What Happens inside Prison

May 23, 2007

Three student readings offer a case study of what happened to one mentally ill prisoner; a summary of a critical report on America's prisons; and some additional facts and figures. Discussion questions, a writing assignment, subjects for further inquiry and suggestions for citizenship activities follow.

Most Americans don't know and don't think about conditions in America's prisons. But a June 2006 report from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons made it clear that they should.

The report demonstrates that what happens in prison is very much connected to what happens outside prison. Most of the men and women behind bars eventually return to homes and communities. All of those who work in jails and prisons go home at the end of every workday. And all of these people-ex-cons, guards, and prison officers-take home with them the effects of living and working in places that can be, in the words of the June report, "unsafe," "unhealthy," "unproductive," and "inhumane."

Three student readings below offer 1) a case study of what happened to a mentally ill man in a Michigan prison; 2) a summary of the Commission's findings and recommendations; and 3) some facts and figures about American jails and prisons and who is in them. Discussion questions, a writing assignment, subjects for further inquiry and suggestions for citizenship activities follow.


Student Reading 1:

The Death of Timothy Souders

In August 2006, Timothy Souders was being held in solitary confinement in the Southern Michigan Correctional Center, a facility with 5,000 inmates. For four days and up to 17 hours a day, Souders was chained down from his hands, feet, and waist.

Souders was serving a three-to-five year sentence for shoplifting two paintball guns and threatening employees of the store with a knife. He was in solitary for taking a shower without permission.

His mother, Theresa Vaughn, said that as a teenager Timothy had begun behaving strangely. One day in winter, for instance, she found him running around naked outside "thinking he was a knight fighting dragons." She took him to a hospital, where a bipolar disorder was diagnosed and medications prescribed. But he continued to suffer from anxiety and depression.

At the time Souders was arrested for shoplifting, he was 21 and living in an apartment. His mother said, "He was trying to get money to pay his rent, so that he would not be evicted from his apartment. He had gotten to the point where his thinking wasn't straight, and he was suicidal. And he should've never went to jail."

But in the 1960s many institutions for the mentally ill were closed and some of the people in them ended up in prison. Souder tried to kill himself in prison three times. A state psychologist downplayed this behavior even after Souder stabbed himself in the stomach seven times. He said Souder was trying to manipulate the staff. Souder received no psychiatric attention.

Souder entered solitary in apparently satisfactory health. His behavior was monitored 24/7 by videotape. Souders protested his confinement. He broke a stool. He flooded the cell from an overflowing sink. Then guards put him in chains. The staff at the prison facility often used punishment to get an inmate to improve his behavior.

Michigan corrections director Patricia Caruso said, "Prison is a difficult environment. I have correctional officers who become accustomed to having urine and feces thrown at them by prisoners.  And so we have to rely on our responsibility to keep people safe."

Souders' water was turned off. The heat index in solitary climbed to over 100 degrees. He became delusional. He refused water offered to him. By the fourth day he was dead from dehydration.

Federal Judge Richard Enslen, who oversees the correctional center, wrote that inmates there are exposed to "an unauthorized death penalty at the hands of a callous and dysfunctional health care system that regularly fails to treat life-threatening illnesses."

Theresa Vaughn was never told how her son had died. She learned only when she read an article about it in the Detroit Free Press. She said, "I cannot believe anyone would treat another human being that way at all. That they can watch [a person like her son] over a four-day period, slowly declining, slowly dying before their eyes." She is suing.

Other Michigan prisoners have also died of dehydration in solitary. One died of starvation.

Judge Enslen described Souder's treatment as "torture" and banned such chaining in the future. Michigan appealed this decision. Influenced by Souder's treatment and his death, another federal judge ordered reforms in mental health systems in Michigan prisons.

"60 Minutes" aired "The Death of Timothy Souders," 2/11/07 (www.cbsnews.com)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Should Timothy Souders have been sentenced to prison? Why or why not?

3. If you think he should not have been sentenced to prison, how should he have been treated and where?


Student Reading 2:

A Report from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons

"What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. It comes home with prisoners after they are released and with corrections officers at the end of each day's shift. When people live and work in facilities that are unsafe, unhealthy, unproductive, or inhumane, they carry the effects home with them. We must create safe and productive conditions of conferment, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because it influences the safety, health and prosperity of us all."

