Prisons exist around the world and every prison is different in each country. Individuals that defy the law will be subject to different punishments and every country implements different forms of punishment. In Austria, fines and incarceration are two punishments for offenders who break the law. Offenders who have a poor financial status have difficulty paying their fines, so they will be incarcerated for a certain amount of time (Bruckmüller & Graft, n.d.). However, 2008 was a turning point because community service served as a replacement for incarceration (Bruckmüller & Graft, n.d.).
In Austria, incarceration is the punishment that affects many of prisoners. The courts can implement sentences that last for many years depending on the severity of the crime. The more heinous the crime, the longer the prison sentence the offender will endure. For example, murder is between ten to twenty years or for life, rape is between six months to ten years, serious theft is three years, burglary is between six months to five years, and aggravated assault is between five to fifteen years (Bruckmüller & Graft, n.d.).
The United States has the largest incarceration rate in the entire world: over two million people. In 2013, for every 100,00 people, the United States incarcerated 707 people and Austria only had 98 (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014). Severe crimes account for heftier sentences because there are many charges that are included in the sentence. Violent offenders are incarcerated between five and twenty years in prison because violence is a serious crime compared to petty theft (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014).
The United States and Austria incarcerate many individuals, and some suffer from different aspects of prison. Some will attempt suicide because they cannot endure prison any longer, some will be sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives because of the severity of the crimes and the prisoners’ actions, and some will have deteriorating mental health due to being placed in solitary confinement. The remainder of this paper discusses the differences between the United States and Austria in their handling of prison suicide, implementing life sentences, and utilizing solitary confinement.
Suicide prevention is an extremely important topic in public health. Numerous clinics, organizations, and groups raise awareness about suicide prevention because it affects an extremely large number of people every year. Even though suicide prevention is important to many people, prison suicide often goes unrecognized. This is because the public may not be familiar with how common it is, or some individuals do not care. Common beliefs include the prisoners have already committed terrible crimes and they should rot in prison, their death would not be a loss and ‘good riddance.’ These beliefs prove that the prison suicide rate of Austria and the United States is an issue.
Austria has high suicide rates and over the past twenty years, prison suicide has been increasing (Daigle et al., 2007). Preventing suicide is of high importance to the correctional staff because of the increasing rates of suicides that occur in Austrian prisons (Frontier, Fruehwald, Schwärzler, & Bauer, 2002, as cited in Daigle et al., 2007). Prisoners must be observed when they enter prison and during their incarceration, because they are at a higher risk of suicide (Levey, 1990, as cited in Fruehwald, Frontier, Eher, Gutierrez, & Ritter, 2000). Observing the prisoners is especially important when they are first arrested and brought to the prison, as this period is when they are the most susceptible to die by suicide (Fruehwald et al., 2000).
Prisoners in Austria and the United States are evaluated similarly to see if they are a high risk of suicide during their first week, but this is only completed within this allotted time and not throughout their incarceration period (Daigle, 2007). Psychiatrists with the appropriate training are not used to conduct these evaluations because staffing is inadequate; therefore, the evaluation may not be completely accurate. Inaccurate evaluations can increase the rate of suicide among incoming prisoners because their mental health needs are not accurately discovered. To accurately examine the prisoners, Fruehwald, Frontier, Matschnig, König, and Bauer (2004) explain that there is a suicide screening that the officers use and will continue to use instead of trained psychiatrists (as cited in Daigle, 2007). Once a prisoner enters prison, the suicide screening will measure how large of a suicide risk the prisoner is, and prisoners with a low risk will continue through the prison booking process (Daigle, 2007). A prisoner that exhibits a higher risk of suicide will then be referred to a psychiatrist for further diagnoses and treatment and will be continually observed to ensure that they are not a danger to themselves (Daigle, 2007).
Throughout the literature about suicide in Austrian prisons, many researchers agree on specific factors that increase the risk of suicide in prisons: overcrowding, deprivation of certain freedoms, and the prison environment. Overcrowding Theory and Deprivation Theory are two theories that explain why prisoners may attempt suicide during their incarceration. Overcrowding Theory states that when prisoners are housed too close together and with too many people, they will become increasingly violent (Huey & McNulty, 2005). They are denied personal space and may have to share cells with many other people in the prison (Huey & McNulty, 2005). Adequate rehabilitation programs and other services are insufficient because there are too many prisoners and the prison budget cannot afford the programs for every person (Huey & McNulty, 2005). This causes frustration among the prisoners because they are not receiving services that may be of help to them (Huey & McNulty, 2005). The prisoners can give up hope because they are suffering in the overcrowded prison which can lead to suicide (Huey & McNulty, 2005).
