In the United States, there are approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated at any moment, with the state of Louisiana “far outpacing the nation” as it incarcerates 712 people per 100,000, compared to the 450 per 100,000 national average.
With that many people incarcerated in one state, researcher Andrea C. Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, believes that the one way to advance prison reform is to address the “missing link” between reform and re-entry programs — fixing the jail and prison conditions.
Armstrong’s research paper takes an in-depth look at “every aspect of a person’s confinement — from the temperature of the facility and the availability of medical and mental health services, to prison rules regarding religion, discipline and visitation,” in order to better address the impact of incarceration.
By addressing and fixing issues within the living conditions, other negative effects associated with prison time and reentry can be mitigated, Armstrong argues.
While “caged” in jails and prisons, Armstrong notes that it’s a common occurrence for inmates to witness violent behavior from the people with whom they are incarcerated. Witnessing disturbing and threatening acts doesn’t help the individual rehabilitate while incarcerated, or after the fact, she argued.
Armstrong cited a study focusing on victimization of incarcerated people and re-entry in Ohio which found that “the vast majority indicated that they witnessed thefts (82 percent), physical assaults (92 percent), and verbal assaults (95 percent).”
In that same study, “Nearly 20 percent [of inmates] indicated they had witnessed other inmates being sexually coerced by another and 12 percent indicated they had seen a rape.”
The above example clearly shows how when an incarcerated sentence is ordered by a judge after being found guilty of committing a crime, Armstrong argues, it is “barbaric” to think witnessing trauma should be a part of serving that sentence.
The same sentiment could be applied to people denied medical and mental health care, she added.
In Louisiana, the lack of health care for the prisoners resulted in the 2014 death of an inmate who was complaining about side pain. When the inmate originally came forward about his pain, he was denied treatment by the Louisiana State Penitentiary, until ultimately, they discovered it was Kidney Cancer that had spread to his brain.
Also in Louisiana, three inmates committed suicide in the Jefferson Parish jail during August and September of 2017, “even after jail officials allegedly knew that all three presented a risk of suicide.”
Armstrong provides multiple narratives like these, and argues that it’s the lack of care and overall frugality of the prison system for physical and mental health treatment, which can be fatal for some inmates.
National studies cited by Armstrong indicate that incarcerated women have specific and different needs compared to men when they are released. Many of those differences have to do with treating prior trauma.
Women in jails are overwhelmingly survivors of prior abuse (86 percent), meaning they have a “heightened risk of [experiencing] sexual assault during Incarceration,” according to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, as cited by Armstrong.
Jail and prison conditions that foster this kind of behavior and abuse is an unhealthy environment to be in, and reform is absolutely crucial to stopping this injustice, Armstrong says.
Armstrong advocates for change for all prison and jail conditions, and those changes come with recommendations.
“No one knows the impact of prison conditions better than the people incarcerated and their families,” Armstrong wrote.
She believes that current and formerly incarcerated individuals should be consulted to get their perspective on the aspects of prison and jail conditions that need to be addressed urgently.
Moreover, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) has created legislation and discusses recent criminal justice reform efforts. However, incarceratory conditions are rarely discussed in Louisiana because the JRI didn’t include conditions reform in any enacted policies, according to Armstrong.
Other recommendations by Armstrong for bettering prison and jail conditions include:
- Enforcement of existing state guidelines for humane and constitutional conditions;
- State and local governments need to implement existing federal laws, like standards that prevent sexual assault and harrasment;
- Advocate for better prison physical and mental healthcare; and,
- Fostering and nurturing a positive relationship with the incarcerated individual and their outside support system.
The full research paper is available here.
This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.