"There are nearly 5,000 adult prisons and jails in the United States and no two are exactly alike. Some of them are unraveling or barely surviving, while others in the United States are succeeding and working in the public interest."
Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, "Confronting Confinement," June 8, 2006 (www.prisoncommission.org)

(Note: Prisons are operated by the federal government and by state governments for such felony offenses as murder and burglary; jails are operated by cities and counties for less serious, misdemeanor offenses.)

The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons was co-chaired by Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, former attorney general (a Democrat) and John J. Gibbons, former appeal courts judge (a Republican). The Commission's 20 members issued a unanimous report whose findings are summarized below.


Corrections officers told the Commission that in some prisons and jails they face "a near constant fear of being assaulted. Former prisoners recounted gang violence, rape, beatings by officers and, in one large jail, a pattern of illegal and humiliating strip searches." A former Florida warden described "small groups of officers operating as 'goon squads' to abuse prisoners and intimidate other staff."

Causes of violence include:

1) Overcrowding in a majority of prisons and many jails, "creating a degree of disorder and tension almost certain to erupt into violence"
2) Reduced funding for prison programs, which leaves prisoners "inactive and unproductive"
3) Use of excessive force by corrections officers to resolve conflicts
4) Fraying of ties between inmates and their families because the distance between a facility and home are so great and because phone calls are too expensive for poor families

The Commission called for reforms including:

1) Reduce overcrowding
2) Invest in and promote programs known to reduce violence, programs that make inmates feel productive, and programs that help rehabilitate inmates
3) Use force only as a last resort and work for nonviolent solutions
4) Reconsider prisoners' locations
5) Encourage visits to inmates and make it easier for inmates to make and receive phone calls

Medical care

According to the Commission's report, "As a result of poverty, substance abuse, and years of poor health care, prisoners as a group are much less healthy than average Americans." Every year, more than 1.5 million people are released from jails and prisons. Some take life-threatening diseases with them to their homes and communities.

Most prisons and jails are "set to fail" in providing healthcare, the commission said. They operate on "shoestring budgets." The result is that some facilities have only two or three doctors to care for 4,000-5,000 inmates. Some prison doctors are not top-notch: In fact some are restricted to working in correctional institutions because they are not regarded as qualified outside of them. Furthermore, the 350,000 prisoners nationwide who suffer from serious mental illnesses receive inadequate care — and sometimes no care at all.

Needed reforms include:
1) Partner with community healthcare providers and increase medical spending to give prisoners quality care and protect the families and communities to which most will return
2) Screen for and treat infectious diseases
3) Identify and reduce the number of inmates with mental illnesses-for a prison is not a mental institution
4) Extend Medicare and Medicaid to those eligible


"Separating dangerous or vulnerable individuals from the general prison population is part of running a safe correctional institution," according to the Commission. "In some systems around the country, however, the drive for safety, coupled with public demand for tough punishment, has perverse effect."

Sometimes segregated prisoners are locked in cells for 23 hours daily. They have very little meaningful contact with others, and this works against rehabilitation. It can lead to mental deterioration. Isolated inmates may become a danger to their families and communities — and yet they can be released directly into the community from virtual isolation.

Needed reforms include:
1) Make segregation a last resort
2) Do not release inmates directly from isolation to their homes and communities
3) End isolation as a punishment and evaluate prisoners rigorously for proper treatment 4) Provide a therapeutic unit for the mentally ill

Labor and Leadership

The Commission's report states that "Most correctional professionals work under extremely difficult circumstances to maintain safety and help prisoners improve their lives. But because the exercise of power is a defining characteristic of correctional facilities, there is always a potential for abuse." Prison chaplain Sister Antonia Maguire said that in the worst cases prisoners are "treated like animals without souls who deserve whatever they get."

Prison officers turn over at the rate of 16 percent yearly. On average, prison system directors stay in their positions for no more than three years. This rapid turnover makes it very hard to improve prisons.

Needed reforms include:
1) "Promote a culture of mutual respect"
2) Develop quality recruitment programs for officers and leaders of correctional institutions
3) Support officers and leaders politically, professionally and financially

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Which problem cited by the Commission seems to you the most serious? Why?

3. How effective do you think the Commission's suggested solutions to this problem would likely be? Why? What other solutions do you think might be appropriate?

4. Many of the Commission's proposals would cost money. Who would decide which of their proposed reforms to support? Where would the money come from? Why do you think there has been resistance to such expenditures?


Student Reading 3:

Some figures and facts

  • Since 1975 the U.S. prison population has risen from about 380,000 to 2.38 million.

  • About one in every 31 adults in the U.S. was in prison, in jail or on supervised release at the end of 2006.