Deprivation Theory says that prisoners will take their life when they are denied personal freedoms (Huey & McNulty, 2005). For example, suicide is more likely among maximum-security prisoners because they have increased limitations (Huey & McNulty, 2005). This is not surprising because maximum-security prisoners are more of a threat than prisoners in lower-security prisons. By limiting their freedoms, the officers can manage the prisoners easily, but this causes an increase in suicide because prisoners are not able to see their families, have personal items, etc.
The literature is supported by the Overcrowding and Deprivation Theory. Overcrowding is a major issue in Austrian prisons because this can aggravate prisoners, which leads to violence among the inmates (Marcus & Alcabes, 1993, as cited in Fruehwald, Frontier, Eher, Ritter, & Aigner, 2000). Additionally, when there is a copious number of prisoners in a small area, the officers overseeing the prisons will not focus on prisoners on an individual level (Marcus & Alcabes, 1993, as cited in Fruehwald, Frontier, Eher, Ritter, & Aigner, 2000). If prisoners require special needs while incarcerated, their needs will not be met, therefore resulting in suicide.
Deprivation of freedom is another factor of suicide because the prisoners are deprived of seeing their families, personal freedoms, goods and services, and a possible future (Radeloff, Lempp, Kettner, Rauf, Bennefeld-Kersten, & Freitag, 2017). The prisoners are isolated from the outside world, cannot talk to their families whenever they wish, are forbidden from possessing certain items, and are unsure about if they will have a hopeful future. The overcrowding becomes unbearable, so this results in high suicide levels.
Finally, suicide is more common among prisoners with citizenship than prisoners who are foreign (Radeloff et al., 2017). Similar to the United States, Austria has an influx of immigrants and some of these immigrants commit crimes and are taken to prison. The study conducted by Radeloff and colleagues (2017) demonstrated that immigrant prisoners have a more difficult time than domestic prisoners because they are interacting with foreign individuals, are not familiar with the country’s customs, and do not speak the language. Strangely, these immigrant prisoners were not as likely to die by suicide than Austrian prisoners.
Overcrowding is more of a problem than the deprivation of freedom in American prisons. Mass incarceration affects American prisons since many of the prisons “operate over capacity” (Kupers, 1999, as cited in Huey & McNulty, 2005). Overcrowding can overstimulate some prisoners and in order to prevent this, prisoners need adequate light, space, and clean air (Suto, 2007). Hayes (1995) stated that when prisoners are denied these needs, the prisoners can develop symptoms that can cause further violence (as cited in Suto, 2007). Some symptoms are psychotic which causes extreme anger and further suicidal tendencies (Suto, 2007).
Even though overcrowding is a factor that leads to suicide, some literature differs by showing that social isolation increases the rate of suicide among inmates. Marzano, Hawton, Rivlin, Smith, Piper, and Fazel (2016) conducted a descriptive study where they reviewed prisoners’ attempts of suicide. Overcrowding was not the reason to attempt suicide, rather social isolation was the issue. When prisoners were isolated from human interaction for a long time, they developed certain psychological issues which affected their mental health. Suto (2007) stated that the prisoners needed air, light, and enough space for their mental health to be stable, but Marzano and her colleagues (2016) differed by saying that the prisoners should not be isolated from other prisoners because they need human interaction.
The literature provides recommendations on how to manage prisoners who are mentally ill or have suicidal tendencies. The first recommendation is to have every correctional officer and personnel partake in suicidal prevention training and CPR because the correctional staff must know how to treat an individual that may be suicidal when they enter prison (Gater & Hayes, 2005, as cited in Suto, 2007). Officers interact with the prisoners every day and should be knowledgeable about signs of suicide because prisoners will attempt suicide over the weekend, at night, and in their cells (Gater & Hayes, 2005, as cited in Suto, 2007).
A further recommendation is to establish communication among every person involved in the prison process, such as the officers, prisoners, staff, and families (Suto, 2007). Everyone involved in the prison process must communicate well in order for stability. For example, if there is not effective communication between the medical staff and prisoners, suicidal prisoners may not receive the proper care and can have an increased risk of completing a suicide attempt.
