A department of corrections is a governmental agency responsible for overseeing the incarceration, release, and rehabilitation of persons convicted of crimes within the jurisdiction.[i] These departments oversee the entire penal and rehabilitative aspects of the criminal justice system for their jurisdiction, and manage inmates at multiple prisons, jails, and other facilities within their systems. At this time, the United States has 53 department of corrections: a federal department, a department for each of the 50 states, a department for each of the 2 extraterritorial jurisdictions However, these departments may go by other names. For example, the federal department of corrections is known as the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).[ii]
While they are familiar to people who interact with the modern criminal justice system, departments of corrections are actually a relatively new invention in the realm of criminal justice. For decades, the criminal justice system and various social aid systems were intertwined; this made sense given that poverty was, in many places, itself a crime. People could be jailed for being poor and inmates were then forced to work as part of their incarceration. While the United States never had the same system of debtors’ prisons that marred the criminal justice systems in other countries, there was still an overlap between criminal justice and social justice systems, which meant that the systems were often managed by the same organizations or individuals.
In addition, while there have been prisons or jails in parts of the United States since the beginning of the nation, many states and territories were late adopters of formalized criminal justice systems. Many states began with a single prison facility for all offenders or even shipped their prisoners to different jurisdictions for confinement. In addition, federal prisoners were initially housed in state facilities. There was simply no need for a formalized department of corrections in many areas because those areas had small populations and small, easily-managed prison populations.
Furthermore, while there have always been prison reform advocates, conditions in U.S. prisons were abysmal throughout much of the country’s history. Other than a handful of vocal advocates, few people outside of prison were aware of those conditions, much less willing to advocate on behalf of convicted criminals. Therefore, even in states with larger prison populations, there was no push for the type of prison reform that would require an organized oversight agency. However, as prison populations continued to grow, more people outside of prison became aware of prison conditions, which helped increase the demand for state-level oversight agencies.
The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 dramatically changed sentencing guidelines for federal offenders in the United States.[iii] The result was a population explosion in federal prisons. Many states developed their own sentencing reform acts, which, like the federal act, were aimed at drug offenders, and resulted in population explosions in their state prisons systems. This dramatic and rapid population increase created a housing crisis in prisons. In addition, because many of these new prisoners were addicts, if prisons wanted to accomplish rehabilitation goals, they had to focus on implementing drug addiction treatment programs. Having a centralized department of corrections was seen as a way to help manage large populations and incorporate rehabilitation efforts in the prison setting.
Locating a State Department of Corrections
The easiest way to locate a state’s department of corrections is to run an internet search for that state and the term “department of corrections.” For most states, the official website for their corrections department will be within the first few results. For those without internet access, contacting those departments can be more difficult. To make things easier, we have provided links to all of the state departments of corrections and the Bureau of Prisons at the end of this article.
Responsibilities of the Department of Corrections
Because these departments are run on a state level, their responsibilities vary from state to state. Generally, they are not only responsible for overseeing prisoners, but also for running prisons and overseeing any private prisons utilized by the states. In most jurisdictions, departments of corrections are also in charge of offenders who are on supervised release, whether that release is probation or parole.
Resources Offered by the Department of Corrections
Prison conditions vary wildly within the United States, with some states known for having prison systems that successfully focus on rehabilitation, while other states have a reputation for harsh and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that state departments of corrections offer varying resources for the inmates in their systems. In almost all states, prisoners have access to some type of basic housing, food, healthcare, education, mental healthcare, and addiction treatment services, though the level of access and adequacy of these resources is inconsistent. In states that focus on rehabilitation, inmates may have access to vocational training, counseling, community service programming, and other resources. Resources can also vary from facility to facility in the same department of corrections.
Links to Departments of Corrections in the United States
[i] U.S. Legal. (2001-2016). Department of Corrections Law & Legal Definition. Retrieved September 28, 2016 from U.S. Legal website: http://definitions.uslegal.com/d/department-of-corrections/
[ii] Federal Bureau of Prisons. (2016). A Storied Past. Retrieved September 28, 2016 from the Federal Bureau of Prisons website: https://www.bop.gov/about/history/
[iii] U.S. Department of Justice. (1991). The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and Sentencing Guidelines. Retrieved September 28, 2016 from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service website: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/136370NCJRS.pdf