  • There are 905,000 African American inmates in federal prisons and state and local jails. The percentage of black men in state and federal prisons in 2006 fell to 38 percent from 43 percent in 2000.

  • The number of women in state and federal prisons, 112,498, is at a record high and has grown at double the rate for men since 1980.

  • The proportion of Americans in prison is nearly five times higher than what it has been historically and is seven times higher than in most of Western Europe.

  • More than half of state and federal prisoners are in for nonviolent crimes, especially selling drugs. By the late 1990s, 60 percent of federal prisoners were in for drug offenses.

  • During a year, 13.5 million Americans spend some time in prison or jail; 95% eventually return to their communities.

  • Black men in their early thirties are imprisoned seven times as often as whites in the same age group.

  • By their mid-thirties, 60 percent of black high school dropouts are either prisoners or ex-cons.

  • Just over one percent of the fathers of white kids are in prison; almost 10 percent of the fathers of black kids are in prison.

  • Whites with only a high school diploma are imprisoned twenty times as often as whites with college degrees.

  • Sixty percent of the nation's inmates eventually commit another crime.

  • 750,000 men and women work in US correctional facilities.

  • The US spends $60 billion annually on correctional facilities.

Sources: Department of Justice, 12/5/07, and Jason DeParle, "The American Prison Nightmare," New York Review, 4/12/07 and "Confronting Confinement"


"Fish Bowl" discussion

After students complete the reading, engage the whole class in one small-group dialogue through a "fish bowl." Invite five to seven students to begin the conversation. Ask them to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that this group reflects diverse points of view on the issues to be discussed.

Ask everyone else in the class to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl, creating a larger circle around the smaller circle. Only people in the fish bowl can speak. The process aims to facilitate sustained, focused listening.

The teacher might ask such questions as the following, inviting fish bowl students to speak to it in a "go-around":

1. What figure or fact seems most significant to you and why?

2. The Commission states: "What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons." What evidence in the facts and figures or in their report supports this conclusion?

3. Why do you think the US prison population keeps rising?

4. How might someone be convicted of a nonviolent drug crime? Is prison the most appropriate place for some or all of these people? Why or why not? If not, what punishment, if any, should nonviolent drug offenders receive?

5. Why do you think there are a disproportionate number of blacks in prison as compared with whites? How would you go about trying to verify your tentative conclusions?

6. Why do you think whites with a high school diploma are imprisoned twenty times as often as those with college degrees? How would you go about trying to verify your tentative conclusions?

Each student in the fish bowl speaks without being interrupted. Designate a certain amount of time for students in the fish bowl to ask clarifying questions and make further comments.

After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the fish bowl conversation by tapping a fish bowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat. Continue using this same procedure with additional questions.


For writing

Write a well-developed essay with an introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion in which you discuss one of the following:

1. "What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons," the Commission declared. Support the Commission's conclusion.

2. What do you regard as the number-one problem in US jails and prisons. Why?


For Student Inquiry

Before students begin an independent or small-group inquiry on one of the subjects listed below, they should prepare a clearly worded and concise question to guide them.

Possible topics for inquiry:

  • Why there are a disproportionate number of blacks in prison as compared with whites
  • Why whites with a high school diploma are imprisoned twenty times as often as those with college degrees
  • Almost every state bars prisoners from voting. Many parolees are also kept from voting, and in some states ex-cons can never vote again. All together, these people make up as much as 7-9 percent of potential voters in some states. At least twenty democracies, including Canada and Israel, allow current prisoners to vote. (DeParle)
  • Reforms in Michigan's prison mental health systems
  • Prison overcrowding and California's recent solution to it
  • Prisoner rape. According to David Kaiser's article "A Letter on Rape in Prisons" in The New York Review (5/10/07), recent studies suggest that "approximately 20 percent of male inmates are pressured or coerced into unwanted sexual contact.  Rates of sexual abuse in women's facilities, where the perpetrators are most likely to be male staff are as high as 27 percent of inmates."
  • The shutting institutions for the mentally ill beginning in the 1960s
  • Productive programs for prisoners
  • The effectiveness and problems of a jail in the students' town or county.


For Citizenship

As students read about, discuss and make inquiries on US jails and prisons, they may encounter issues on which they want to act. Discuss possibilities, issues and questions with them. Consider inviting someone who works in or directs a local jail or a probation officer to talk with students about the issue what they might do about it. See also "Teaching Social Responsibility" on this website for a discussion of citizenship activities.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org