Prison overcrowding, the effects & alternative methods of reform

As we are all aware of the economic crisis that our country is in, there may be an issue that a lot of people may not be cognizant of. Over the last 30 years, U.S. prisons have quadrupled in inmate population causing serious security, health, and financial issues within these correctional facilities. The population is up nearly 700 percent; from approximately 25,000 inmates and 41 institutions in 1980 to 193,616 inmates and 114 institutions as of January 11, 2006 (the estimate for FY 2008 is 202,584 inmates and 115 institutions). (Lofthus, 2008)

These correctional facilities operate at populations well over their limits which puts a burden on the welfare of the people that are in them. California prisons are so overcrowded - 16,000 inmates are assigned cots in hallways and gyms - that the governor recently took the highly unusual step of declaring a state of emergency in the system. The state's prisons house 173,000 inmates - far ahead of Texas, which has the next largest state prison system with 152,500 inmates - and has an $8 billion budget. (The New York Times, 2007) As many people are working to lower these numbers, we have yet to see a break on the hold that these conditions have on our prison and jail systems. Research has shown that in almost every article and publication that has been written on overcrowding, that it is a huge problem and it has been known since the early 1980's. The latest data has also indicated that putting more people in prison doesn't necessarily lower the crime rate. So if all of this information is out and billions of dollars are being shoved into prison budgets every year, why is nothing being done? Well the answer to that is there are numerous things being done on smaller scales. In most prisons they are adding more beds to cells, converting gyms into one large cell (figure1.1) and throwing hundreds of triple beds in it to accommodate the population overgrowth. In figure1.1 it shows the effects of overcrowding. This doesn't do anything but add to the problem. In the smaller cells, the triple bunk beds take up what little space they had. These new adjustments have caused a serious rise in security and health risks that affects not only the inmates but the guards that work there as well. Inmates in overcrowded prison settings have to socialize with people they do not know, live in exceedingly close dwellings where there is no privacy or seclusion. Living in such tight quarters causes greater tension, frustration, and anger among the inmate population, which leads to conflicts, violence, and widespread prison rape. A concern that should not be overlooked or taken for granted in any way.


From 1984 to 2000 jails in the United States operated with inmate populations that were at or above 90% of their overall rated capacity. (Haney, 2008) This is becoming a very serious issue and it is coming at an exceedingly fast rate. For example, California's prisoner population expanded eight-fold from roughly 20,000 in the early 1970s to its current population of approximately 160,000 prisoners. (Haney, 2008) This kind of increase in prisoner population is a major concern. The welfare of the guards and inmates alike are at much higher risks and with the prisoner population rising it is causing the correctional facilities to be greatly understaffed. What this is doing is putting one guard with several inmates and making it easier for inmates to escape or cause harm.

Another serious and very risky move that some of the correctional facilities are doing is reclassifying inmates and transferring them into other prisons. This means that inmates classified as a medium risk gets reclassified to a low risk and likewise so that other correctional facilities will accept them. (Velie, 2009)This strategy has led the correctional facilities to have to purchase very expensive security hardware such as sophisticated surveillance equipment, metal detectors, x-ray machines, leg irons, waist chains, black boxes, holding cages, violent prisoner restraint chairs, psychiatric screens, concertina wire, tasers, stun guns, pepper spray, tear gas canisters, gas grenades, and, in some jurisdictions, mini-fourteen and nine millimeter rifles as well as twelve gauge shotguns. With prison population this high correctional facilities have to maintain very harsh policies, rigid order, and extremely strict control. Without this kind of control on such large populations there would be chaos that would spiral out of control with a vengeance. A 2006 report from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that reported inmate-on-staff assaults increased 6 percent over the prior fiscal year. (The U.S. Department of Justice , 2009) Although the guards are trained in areas that will help them in situations such as group control or partnered inmates trying to escape, the fact still remains that this is an unwanted scenario by any of the staff.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times stated that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to cut Correctional Officer salaries by 10%. With that being said, please note that California has the largest population overcrowding problem in the United States. The facilities already operate at about 85% staff, where as inmate population is at well over 160%. BOP standards state that it is mandatory to keep staffing levels at or above 90% for normal situations. Well, these are by no means "normal situations".

