The Treatment of Prisoners By Prison Officials Essay

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The Treatment of Prisoners By Prison Officials


 The correctional facility environment can be considered a form of isolated community where all inmates, both prisoners and officers alike, interact in such a way that impacts the positive or negative atmosphere of the prison.  The hypothesis behind this research assignment is that in situations where prison officers treat their charges in a negative or abusive manner, that the rehabilitative nature of the facility is undermined and the rate of recidivism is higher, than in those facilities where officers and inmates alike conduct themselves in a more respectful manner.

Whilst this paper concentrates on a literature review of issues surrounding this topic, the information included here will show that in at least two situations (Ohio and California) the brutal treatment of inmates by prison officials has negatively impacted the effectiveness of the prison system overall and that the rates of recidivism have increased accordingly.  This information substantiates the idea that a more formal study on the issue would support the hypothesis mentioned here, and could form the basis of an extended study on this issue.


            It is the very nature of a correctional facility that supports the idea that such a place can be considered an isolated community within any geographical area.  While it is true that members of the prison community do interact with the “outside” through trade, services and supply activities for the most part the actions that occur behind barbed wire fences have little impact on the outlying general community.

            Despite the isolated nature of a prison community prisoners are granted certain rights under the Constitution, although not as many as those individuals in the general community.  These rights include the right to due process, which gives prisoners the right to appeal their sentence and a right to apply for parole after a defined period of time.

Prisoners are entitled to be protected against negative treatment inflicted on them by those who do not agree with this individual’s gender, race, religion or ethnicity (Cornell Law, n.d. [online]).  However, the Cornell Law website also notes that while prisoners are granted these rights by Congress, and that while the prisons are generally under the administration of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, complaints by prisoners about harsh treatment inflicted by prison officials are subject to the “lowest level of judicial scrutiny” (Cornell Law, n.d. [online]).

            It is the purpose of this paper to suggest a causal link between prison officer treatment of inmates and the level of recidivism by prisoners.  After a general discussion on treatment of prisoners by officials the paper will then briefly look at two different case studies (Ohio and California) to highlight the hypothesized link between negative treatment of prisoners and their rate of recidivism.  It is anticipated that rather than encourage prisoners to remain straight after negative treatment suffered whilst in prison, that the negative behavior of officials against inmates actually serves to decrease the effectiveness of any rehabilitative programs available in correctional facilities.

 Background Information

            In November 2004 the United Nations General Assembly issued a draft resolution concerning democracy and human rights issues apparent in the United States.  Whilst many of the concerns raised were based on Homeland Security efforts to reduce the chances of terrorist attacks from outside sources, one of the major points raised by the resolution highlighted the problems found in many American prisons.

Specifically the United Nations (UN) resolution “Express[ed] deep concern and dismay…at the continued reports of ill-treatment, torture, death in custody and excessive use of force by police and prison officers, including the use of isolation, dogs, sensory and sleep deprivation, death threats and other forms of torture or cruel inhuman or degrading treatment as interrogation techniques” (UN, 2004, p.3).  Other research from respected watch group Amnesty International (see details next page) showed that whilst the treatment of prisoners had worsened since the attacks of 9/11, that the treatment of prisoners by prison officials has been a major concern in terms of human rights well before the war on terrorism was announced.

            Prisoner’s rights were first outlined 31st July 1957 when the Economic and Social Council (ESC) (Congress) approved the “Standard minimum rules of the treatment of prisoners” (ESC, 1957).  The basic principle of the paper stated that “the following rules are to be applied without discrimination on the grounds of race, color, sex, language, religion, political opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (ESC, 1957, p.1), however this same principle also noted that the religious beliefs of prisoners were to be respected. The standards outline rules pertaining to how a prisoner should be accommodated, standards for prisoner’s hygiene, clothing, bedding, food and their rights to exercise and sport, medical services and contact with the outside world.

