In the history of crime and law enforcement there has been a constant demand for a way to deal with captured criminals. It was a concept designed solely to prevent the suspect from committing any further crimes. Though there was no real end game in mind, the idea was that being imprisoned was punishment enough. This proved rather ineffective as many criminals will pick up right where they left off after being released. Overcrowding, corruption, lack of funding and abuse of prisoners are just a few of the many problems facing the US prison system.
Prison guards have rather low requirements in order to work at most prisons. When someone chooses this job you have to consider their motivations. What could possibly inspire someone to pick such a career? Perhaps the simple attraction to authority, they are granted absolute power over the prisoners and dictate every aspect of their life. In many ways a prisoner relies on the guards and if this power is abused then prisoners are the ones who suffer. With such little oversight prison guards can theoretically get away with murder or simply allow it, which does not present the environment needed to properly rehabilitate.
To stay with the environment theme, overcrowding is a huge issue for US prisons. A prison alone is so restrictive in personal space that crowding in too many people can further poison the situation. It's one thing to get stuck in a packed elevator and bumping elbows with a bunch of strangers, but if you knew each of those strangers to be a convicted criminal... it might cause some negative reactions. Prone to violence already, most criminals will react to all of this by committing violent acts against each other and the guards.
Prisons require a substantial amount of tax payer money to keep running. Food, power, heat and payrolls really add up in a building being run 24/7. Then there's expansions to house more prisoners, upgrading security systems and plenty of other expenses. The government has to budget where all the money goes and though jails are needed, they hardly rate top of the list. With an increase in crime rates, it only promises to cost tax payers more money in the future. A consideration for all tax payer money is asking, what do we get back? When criminals are constantly in and out of prison, we're not quite seeing the return on our investment.
Solutions are few and far between, reducing crime rates would be ideal, though unlikely. More oversight would help, all the stories of guards abusing prisoners has to make you wonder. The prisoners also need to be better protected from each other, the entire concept of putting violent offenders in a building together is ludicrous. Educational programs are a great leap forward, if they were available on the outside those prisoners might not be there in the first place. Prisons with work programs are also a great idea, prisons paying for themselves should save Uncle Sam a few bucks. A lot of reform needs to take place before prisons are considered acceptable, but I think the main focus needs to be on keeping people out of prison to begin with.