When prisoners first enter prison, they are evaluated by a medical professional to examine if they may have suicidal symptoms. Suto (2007) recommends that prisoners should be examined more than just when they enter prison because suicide can occur at any moment. Therefore, the examination should become a process throughout a person’s incarceration to screen for any possible suicide symptoms (Suto, 2007). If a prisoner is suicidal, they should live among the other inmates or in a “mental health unit” because solitary areas would increase the risk of suicide (Suto, 2007). Many suicides occur when a person is alone; therefore, decreasing isolation would help prevent suicide attempts (Suto, 2007). Finally, suicidal prisoners should be observed often to ensure that they are not a danger to themselves or others in the prison (Suto, 2007). Prisoners may not exude signs of suicidal behavior, so it is imperative to monitor those who do not show symptoms because the officers will not know when a suicide could occur (Suto, 2007).
Life sentences are imposed by the courts on prisoners if they have committed heinous crimes and should remain in prison for the remainder of their life. The United States imposes this sentence on many prisoners, but Austria has a different approach. In earlier years, Austrian courts used the death penalty as its highest form of punishment for crimes such as murder, arson, military crimes, and property destruction (Gleispach, 1933). However, it was eliminated it in 1919 because it was too harsh of a punishment (Gleispach, 1933). Instead of the death penalty as the highest form of punishment, life sentences and hard work in prison were used to rehabilitate the prisoners and as retribution for their crimes (Gleispach, 1933). Regular sentences were amended on July 23, 1920, when conditional releases were enacted. If a prisoner is to serve a sentence, they only need to serve at least two-thirds of their sentence as a way of retribution for the crimes that they committed (Gleispach, 1933). Additionally, they must be law-abiding citizens when they are released in order for conditional releases to be considered (Gleispach, 1933). Life sentence amendments were enacted with this law because, after fifteen years, a prisoner can be considered for parole (Burgstaller, 1999). They must behave when they are in prison, or they may lengthen their sentence (Gleispach, 1933).
Prisons in the United States are different than in Austria because they impose more life sentences and continue to use capital punishment. Life sentences have been used all throughout the 20th century but started to be used more adamantly when the criminal justice system became tougher on crimes (Nellis, 2010). At first, prisoners did not have a set amount of years that they had to serve; it was a range of years as well as parole if they showed signs of rehabilitation (Nellis, 2010). Today, prisoners who have committed terrible crimes may not receive parole because they are a danger to the community (Nellis, 2010).
There are a copious number of prisoners that are serving life sentences in the United States. Nellis (2010) stated that between 2003 and 2008, there was a 22% increase of prisoners that would be in prison for the rest of their lives. This number increased to over 140,000, which is more than any other country in the world (Nellis, 2010). This is due to legislation being written that increases the penalty for criminals. Certain legislators are not in favor of granting parole to violent criminals; therefore, they help enact laws that increase the rate of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (Nellis, 2010). Regarding crimes that are worthy of life imprisonment, murder is not the only crime. Nellis (2010) adds that along with murder, life incarceration without the possibility of parole also includes “kidnapping, burglary, robbery, carjacking, and battery” in many states.
Prisons in the United States and Austria are different politically because the United States focuses on tough-on-crime strategies and Austria focuses on human rights. The United States wants to deter criminals by demonstrating that if a person commits a violent crime, they will pay for it for the rest of their life in prison. Legislators have scare tactics by preying on the public’s fear of giving criminals a lenient sentence, so the public will support legislators who are in favor of life sentences.
Austria is different because they do not enforce laws that subject prisoners to life in prison; rather, it is mandatory for the prisoners must serve a specific amount of time in prison before they will be considered for parole release (Van Zyl Smit, 2010). It is believed by the legislators and courts that “no human being should be regarded as beyond improvement and therefore should always have the prospect of being released” (Van Zyl Smit, 2010). The Council of Europe supports this idea of preserving human rights because prisoners are not given a fair chance to integrate back into Austrian society if they are incarcerated even when they are not a threat to the public (United Nations, 1994). Moreover, this is a threat to equality and their personal freedoms. A prisoner that is incarcerated for life will suffer in prison and is similar to an animal in a zoo. They are kept in a cage, which demeans them as human being, and becomes an object to the criminal justice system (United Nations, 1994).
A possible recommendation would be to address prison reform and adopt the idea that prisoners should be considered for parole. A person would be hired to evaluate prisoners and their life in prison to notice if they will change while serving their sentence (Nellis, 2010). If they make progress, they will have the opportunity for release on parole which will help with reintegration into society (Nellis, 2010). Nevertheless, the United States would have extreme difficulty adopting these policies to life sentences because the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world; therefore, considering parole release for every person would take time. Additionally, an increase of parole officers would be required, thus this would cause a problem for budgets because the increased number of parole officers would have to receive a salary. This would be an issue because some prisons cannot afford to have rehabilitation programs, especially prisons that only house women. Female-only prisons do not receive a budget that is like men’s prisons because they do not receive adequate medical treatment, rehabilitation programs, therapy services, or other services (Stohr, Jonson, & Lux, 2015).