There were also lengthy notes on how a prisoner might be disciplined or punished including the directive that “handcuffs, straitjackets and other instruments of restraint are never to applied as a punishment and irons and chains are not to be used as means of restraint” (ESC, 1857, p.3).   The ESC (1957) also included standards for the type of prison officer that should be employed and how the prison officer should conduct himself including the provision that “officers shall not use force except in self-defense, cases of attempted escape or resistance to an order based on law or regulation” (ESC, 1957, p.5).  These standards were derived from the recommendations adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders held in Geneva in 1955.

            The international human rights watch group, Amnesty International, have been concerned about the treatment of domestic prisoners in the United States for the past ten years and more.   In 1996 they made public their concern over the use of electro-shock stun belt that was being used on prisoners who were being transported either to a work situation, or to court. By this time it was reported that more than 100 American county agencies had employed the use of these belts, including use in correctional facilities including California and Ohio despite the fact that there had not been one medical study to determine if there were any long-term health problems associated with use of these belts (Amnesty International Library, 1996).

Other concerns raised by Amnesty International (America) concern the violation of the rights of women in custody (Amnesty International USA, 2000; Amnesty International USA, 1999; Auerhahn & Leonard, 1998; Corrections Compendium, 1998; Harlow, 1996), mentally ill patients (Kupers, 1999) and the lack of medical facilities available to both male and female inmates (Acoca 1998; Harlow, 1996; Corrections Compendium, 1998).

Case Studies – California and Ohio

            Deborah Davies of BBC’s Channel 4 conducted an intensive four-month investigation of what she called “wholesale torture” in the U.S. prison system, a show that aired on March 2nd, 2005.  The premise behind the program was in response to claims by some groups that prisoners taken during the war on terrorism were being brutally treated, but what Ms. Davies found was that the types of torture used against the Iraq people were also being used on a frequent basis by American prison officers on American prisoners in general prison populations around the country.  Just some of the cases she mentioned included the following scenes;

“…The prison guards stand over their captives with electric cattle prods, stun guns and dogs.  Many of the prisoners have been ordered to strip naked.  The guards are yelling abuse at them, ordering them to lie on the ground and crawl…If a prisoner doesn’t drop to the ground fast enough, a guard kicks him or stamps on his back…another prisoner has a broken ankle, he can’t crawl fast enough so a guard jabs a stun gun onto his buttocks” (Davies, 2005).

What was perhaps more chilling is the comment made by one of the prison officers interviewed by Ms. Davies – “we’ve become immune to the abuse.  The brutality has become customary” (Davies, 2005).

Peter Wagner’s 2004 articles was concerned with the issue of receiving medical care in Ohio’s prisons.  He commented on another television expose shown in American television in August of the same year.  One example he quoted was the fact that although 2,600 Ohio prisoners are known to have Hepatitis C only 16 Ohio prisoners were receiving treatment for the problem.

Deemed a budgetary issue the Ohio state justified the lack of medical care for inmates on the fact that it was the prisoner’s choice not to seek medical assistance, and neglected to mention that the reason behind this choice could be the $3.00 cost that prisoners are made to pay each time they want to see a medical professional.  Whilst the amount might not seem much to those outside the prison system when your monthly pay packet is only $18 per month, that three dollars is a lot of money to pay for a service that is supposed to be available to prisoners under their Constitutional rights.  Wagner’s second article (2004a) outlined the way in which the conduct of Ohio prison administrators and officers were in breach of a number of international and Constitutional agreements.

The California Prison Focus (CPF) group conducted a study on prison practices based on incidents occurring between 1997 and 1998.  The data that they collected originated from 429 questionnaires completed by prisoners who were listed in the CPF database held at various correctional facilities around the state.

Their findings included evidence of excessive use of force by staff including the use of pepper spray (68% of respondents) as well as psychological harassment (67%) and lack of medical care (71%). The use of excessive force by prison guards included cases of prisoners being beaten whilst in full restraint preventing their ability to protect themselves, set up fights between prisoners (organized by the guards “inadvertently” leaving specific cell doors unlocked to allow access by other inmates known to have a grudge against individual cell inmates) and prolonged housing in strip cells (CPF, 1999).

