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How to Negotiate U.S. Prison Reform

(Special thanks to Jill Goldhart, friend and colleague from Columbus, Ohio for her editing and jail and prison expertise.)

Our country has found its way into a position where we are over-incarcerating our young men and women without taking a look at every single individual case, exploding our U.S. prison population, and undermining faith in our criminal justice system.

- U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, D-VA, co-sponsor of federal bipartisan sentencing reform legislation.

Though only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. … Not only does the current overpopulated, underfunded system hurt those incarcerated, it also digs deeper into the pockets of taxpaying Americans.

- U.S. Senator Rand Paul, R-KY

Dismal U.S. Prison Statistics Demand Action and Reform

- According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 80,000 women and men a year get sexually abused in American correctional facilities.

- According to the National Institute of Corrections, "the American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories."

- The US locks up more people per capita than any other nation: 698 per 100,000.

- According to the American Bar Associations Experience Magazine, two-thirds of the people who are incarcerated have a history of substance-use disorder. An additional 20% have substance abuse at the time of their crime. Incarcerated individuals are 129x more likely to die from a drug overdose within the first two weeks after release.

- According to the Prison Policy Initiative, every year, over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year (“Jail Churn”).

- The American Action Forum reports that 555,000 are imprisoned but have not been convicted or sentenced. Most cannot afford bail.

-Prisons are violent environments. The Bureau of Prisons estimates that 46% of prisoners are involved in drug activity; 21%, weapons/explosives/arson; and 11%, sex offenses.

-20% of those incarcerated for drug offenses meaning that 450,000 per day are in and out of jails because of drug offenses.

- The World Justice Project Rule of Law Index ranked 102 countries based on many indicators, including criminal justice, which measures impartiality, due process, and rights of the accused, and effectiveness of the countries’ criminal investigation, adjudication, and correction systems. The United States ranked 23rd out of 102 countries, 16th among 24 regional peers, and 23rd among 31 countries of similar wealth.

This places the US below most Scandinavian and European countries. US prisons do rank above North Korea, Russia, Rwanda, Kenya, etc.


For most folks, there are several conclusions from the above:

  • The US has too many people incarcerated.

  • Drug cases need to be managed differently.

  • Mental health cases need to be managed differently.

  • US needs to change their prison approach from purely punishment to rehabilitation and re-socialization for most.

  • US should realize that imprisonment has three main purposes: rehabilitation, punishment, and keeping violent people away from society.

  • US needs to revamp their prisons to emphasize human dignity and decrease crime in prison.

  • US prison culture should exude calmness rather than anxiety.

So, how does one negotiate these prison reform changes?

How to Negotiate Prison Reform

Champion of Prison Reform: US needs a person or organization who will be a champion of prison reform. This person should be of moderate philosophy and respected, maybe trusted by many of the stakeholders. Stakeholders include victims groups, prisoners, government, prisons, and the public.

Clear Vision, Mission, Values and Goals Statement: To be successful, this reform effort must have a clear vision. This will paint a clear and concise picture of what they want prisons to be in the long term. This reform wants US prisons to operate in such a fashion that affords all with “human dignity” even when human dignity has been taken away from others by those being incarcerated.

There must be a clear mission; that is, its basic purpose of incarceration.

There also should be a clear statement of values.

Finally, clear goals should be enunciated that are attainable and measure-able.

Public Education: Most Americans have had very little direct exposure to jails and prisons. They have a lot of misconceptions and incorrect beliefs. They have no idea as to the horrible prison conditions nor the statistics cited above.

One ex-convict remarked: Isn’t it odd that prisons can ban home-cooked meals and cards with glitter but cannot prevent drugs, tattoos, rapes and crimes, let alone, suicides. Does anyone believe that locked up Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide? Let’s check the cameras. Oh no, no camera tapes. But the guards checked on him every 30 minutes. Oh no, they didn’t and lied.

-Prisoners deserve horrible treatment as part of their punishment: There is a general feeling among Americans that prisoners deserve the horrible conditions that they are in. They believe that horrible conditions are part of the punishment

-Prison crime and fape fun is inevitable:

Example: When Virginia Soccer Player was sentenced to prison for murder, one heard gaggles of people throughout the US laughing about how he would become another prisoner’s “Bit_h.”

One also hears so many police, detectives, and lawyers threaten people about life in prison including rape.

-Mostly Blacks in prison: For some, there is the view that only Blacks fill the prisons. It is true that Blacks comprise (38%) a disproportionate amount of the prison population. (It should be noted that this percentage is down from the 50% it was decades ago.)

-Tennis courts and golf courses: Amazingly, many have the belief that prisons are replete with tennis courts and golf courses.

These beliefs change when they have a loved one or friend who is imprisoned.

Prison reform in US will be a tough haul. What may be helpful is to identify other western prison systems that are rated highly and learn lessons from them. One such example is the German prison system.