Despite the problems that may occur in the transition from tough-on-crime to the preservation of human rights, there is evidence that the United States would benefit from shifting this focus. A study conducted in 2004 studied recidivism rates by prisoners who were released after being sentenced to life in prison. This study discovered that these individuals only had 1/3 the recidivism rate compared to other prisoners that served a lesser sentence (Nellis, 2010). Therefore, prisoners serving a different sentence with fewer years were more likely to be rearrested in the following years (Nellis, 2010). An additional study found that when prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment lived in the same area as other prisoners who would receive parole, the prisoners serving the life sentences did not commit as much ‘violent misconduct’ and were not as dangerous as those receiving parole (Johnson & McGunigall-Smith, 2008).
Additional evidence that the United States should consider reducing the number of life sentences without the possibility of parole is the fact that members of the courtroom workgroup are not in favor of these strict sentencing guidelines. Nellis (2010) accounts for the federal judges who cannot use their discretion in these types of cases. This is frustrating for the judges because if the prisoner is not a societal threat, the prisoner is still subjected to harsh law. Nellis (2010) additionally points that life sentences are often used in drug offenses, as this should not be a life punishment.
The United States and Austria use solitary confinement in their prisons, but each country has different approaches. In the United States, solitary confinement is used for punishment, is a preventative measure, is voluntary, or is used as a tool. It is used as punishment if the prisoners are committing crimes within the prison, assaulting other inmates, assaulting the guards, and other offenses (Smith, 2006). Prisoners that are plotting an escape or are a danger to themselves, such as a suicide risk, are placed into solitary confinement to prevent them from completing their plans (Smith, 2006). Smith (2006) explains that sex offenders, child molesters, and child murderers are placed into solitary at their own request because they are afraid of retaliation from the other prisoners since many of them despise criminals who commit crimes against children. Smith (2006) additionally states that correctional officers use solitary confinement to obtain confessions from offenders because they are aware that many people will confess to their crimes when they are isolated from the rest of the world. An individual can suffer in solitary confinement for an indefinite number of years, but federal prisons only allow 90 days as the maximum days an individual can stay in solitary (Mendez, Papachristou, Ordway, Fettig, & Shalev, 2016).
Solitary confinement in the United States can be viewed as worse than the death penalty because prisoners are isolated from everything. They are denied contact with others, they yell to each other as a way of communication, speak to the guards using an intercom, and are allowed an hour outside under supervision without the accompaniment of their fellow prisoners (Smith, 2006). Meals take place in solitary cells and they are allowed limited items in their cell (Smith, 2006). Some prisoners undergo severe psychological trauma while incarcerated in solitary because their mental health deteriorates.
Austrian prisons do not isolate prisoners in solitary confinement at the rate that the United States does. They incorporate solitary confinement without any restrictions to how long a prisoner will stay there, but the cells need proper ventilation, heat, and lighting in order for the prisoners to retain a healthy mental state (Mendez et al., 2016). Furthermore, the cells include one bed, a closet, a toilet and sink, and a television, while also permitting prisoners to have pictures and other personal objects to decorate their cells (Mendez et al., 2016). The prisons establish certain rules about what they are allowed to have in their cells, so the prisoners are still required to follow the rules (Mendez et al., 2016).
Along with maintaining order, the Austrian prison system uses solitary confinement to prevent suicide and protect the rest of the prison population from diseases (Mendez et al., 2016). Prisoners that have suicidal tendencies are placed into solitary confinement to protect them from mutilating themselves with objects they have in their cells (Mendez et al., 2016). From there, they are evaluated and when they are deemed mentally stable enough, they will return to their normal cells (Mendez et al., 2016). Diseases and infections can infiltrate prisons, affect the prisoners, and spread rampantly to the rest of the prisoners. Solitary is used to prevent the spread of these diseases and infections because the officers do not want the entire prison to fall ill (Mendez et al., 2016). For example, if a prisoner contracts hepatitis C, the officers will wait for a diagnosis, and then place the prisoner in solitary on a medical basis (Mendez et al., 2016). They will be treated and kept isolated until they are in better health and are non-contagious (Mendez et al., 2016).
