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prisons today

Prisons today are very different. Severe overcrowding is now the major problem in most prisons. Cells originally built for one prisoner, now often house two or three men. Judges in the United States have ruled that many prisons are so crowded that they violate prisoners' constitutional protection from 'cruel and unusual punishment'. In the United Kingdom, conditions became so bad that prisoners were held in disused army barracks and police cells. Overcrowding was eased temporarily by releasing non serious offenders on parole.

Prisons face other problems as well. A lack of adequate funding had made improvements difficult. In addition, tensions among prisoners and between prisoners and the prison staff often run high and lead to brutal attacks. Such conditions, worsened by overcrowding, have contributed to a number of prison riots since the late 1960s. In a push to cut costs and improve efficiency, the British government began in 1993 to transfer the running of some prisons to private companies.

The current concern with crime and the problems of prisons have helped focus public attention on the continuing debate about the purposes and effectiveness of prisons. Studies have shown that even good rehabilitation programmes fail to reform many released prisoners. The apparent failure of such programmes has led many people to stress imprisonment as punishment rather than as treatment. On the other hand, experts also have failed to prove that prisons reduce the crime rate either by incapacitating offenders or by discouraging people from breaking the law. For this reason, some experts believe that it would be cheaper, more humane, and more productive to keep all dangerous offenders in community correctional centres rather than in prisons. Some courts are experimenting with sentences that allow criminals to remain out of prison. Some of these sentences require criminals to repay the victims of their crimes, and others make offenders perform various public services in the community.

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