ACA Blog

Nancy White
Mar 05, 2012

United States Prison Population: Who Failed?

The U.S. has a greater percentage of its population locked up than any other country in the world. In the coming weeks we will look at why we think this is and how we, as counselors, can have an impact on our prison population. Here are some other startling facts about America’s prisons.
- In 2009 there were 7.2 million people in prison and under official supervision like probation -- a larger population than the state of Washington.
- According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics; Pew Public Safety Performance Project the national prison population tripled between 1987 and 2007.
- Pew Center on the States reports that 4 in 10 prisoners return to state prisons within 3 years of release.
- Pew Center on the States report that up to 1 in 30 men between 20 and 34 years is behind bars – up to 1 in 13 in one state.

How have we failed? Have we failed as parents, teachers, religious institutions, and other professionals who have daily contact with our children? Why do so many of our children grow up to live behind the walls? I think that from what I have seen, one answer may be our American dream of always wanting to “feel good.” We should be happy every day, have lots of money, and life should always be grand! What does this lead to? For some it leads to alcohol and drug addiction. Just have a shot or snort, take this little pill, smoke some of this, and you will feel great! As you know, pretty soon some are addicted to a mind altering drug.

Hopefully we have moved passed the “just say no” era to providing real education, intervention and counseling programs for our young people. As a substance abuse counselor years ago for a local juvenile court it was the 9 year old who could not maintain sobriety. Just think about what you perceive a nine year old doing after school. Activities like playing outside, riding a bicycle to the candy store, bathing a dog? No, this nine year old was getting high with a parent and other siblings modeling this behavior for him!

I don’t really know what type of counseling works for our young people. The minute they become addicted their life is different than other young people. Middle school, high school, and college are different for them, if they even get that far in school. They may be maintaining sobriety and getting good grades but they can’t socialize with many of their peers due to the presence of alcohol and other drugs. There are just too many temptations out there! So sometimes their “life of crime” begins. First might be a minor in possession charge. Not a problem, some of you say. The next arrest may be for DUI or DWI. Oh, lots of people get those, you say. Many times as their addiction progresses, so does their involvement in the criminal justice system. Of those 7.2 million people in prison or under official supervision in 2009, how many of them do you think have substance abuse issues? There is a lot of statistical gathering on the subject but not one really good answer. As someone working in the system, my answer to you would be that many or even most of our prison population in the United States has some relationship with illegal drugs or alcohol.

I have seen many of our fellowship programs in the community work. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, whose primary purpose is for members to stay sober and help other members gain sobriety, welcomes everyone who wants sobriety. Evidence based inpatient and outpatient treatment programs using cognitive–behavioral interventions, motivational enhancement therapy, community reinforcement, contingency management, pharmacological therapies and stage wise treatment groups based on a clients current stage of change should all be incorporated in current counseling programs.

Isn’t it too bad that today’s prison population did not have access to, or make use of, the education, intervention, and counseling programs that would have helped them to live free.



Nancy White is a counselor who has spent much of her professional life working in corrections.

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