From 1 June 2019 until 15 June 2019, social work and criminal justice students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee traveled to Linz, Austria to examine social work and criminal justice differences between the United States and Austria. One of the site visits was to Garsten Prison, a former monastery that turned into an all-men’s, a maximum-security prison. Throughout the tour of Garsten, there were many obvious differences between the United States and Austria, especially solitary confinement. Throughout videos and lectures from previous classes, solitary confinement cells in the United States are shown to be typically grey or other neutral colors. One of the cells in Garsten was neon pink; the walls, the ceiling, the bed, and the floor (A. Holzbauer, personal communication, June 14, 2019). Our contact, Albert Holzbauer, informed the group that this room was used to calm down aggressive prisoners (personal communication, June 14, 2019). They would be placed into the neon pink cell until the prisoner would deescalate their aggression, and then they would be returned to their normal cell (A. Holzbauer, personal communication, June 14, 2019). Many of the students felt that this was odd because it was an intense, bright color and believed that this would be increasingly stressful. However, this method of de-escalation proved to be useful, as there were not any prisoners currently residing in the cell (A. Holzbauer, personal communication, June 14, 2019). Additionally, Mr. Holzbauer said that solitary confinement was used for a few days or up to a week (personal communication, June 14, 2019). This is different than the United States because some prisoners have lived in solitary for years.
The literature has shown that there are differing opinions on the use of solitary confinement in the United States and Austria. The literature shows that solitary confinement is well-known for being detrimental to prisoners’ mental health. Haney (2017) argues that solitary confinement preys on the senses because there is reduced stimulation or overstimulation due to lights, noises, and smells. This can cause psychological distress because the prisoners are unable to control the lights, noises, or smells in the prison and they are not used to this (Haney, 2017). An additional source supports the argument that solitary confinement is dangerous because the prisoners’ mental state will worsen over time which can result in “anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia,” and other psychological issues (American Public Health Association, 2013, as cited in Haney, 2017).
Different literature supports the United States and Austria with their use of solitary confinement to maintain order in the prisons. Bonta and Gendreau (1990) disagree with Haney and the American Public Health Association because they believe that the lights, noises, and smells are not the issue; rather it is how the prisoners are treated by the correctional officers. If the correctional officers have a good rapport with the prisoners, the prisoners will not experience psychological distress caused by solitary confinement (Bonta & Gendreau, 1990). Gendreau and Theriault (2011) agree with Bonta and Gendreau because they report that studies showing prisoners producing psychological issues are “outliers.” These studies only show the severe negative aspects of solitary confinement and do not account for studies that show evidence for the benefits of using solitary (Gendreau & Theriault, 2011). Furthermore, Zinger, Wichmann, and Andrews (2001) conducted a study that found prisoners who were in solitary confinement experienced psychological distress, but it was not due to being segregated from the rest of the prison population; rather, psychological distress is due to the prisoners’ previous deteriorating mental health and the stigma of solitary confinement. When prisoners hear that solitary confinement will cause mental health issues, they will believe that until it becomes a reality because of the numerous studies that have shown negative effects (Zinger, Wichmann, & Andrews, 2001).
Even though the United States and Austria incorporate solitary confinement in similar ways, there are certain aspects that the United States could change. For example, Austrian prisons require the cells to have proper ventilation, heat, and lighting to prevent sensory deprivation (Mendez et al., 2016). Keeping prisoners in a healthy mental state is important; therefore, the United States should require each cell to have the proper necessities. If the cells purposely do not have proper ventilation, heat, and lighting, this would be considered to be inhumane.
Social contact is important for the prisoners and having a television in the cells may prove to be beneficial. Certain solitary confinement cells in Austria have televisions in them which can prevent psychological deterioration since the prisoners have a way of connecting to the outside world. They are isolated from the rest of the prison and the world, so it is imperative that they have human contact through the television or in person.
Numerous studies have shown that solitary confinement is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and Zinger, Wichmann, and Andrews (2001) provide recommendations for how the United States and Austria could reduce psychological distress in prisoners. The main recommendation is when prisoners are placed into solitary confinement, they should meet with a psychologist for observation (Zinger, Wichmann, & Andrews, 2001). This can help target mentally ill prisoners since prisoners who suffer from mental illnesses have an increasingly difficult time coping with solitary confinement (Zinger, Wichmann, & Andrews, 2001). Therefore, mentally ill prisoners can receive certain treatments that they need and prevent their mental health from declining (Zinger, Wichmann, & Andrews, 2001).
In the future, solitary confinement should be studied further in the United States and Austria because the literature supports both sides of the argument. Austrian prisons should conduct more studies because there are not many current studies that support reducing the use of solitary confinement. Additionally, the United States and Austria should follow the recommendations from previous studies and show if the recommendations make an impact on the prisoners’ mental health.