Overcrowding in American Jails and Prisons

June 5, 2018 Law

The issue of overcrowding in American jails and prisons is not unheard of. It is frequently discussed amongst politicians and American citizens alike. This is a controversial issue considering the large number of different opinions many people have. Though the issue is certainly acknowledged, it is rare that a feasible solution is discussed. According to Vincent Tompkins, one of the many editors in American Decades, most Americans chose to not dwell on the growing crime problem during the 1950s.

This was evident through the increase in prison population, which, by the end of the decade, was 22,492 men and women in federal penitentiaries, and 185,021 in state facilities. Tompkins and the rest of the editors compare the amount of prisoners to the size of a city like Tulsa, Oklahoma to put the issue during the 1950s into perspective. However, the amount of prisoners were not the only problem the prison system was faced with. In 1952 alone, there were twenty riots in various federal and state penitentiaries (Tompkins 242). David S.

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Clark, the editor of the Encyclopedia of Law and Society: American and Global Perspectives, describes overcrowded prisons as, “a breach of United Nations and other international standards that require that states treat prisoners with respect to their inherent dignity. ” Clark calls attention to what follows overcrowding, including restricted living space, poor conditions of hygiene, poor sanitation arrangements, less time available for outdoor activities, etc. He claims the result of these conditions are an increase in violence, including suicide and self-injury (Clark 1177).

According to “Equal Justice Initiative,” an organization that works toward ending mass incarceration, the U. S. incarcerates more of their citizens in comparison to any other country in the world. Jail and prison populations have increased from 200,000 to 2. 3 million in the past 40 years. This not only lead to unprecedented prison overcrowding, but also put a huge strain on state budgets. For instance, Alabama’s prisons were built with the intention of holding up to 14,000 prisoners, but instead hold double the amount—28,000.

Alabama is one of many states who are faced with the crisis of overcrowding. The inmate to correctional officer ratio in Alabama is the highest in the country, which only illustrates how serious of an issue overcrowding is. Many Alabama prisoners are on “waiting lists” for solitary confinement. Due to unsafe prison conditions, “Equal Justice Initiative” reports a rise in lawsuits where courts have described overcrowding in both state and local facilities as “barbaric. ” The conditions of some of these Alabamian prisons are extreme.

Some prisoners are forced to sleep on concrete floors where the, “sardine-can appearance of cell units more nearly resemble the holding units of slave ships during the Middle Passage of the eighteenth century than anything in the twenty-first century. ” Considering these unbelievable facts about prison conditions, the questions remains: how would one resolve the issue of overcrowding? Probably the most universally agreed upon idea is to incarcerate fewer drug offenders. Saki Knafo reports in the Huffington Post that 219,000 inmates in federal prison, which, in comparison to the 25,000 in 1980, is a dramatic increase.

Knafo writes that half of those prisoners are drug offenders, and that if 20 percent fewer (non-violent) drug offenders were imprisoned, the federal government would save $1. 29 billion, and prisons would save 125,000 bed years—or a year’s worth of prison time for one person. Among similar lines, another possible solution would be to reduce the incarceration time drug offenders face. If given the opportunity to reduce one year off their prison time by participating in a drug rehabilitation program, Knafo reports the savings to be 880 bed years, and $9.1 million for the U. S. economy. This is supposedly in effect, though due to overcrowding, many prisoners awaiting their opportunity have less than a year of incarceration time when they are offered a place in the program. Expanding this program would not only provide prisoners with a more successful program—which would prevent many released convicts from repeating similar drug related crimes that caused their imprisonment initially—but would also create a number of jobs, which, statistically, would reduce crime rates.

Another idea that could potentially reduce the overcrowding in prisons is to release some elderly prisoners from custody. Knafo claims that after the age of 55, released prisoners are “highly unlikely to commit new crimes, according to many studies. ” Despite the lack of a threat those over the age of 55 are, 17,400 federal prisoners are older than 55. It is evident that there are numerous ways to lessen the amount of incarcerated prisoners, while still ensuring the safety of others on the street. Claiming the United States has an addiction to imprisonment when it comes to preventing crime is certainly arguable.

Though many of these potential solutions can be considered controversial, it is difficult to deny that things could be done to lessen the overcrowding in prisons and jails. Some might say the U. S. overlooks many alternatives to incarceration. Though arguable, considering the facts and statistics, it certainly could be beneficial for the U. S. to broaden their punishment and rehabilitation methods when it comes to non-violent crimes. Considering alternatives to imprisonment could not only be profitable, but also advantageous.


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