The overcrowding in American prisons today is a major ongoing problem. This issue effects many people not just the prisons alone. This has an importance on the quality of the prisons and the treatment of the prisoners and prison staff. The American tax payer also has something to lose in this because after all they are paying into the taxes that build and sustain these prisons. Although this is not a topic that is headlining the news or magazines, this should be an active discussion. With more and more prisons being built every year, this a cause for concern. We understand that yes we are growing in population each year and it does make sense that we would need more prisons than in the early and mid 1900’s but we are talking about 23 prisons in California alone since 1980 as reference in a Huffington Post article in 2013. With this significant growth it brings up the question, why is this happening?
From the 1960’s to the 1980’s there was a drastic rise in the crime rates in America. Although there was also a rise of drugs and the introduction of crack and cocaine, the crimes were linked to criminals not being punished enough and being let out only to repeat offenses. As a result measures were passed to help reduce crime. As quoted in an article by Joan Petersilia, “Legislatures responded by passing get tough measures,” to state a few this is where the three-strike-rule was adapted and mandatory minimum sentences was introduced. Two-thirds of criminals being imprisoned were Hispanic or African American and this when the term “mass incarceration” started to make it’s appearance. Many of the prisoner were there on non-violent crimes and drug offenses and because of the new measures they were getting harsh sentences or if previous drug violations had been sentenced, then they would receive life in prison. This was the start of the overcrowding in our prisons and state jails. Now in 2017 as showed in a chart by Prison Policy, 1 in 5 people incarcerated are there on drug offenses. The majority of the people that are incarcerated are there on non-violent crimes such as burglary, DUI, fraud, theft and others. With, reported by Prison Policy, 704,000 are there on violent crimes for example rape, murder, manslaughter. This is just state prisons, not including federal, local jails, and juvenile youth detention.
The overcrowding causes many problem to the inmates, staff and the American citizens. With the overcrowding it reduces the quality of the prisons. As article published by the Bureau of Prisons states, an increase in double and triple bunking. Also converting common places like a TV room into a room to temporarily house inmates. Also, this is causing fewer opportunities for jobs, to keep inmates busy. This could cause inmates to build up tension resulting in a lot more fights and arguments among each other. Overcrowding affects showers, toilets, the use of water, phones and etc. Although the population has increased the staff has not. The same amount of guards are watching over the growing inmate population and it creates an unsafe environment for them. As reported in the Bureau Of Prisons report “BOP officials and union representatives voiced concerns about a serious incident occurring. To manage its growing population, BOP staggers meal times and segregates inmates involved in disciplinary infractions, among other things”. The officials have to develop different plans in efforts to make it safer and help ease some tension inside the prisons.
So how much is this costing us? Based on the Prisons Bureau document as of July 19, 2016 “The fee to cover the average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates in Fiscal Year 2015 was $31,977.65 ($87.61 per day). (Please note: There were 365 days in FY 2015.) The average annual cost to confine an inmate in a Residential Re-entry Center for Fiscal Year 2015 was $26,082.90 ($71.46 per day)”. In just California it is costing the taxpayer close to $10 billion, as quoted by Huffington Post. There is pressure to invest in programs that will help keep the prisoners out of jail. The ACLU stated in Policy Priority for Prison Reform “prisons do nothing to help the prisoners when they are out.” With them already having a criminal record their options are limited. Programs exist that could help the inmates while in prison and on sharpening skills or help with drug and alcohol counseling and even with anger management to help keep them out when they are let out. Offering classes to help them get a high school diploma or GED, will already increase their chances of being able to get a job once they are out. The chances of being a repeat offender are very high, which is causing the criminal system to release inmates now more than ever to help overcrowding, but they’re very likely to be back in prison. Then there is the argument that system is releasing criminals in to the street to make room for new inmates and making it more dangerous for citizens. While that may be true, a non-violent drug offender is being put in prison with inmates with charges like murder, rape, manslaughter. Then having to deal with the overcrowded hostile prison life, only to be let out with a background that is going to make it difficult for employment. Taking all this into account, the next crime this drug offending criminal makes might be a step harsher. Adding programs that could benefit the inmates for life outside of prison could help break the cycle of repeated offender and help keep them out.
I believe more efforts need to be done to improve the prisons, although the inmates did commit a crime they are people and should be treated fairly. Some inmates to deserve to be there but let’s not ignore the non-violent criminals that made a mistake and deserve a second chance. In July 2015 now ex President Barack Obama went to a federal prison in Oklahoma and met with inmates that were incarcerated for low level drug offenses. He was pushing for prison reform to fix a broken system that will help individuals not end up in prison and rehabilitate the inmates in prison. The reforms Barack Obama was supporting didn’t get approval of congress but in 2017 the reforms should be brought up again and hopefully we see a change. We could see a change in the right direction with many states passing drug reforms that will help reduce the amount of individuals going to prison on minor drug offenses. I hope this is one step followed by many more to fix the criminal system. With the amount of money this is costing Americans and the unfair treatment that is being showed to inmates, this prison overcrowding issue should not be fading in the background.
- The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Policy Priorities for Prison Reform” Jan. 31, 2001.
- Petersillia, Joan “Beyond the Prison Bubble” National Institute of Justice Nov 12, 2011.
- BUREAU OF PRISONS: Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure GAO-12-743: Published: Sep 12, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2012.
- Saki Knafo “Prison-Industrial Complex? Maybe It’s Time For A Schools-Industrial Complex” Huffington Post August 30, 2013
- Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy “Mass incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017” March 14, 2017.