The Missing Link: Jail and Prison Conditions in Criminal Justice Reform

37 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2019 Last revised: 3 Feb 2021

See all articles by Andrea C. Armstrong

Andrea C. Armstrong

Loyola University New Orleans College of Law

Date Written: September 9, 2019


This article highlights the actual impact of conditions inside prisons/jails for criminal justice reform efforts. The recent consensus towards reducing incarceration – most recently through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative – omits prison conditions from reform. Limiting reform to diversion and re-entry ignores the real toll that violence, minimal medical/mental health care, solitary confinement, and economic/social isolation have on people incarcerated. What happens in prison does not stay in prison, but instead can undermine public safety. Part I assesses reforms across 23 states and finds that none addressed conditions of incarceration. Part II argues that conditions undermine diversion by aggravating the root causes of crime and enlarging the population at the front end of the criminal legal system. Similarly, re-entry programs are hobbled by years of, at best, physical, mental, and social neglect, undermining the ability of people recently released from prison to succeed. These harms are also disproportionately imposed on women and racial minorities. Part III offers strategies to integrate prison conditions into reform efforts. First, systematic data on conditions, paired with expertise from people formerly incarcerated, can improve transparency and propel accountability for prison conditions. Second, eliminating the “user-fee” approach to incarceration can make the true cost of incarceration more visible, while also mitigating the economic isolation of incarcerated people. More specifically, the article urges reform advocates to enforce existing laws, implement federal laws at the state level, and import issue-expertise into best practices for prisons and jail populations. Improved conditions can help break cycles of incarceration, enhance economic and social ties post- release, build equity for disproportionately impacted groups, and ultimately help build a safer society.

Keywords: prison law, incarceration rates, social justice

Suggested Citation

Armstrong, Andrea C., The Missing Link: Jail and Prison Conditions in Criminal Justice Reform (September 9, 2019). 80 La. L. Rev. 1 (2019), Loyola University New Orleans College of Law Research Paper No. 2019-21, Available at SSRN:

Andrea C. Armstrong (Contact Author)

Loyola University New Orleans College of Law ( email )

7214 St. Charles Ave., Box 901
Campus Box 901
New Orleans, LA 70118
United States

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