Recent Recidivism Figures

            The latest national figures concerning re-arrest were published in June 2002 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Based on1994 statistics the study found that 67% of former inmates had committed “at least one serious crime within the following three years” (BJS, 2002, Press Release).

The BJS publication found that men were more likely to be rearrested than women (68% compared with 58%) and that those former inmates with a criminal history that included incarceration for prior offenses were more likely to have been rearrested after their latest release, more specifically “among those with more than 15 prior arrests, that is about 18 percent of all released prisoners, 82% were rearrested within the three year period” (BJS, 2002, Press Release).  Unfortunately data on a state-by-state basis is not currently freely available.

            Of course one set of statistics that do impact the recidivism figures are the suicide and homicide rates among prison inmates.  Although overall 2002 homicide rates among prisoners were down from figures related to the 1980s, California in particular had 21 homicides between 2001 and 2002, which was the highest figure nationally (BJS, 2005).  Obviously those inmates who are killed or commit suicide whilst in jail are unlikely to re-offend.


            It would appear from the information presented in this paper that United States prison officials do not have a good record when it comes to treatment of prison inmates.  The reasons for the high number of abuse cases between officials and inmates is unclear but this abhorrent treatment of prison inmates by guards, especially in places such as Ohio and California would warrant further in-depth study to try and determine the cause of the violence.

            Unfortunately there was not enough state information on re-offending figures to make an assumption of a correlation between negative treatment of inmates by guards and re-offending figures, nor does there appear to be any information about the positive impacts prison officials might have on prison inmates in situations where rehabilitation programs are actively implemented.  Considering the high cost of running correctional facilities it would appear that further studies on the relationships between prison officers and inmates could be instrumental in reducing re-offending figures and thereby reducing prison population figures overall.


Acoca, L., (1998).  Defusing the time bomb:  Understanding and meeting the growing health care needs of incarcerated women in America.  Crime and Delinquency, 44 (1): 10-14

Amnesty International (2000).  USA: Californian prisons, failure to protect prisoners from abuse Amnesty Internationals continuing concerns.  AI Library, AMR 51/79/00

Amnesty International (2000).  Report based on allegations found in “Not part of my sentence”.  AI Library (USA).

Amnesty International (1999).  Not part of my sentence: Violations of the human rights of women in custody, USA.  AI Library, (USA).

Amnesty International (1996).  United States of America: Use of electro-shock stun belts.  AI Index: AMR 51/045/1996

Auerhahn, K., & Leonard, E., (1998).  Docile bodies? Chemical restraints and the female inmate.  Washington DC: American Society of Criminology.

Bureau of Justice Statistics (June 2002).  Two-thirds of former state prisoners rearrested for serious new crimes.  BJS publication

Bureau of Justice Statistics (August 2005).  State prison homicide rates down 93%, jail suicide rates 64% lower than in early 1980s.  BJS publication

California Prison Focus (1999).  Report card from California Prison Focus. Retrieved from 10 October 2005

Cornell Law Online (n.d.).  Prisons and prisoners rights:  An overview.  Retrieved from 10 October 2005

Davies, D., (2005).  Torture Inc: Americans brutal prisons.  Information Clearing House

Economic and Social Council (1957).  Standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners.  Economic and Social Council, resolution 663 C I (XXIV)

First United Nations Congress (1955).  Standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners.  First United Nations Congress on Preventions of Crime and Treatment of Offenders, Geneva, 1955

Harlow, C., (1998).  Profile of jail inmates 1996.  Washington DC: US Department of Justice

Kupers, T., (1999).  Prison madness – the mental health crisis behind bars and what we must to about it.  California, Josey Bass

United Nations, (2004).  Situation of democracy and human rights in the United States of America.  United Nations General Assembly, A/c.3/59/L.60

Wagner, P., (2004).  Ohio’s prisoners are dying from inadequate medical care. Retrieved from 10 October 2005

Wagner, P., (2004a).  International law and prisoner health.  Retrieved from 10 October

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