During World War 2, federal prisons became factories for the war effort, as well as the residence of those who conscientiously objected to the war, at a time when 2nd-guessing the wisdom of political leaders was an imprisonable offense. This forced labor was a continuation of common past practice in American prisons, albeit with more regimentation at the time.
For the 1st time in American history, in Johnson v. Dye (1949) a federal court recognized that prison was, in of itself, “cruel and unusual punishment.” The belated acknowledgment did little good. Provoked by the brutality of guards, lousy food, and low living in general, the American prison system was shaken by a series of riots in the early 1950s.
Despite the uproar, nothing was done. Meanwhile, the courts continued to imprison offenders at an appalling rate.
Life is at best barren and futile, at worst unspeakably brutal and degrading. To be sure, the offenders are incapacitated from committing further crimes while serving their sentences, but the conditions in which they live are the poorest possible preparation for their successful reentry into society, and often merely reinforce in them a pattern of manipulation or destructiveness. ~ report to the President on the state of US prisons by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (1966)
For the next half century, the greatest change came in the technology employed to keep the overcrowded penal populations subdued. The deadening routine remained constant, as did the atmosphere of fear and sporadic violence.
While power ultimate lies with prison authorities, immediate power within prison belongs to the prisoners. Thus arose acute problems with discipline and safety from prison gangs, which began to have a significant cultural presence beginning in the 1960s. These gangs, linked to outside street gangs, are welded by loyalty to religious and/or racial sentiments: a powerful bond. Inside, gangs determine discipline and pecking order in large, overcrowded, understaffed prisons.
Partly from the influence of prison gangs, and partly from overcrowding, it became difficult to protect weak or socially isolated prisoners; hence arose the need for ‘protective custody’ within prison. Commonly some 10% of the prison population is keep in near-solitary confinement simply because the guards are not the ones keeping order.
In the 2010s, the federal government, led by Republicans, refused to fund prisons with sufficient staff. Riots became a sporadic feature of larger prisons throughout the country, with their timing determined by the dominant gangs. While the list of complaints by rioting prisoners is always the same – bad food, inadequate health care, unfair punishments, lack of rehabilitative programs – the real causes are social tensions and idleness. Invariably the intended targets of violence in these riots are other prisoners.
Though the government keeps no reliable statistics, the torture and abuse of inmates by prison guards is a regular feature of American incarceration. Use of force to quell the slightest insubordination is the policy of many US prisons. Rikers Island prison in New York has a long history of meting out medieval atrocities to inmates. Rikers’ legacy may be egregious, but it is by no means alone.