Most prison guards are union workers and now that the word is out about Gov. Schwarzenegger, there have been threats of a guard strike. According to Cal Coast News, in 1978, prison guards waged a massive sickout protesting issues regarding wages, benefits, and guard's requests to be recognition as peace officers. At the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo County, only three guards crossed the picket line to join supervisors in running the prison. Officials initiated a system wide lockdown. Though quiet at first, inmates eventually created floods by blocking toilets, broke windows, and started riots. Within a few days, Governor Jerry Brown conceded to the guards' demands. (Velie, 2009) California now spends $14,000 a year per inmate on health care, far above the national average. California has 33 prisons that houses 172,000 prisoners which are only suppose to hold half of that.


Another substantial disturbance is the fact that these overcrowded correctional facilities are homes to thousands of physically and mentally ill inmates. There is no sufficient way of reducing disease as there are not enough rooms to quarantine sick inmates. Rape and HIV in prison is eight to ten times as high as in the general population. There are numerous diseases in these prisons with one in five men being sexually assaulted; one in ten has been raped. (Washington Times, 2002) Among women inmates, the rate of sexual abuse can be as high as 27 percent in some prisons, and some inmates have become pregnant after being raped by prison guards. (Washington Times, 2002) These alarming incidences have major consequences behind them. With drug use, tattooing, piercings, anal sex, and rape being the top contributors to the wide spread of diseases such as AIDS, herpes, TB, hepatitis C, and other sexually transmitted diseases; the major concern should be that 90% of these convicts will be released back into the general public and continuing to spread these terrible diseases to innocent people.

As for mental stability amongst the prisoners, the Bureau of Justice (2009) reported at midyear 2005 more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, including 705,600 inmates in State prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails. An estimated 15% of State prisoners and 24% of jail inmates reported symptoms that met the criteria for a psychotic disorder. (The U.S. Department of Justice , 2009) The effort to help these inmates whether physically or mentally ill has resulted in millions of dollars in efforts to control these diseases or mental disorders. For some prisoners the diseases are too chronic to even starting treatment and there are no relief efforts for early release of prisoners that are that sick.

The California prisons are the subject of several lawsuits, their medical program is in federal receivership, and various other components of the system are under court monitoring. The courts had given the state until this spring to come up with an overpopulation plan or face possible receivership. (The New York Times, 2007) Dr Ashok Rayani, who works at Swansea prison, said jail health services were not sufficiently staffed or funded to cope with rising numbers of inmates. (News, 2007) Dr Rayani also stated that delays in treating inmates were partly caused by a shortage of prison officers to escort them to hospital. (News, 2007) Many of the causes of health problems in inmates are due to a lack of sufficient funds for staff and medical supplies to cover the overwhelming demand of population growth. Most of the finances go towards rebuilding neglected issues with buildings and now remodeling to help house more inmates so therefore there is not enough money for a larger staff. As a matter of fact most states are still trying to cut back on staff. It looks more like a tug of war that has reached a stalemate.


The 2008 Budget provides $5.4 billion for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and $1.3 billion for the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee (OFDT). (The U.S. Department of Justice , 2009) One article stated that in a move to ease chronic overcrowding, California lawmakers on Thursday approved the largest single prison construction program in the nation's history and agreed to send 8,000 convicts to other states. The plan, which would cost $8.3 billion and add 53,000 beds, has the strong backing of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, who is eager to avert a federal takeover of the state's prison system, one of the most dysfunctional in the nation. (The New York Times, 2007) Plans such as these are huge burdens to the economy because it is causing the tax payers to have to suffer the consequences of such enormous projects. The social cost of eradicating our already- chafed safety net in order to flourish prisons is beyond computation. We forfeit precious community resources to preserve a prison system that creates imbalance, ill health and disease, while flunking to keep us safe.

