000 inmates, is an imposing structure with several guard towers and layers of razor-wire fencing sufficient to not only stop but, in some cases, kill any prisoner attempting escape. Upon entering the facility, one walks down a long corridor connecting the administrative building from the main prison structure. At one point in this journey, a bullet hole mars a walkway window, the only remaining evidence of a sniper rifle having been fired several years before at a fleeing inmate. (11)

    Despite its initial intimidating and overbearing presence, once inside the main prison facility one finds a surprisingly organized, quiet, and clean environment. Prisoners are housed in large pods that contain several dozen three-person cells. Though small, the cells are in pristine condition, with fresh paint, comfortable mattresses, dressers, sinks, toilets, and small windows. Each unit of pods is controlled by a single guard station located near the entrance, which is run by a single officer who successfully maintain order. The cellblock I entered had approximately fifty inmates socializing around stationary metal tables and watching television in the middle of the recreation area. Though the prisoners' chatter echoed around the sterile enclosure, their conduct was by no means uncontrolled or uncontained.

    A key aspect of this prison's ability to maintain a controlled system is its efforts to make the inmates feel a sense of investment in their environment. There are two methods of achieving this sense of investment that I will describe in this Article. First, inmates are free to move unaccompanied around the prison facility during designated ten-minute periods each hour. During these periods, inmates may walk from their cellblock to another approved area, such as their work assignment, the canteen, or the recreation center. As a result of this self-guided movement, as opposed to the labor-intensive officer supervised movements found in other facilities, this prison is able to save substantial costs. Further, by granting the inmates what is perceived as a significant privilege, the prison population is incentivized to ensure there are no disruptions or regulatory violations that might jeopardize the continuation of this program. (12)

    During a portion of my visit, I entered the gymnasium, a well maintained and welcoming athletic facility for the inmates, particularly during the cold winter months. While standing in the bleachers discussing prison policies with the facility's officials, I heard the announcement indicating that the ten-minute period for movement was underway. Shortly thereafter, a group of excited inmates arrived and began preparations for a game of basketball. They arrived unescorted and prepared to engage in their activities under the watchful eyes of only one guard and a number of video surveillance cameras. This small freedom to move throughout the facility for recreation, study, and work appeared to create a sense of ownership and community that likely contributes to the successful administration of this facility.

    Second, the prisoners at this facility are required to engage in either educational studies or work five days a week. For inmates who arrive at this federal facility without a high school diploma, participation in the GED program is required. (13) Importantly, education does not appear to be a mere talking point. The classrooms are well stocked and inmates with the relevant educational background are charged with conducting classroom and tutorial sessions. Further, inmates who have already achieved a high school degree may continue advanced studies during the evenings. (14) Just as prisoners at this facility are expected to participate in a base level of education, work is also not an option. With regard to work assignments, however, unlike other prisons in which the only available work details are mowing the lawn or cleaning the kitchens and bathrooms, this facility has invested heavily in programs that are both profitable to the prison and that provide inmates with specialized job training. As an example, one of the available prison work details involves the creation of advanced electronic cables. Far from a mundane assignment, the prisoners I observed were highly engaged in their trade and exhibited skills that would make them competitive in the technology job markets after their release. (15)

    The creation of a positive prison environment should in itself be a sufficient justification for any penitentiary to adopt the type of strategies that have been successful at this federal prison, as it is a moral responsibility to care adequately for those within the custody of the state. There are, however, additional significant benefits that can be derived from such policies. (16) First, by providing accommodations, educational opportunities, and work programs which create a sense of community and instill a sense of purpose, this federal facility is able to motivate inmates to maintain order in an effort to ensure they continue to receive these privileges and benefits. (17) Just as studies have demonstrated that non-prison residential neighborhoods with a strong sense of community have reduced rates of crime, a prison with an inmate population invested in its own success will be less dangerous. (18) Though violence certainly occurs at this facility, as is true of any penitentiary, it is neither widespread nor out of control.

    Second, lower rates of violence in a prison can have a significant fiscal impact on a prison's budget. (19) Prisons with lower rates of violence and more orderly inmate populations require less staff, one of the largest expenditures faced by prison systems. (20) Further, institutions with lower rates of violence require less funding for medical expenditures, overtime, and sick days. (21) From a global perspective, therefore, particularly during a time when many prison systems are severely underfunded, the humane treatment of prisoners can be both a fiscally sound and morally righteous endeavor. (22)

  2. The American State Prison System

    Sitting on the banks of a major U.S waterway is a large conglomeration of buildings...

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