Germany and the US are close allies. US, the United Kingdom, and France created the post-World War II democratic constitution. Germany’s population is about 83 million, a bit larger than the UK, France, Italy, and Spain, so about a quarter of the U.S.

German prisons reflect the German constitution that speaks of human dignity for all.

Dostoyevsky claims one can measure the degree of the civilization of a society by visiting their prisons. If that is true, how does the US measure up? I say, not well.

Jeff Rosen on TedTalks visited German prisons which fulfilled the human dignity constitutional goal. He found:

  • Each prison had their own 100 square foot cell.

  • They wore their own clothes and fixed their own food with a fully-stocked kitchen. Germans assume that this is how they will live outside of prison so this is how they should live inside prison.

  • Every prison has “furloughs” outside the prison for a few hours or overnight. .03%, do not return.

  • Prisons have lots of light, are clean, and have balconies.

  • Prisoners are free to move about.

He also learned that German prisons are generally small and the prisoners are imprisoned near their neighborhoods. The largest German prison is 1200 beds, but they are usually 300-500 beds. This is compared to Rikers Island with 14,000 beds.

US incarceration is off the charts and completely out of sync with other Western nations. Yet, the crime rate of all Western countries including the US has dropped since the 1990’s. Why the drop? Maybe better policing and evolving socio-economic conditions such as smaller families.

BTW: Germany does not frame their prisons as maximum or minimum. Instead they have prisons for

  • 5 years +

  • 5 years or less

  • Juvenile

  • Open prisons for 6 months or less.

Germany has no death penalty or solitary confinement.

The German prison atmosphere is relaxed, not tense.

Being a guard is a prestigious job. Only 10% of the applicants are accepted. Guards go through 2 years of training: mostly of a social work nature.

German prison population has decreased since 2004. It was 96 per 100,000 and now is 76 per 100,000.

These prisons focus on rehabilitation and re-socialization.

Mental Health Issues in German Prisons

According to BMJ, there is a rise in mental health issues in Germany: possibly 31%. This compares to 61% of females in US prisons and 44% of male prisoners.

Abuse of Inmates

It is rare that there are cases of correctional officers abusing inmates, so says Gary York, former military and Department of Corrections staff.


US prison statistics validate that the situation is dire and demands action. To effectuate action, this issue needs an up-front leader who will clearly state the mission, values, and goals. In the negotiations, all stakeholders must be involved. There must be a massive public education program to overturn some of the misperceptions about prisons and jails.

Although Germany has a different history and culture than the US, their prison system still could be a great model. The overriding theme which is embedded in the German constitution that the US helped to write post-World Ward II is “Human Dignity.”

Note:Media Portrayal of Prisons. Many movies and TV series portray prison life consistent with the dismal statistics noted above. A recent series, Tell Me Your Secrets, Season One, portrays two prison scenes: One, the female prisoner is allowed to be beaten and second, the male prisoner is allowed to commit suicide. The TV series Oz was on for 6 seasons. Many, seemed to watch it for the criminal scenes including rapes and assaults. The 1980 movie Brubaker starring Robert Redford also portrays the horrible prison situation in Arkansas.

The 2022 Showtime Series American Rust portrays a Pennsylvania prison where convicts and people awaiting trial are combined. A young 18-year old former high school football player, Billy, is charged with murder. He is not given bail so he is thrown in the prison. Immediately as he enters, prisoners begin whistling, catcalling ("pretty boy," "just my type"). With the help of the guards a fight is organized in which the prisoners bet. Drugs, crime, and gangs are rampant. But, of course, the guards are great at ordering the visitors not to touch their loved ones. Everything that occurs in this prison is what the administration wants.

In Episode 9, under the watchful eyes of the guards, Billy is beaten almost to death (coma) by the prison gang. Who is responsible? The judge, guards, warden, political district attorney, sheriff? Who is held accountable? No one. At one point, Billy asks who makes decisions at this prison? The guard says inmates, guards, warden: no one seems to know.


“Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.”

See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu. Clicking on any book will lead one to the discounted Amazon site.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray

Maximum Influence, The 12 Universal Laws of Power Persuasion, Kurt W. Mortensen.

Say What You Mean. Get What You Want, A Businessperson’s Guide to Direct Communication, Judith C. Tingley, Ph.D.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie. “The first-and still the best book of its kind-to lead you to success.”

How to Negotiate Like a Child-Unleash the Little Monster Within to Get Everything You Want, Bill Adler, Jr., ISBN 0-8144-7294-X

Making Your Case-The Art of Persuading Judges, Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner,, ISBN 978-0-314-18471-9

1 Comment

Jul 06, 2022

Incarceration & penal system is ineffective due mostly to treating !awbreakers as guests in a hotel. They must do hard labor, classroom studying , & Bible lessons on how to dwell in a society without breaking laws or hurting others. Also, I believe Germany is a bad pick for a model since less than 90 years ago Scientists were examining Jews before extermination-- not much human dignity involved. David.

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