A recent request for $5.6 billion in fiscal 2009 for the cash-strapped Bureau of Prisons has been made, which is on the verge of cutting thousands of correctional staff positions after years of underfunding. The $5.6 billion - $5.55 billion for the salaries and expenses account and $400 million for the buildings and facilities account - is an increase of about $530 million over the 2008 level. (The U.S. Department of Justice , 2009) The Committee recommends $5,595,754,000 for the salaries and expenses of the Federal Prison System, which is $545,314,000 over the fiscal year 2008 enacted level and $160,000,000 above the budget request. (The U.S. Department of Justice , 2009)

The plans to reform the prisons to hold more prisoners and to get the Guard to inmate ratio down are in the making; however, if the prison systems do not start revising the laws to allow a different punishment for non-violent offenders, there will still be a problem with overcrowding and the financial structure will still not be enough to compensate for the problem.


Boot Camps

Prison alternatives are on the rise to try to accommodate the rising rates of prison overpopulation. The first boot camps began in the United States in Georgia and Oklahoma in 1983. The intention was to maximize deterrence, to reduce prison crowding, to reduce the rising costs of prison housing and to reduce relapse. Boot camps are intended to be less restrictive than prison but harsher than probation. They stress vigorous physical activity, drill and ceremony, manual labor, and other activities that ensure that participants have little, if any, free time. Strict rules govern all aspects of conduct and appearance. Correctional officer's act as drill instructors, initially using intense verbal tactics designed to break down inmates' resistance and lead to constructive changes. (Ashcroft, Daniels, & Hart, 2009) Boot camps have three main goals: reducing recidivism, reducing prison populations, and reducing costs. As for two of the three goals the Boot Camps showed positive results, however, for reducing recidivism it had a 52% fail rate, mostly because of such short terms. The average term was 90 to 120 days which are definitely not long enough to show a change in the recidivism.

Electronic Monitoring

Another popular alternative to prison is the use of Electronic Monitoring also known as tagging. This is a device that is usually attached to the wrist or ankle of the violator. The device monitors the offender and the specified location where he or she is required to be present. The device transmits an electronic signal indicating whether the offender has had any unauthorized absences or has tampered with the device. In the United States, for example, only 826 offenders participated in electronic monitoring programs in 1987; by 1998, this number had increased to over 95,000. (National Law Enforcement Corrections Technology Center, 1999)

Electronic monitors can be used in a number of situations, including pre-trial services on conditional release and convicted offenders on probation, parole or house arrest. It may also be used as part of intensive supervision or work release programs. If a decision is made to release an accused on a recognizance bond (a bond that does not require a payment to be made to the court) in some areas in the United States, a judge may order that the accused be monitored electronically. Monitoring at the pre-trial stage allows offenders with limited financial resources to return to their homes to await trial, rather than spend weeks or months in custody. (Howard, 2000) Participation in electronic monitoring programs at the post-trial stage is determined either by the courts or by corrections authorities, but to participate in the program, an offender must pose only a minimum risk, be non-violent and have four months or less remaining in his sentence. If these criteria are met, the offender is released on a temporary absence and allowed to return his home while under the supervision of corrections workers. (Howard, 2000) In the United States, it is estimated that electronic monitoring supervision costs between $5 and $25 per offender per day which translates to a range of $1,825 to $9,125 per year. (Howard, 2000) Compared to $45-$60 per day inside prison is quite a difference of savings and it also offers relief of the overcrowding effect.


Now some states are allowing murderers and other violent offenders' early release due to a temporary cost-saving program. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is suggesting early release of about 1,000 inmates while New York Governor David Paterson wants early release for 1,600 inmates. While this is a good idea for some inmates, allowing the most violent inmates to be released is not the best choice to make.

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