Our current period of mass incarceration is locking up more people than ever and there is a real case to be made that the resulting prisons overcrowding qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.
Our Prisons Have Run Out of Room
In 2011, prisoners in California began filing lawsuits after prison populations reached such high numbers that violence and mental health issues were spiking. According to lawyers in the cases, mentally ill prisoners were being found “hanged to death in holding tanks where observation windows are obscured with smeared feces, and discovered catatonic in pools of their own urine after spending nights in locked cages.”
The Supreme Court declared California’s prison overcrowding unconstitutional, mandating that around 30,000 felons be released or transferred to local supervision.
Though the situation was extreme in California, the issue of overcrowded prison cells is not unique to that state. All over the country, inmate populations are increasing and corrections departments do not have the budget or the space to accommodate them.
According to a 2011 study by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), as of 2011, federal prisons were 39 percent over capacity. By 2018, they are expected to be more than 45 percent over capacity.
What Overcrowding Does to Prisons
It can not only be stressful and mentally harmful to inmates when populations are high, but it can restrict access to dining halls, bathrooms, laundry rooms and television rooms. Jobs and educational courses can become less available. Some prisons have even had to reduce prisoners’ visitation time. All of these factors can significantly reduce the inmates’ quality of life.
The overcrowding additionally affects the general usage and upkeep of the facility, which affects the facility itself, the environment and the local community.
Another major issue with overcrowding is the lack of staff available in prisons to handle the larger numbers. According to the BOP study, nearly all prisons have fewer correctional staff on board than needed, with an estimated shortage of more than 3,200. This has had a negative effect on the workforce, which in turn affects the inmates as well.
With fewer staff to watch the inmates, inmate conduct is negatively affected and discipline cannot be properly imposed, increasing the chances of violent incidents between prisoners and guards.
How Prisons Are Handling the Issue
Prisons have had to implement additional measures and programs to control the problems caused by overcrowding, with a particular emphasis on controlling inmate movement.
Measures like instituting earlier in-cell hours at night as well as staggering meal times and recreational activities are implemented so that staff members have fewer inmates to supervise at any given time.
Disciplinary housing is also being used to separate inmates who cause issues from the rest of the population, which has proven successful. On the other hand, preferential housing has also been proven useful in rewarding inmates for good behavior. In this housing with fewer inmates, there is closer access to phones, showers and other privileges that are awarded to inmates who keep the peace and clean their rooms.
Education programs are being expanded to accommodate growing populations. For example, classes are being held in the evening or are being spliced so that different sections can learn different parts of the area of study. Prisoners are receiving incentive prizes for completing courses in order to decrease inmate idleness and prepare them for re-acclimation into society.
How States Are Handling the Issue
States such as Kansas, Mississippi, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin have been trying to stem the growth of their prison populations using new strategies in prisons.
Some of the main strategies include: modifying criminal statutes and sentencing, moving inmates from state to local facilities or community corrections, and providing inmates with good-time credit or adjusting their sentences based on positive behavior.
New York has modified its sentences for nonviolent drug felony offenders, and has reported decreases in prison populations due to the policy change.
Mississippi expanded the use of house arrest, while Kansas and New York added drug rehabilitation programs as an alternative to incarceration for low-level drug offenders.
New York and Kansas also allow inmates who complete certain rehabilitative programs to be released earlier, through the use of parole hearings and compliance credits, respectively. New York officials state that since 1998, approximately 37,000 inmates have been released because of this policy.
Though states have the freedom to implement these strategies, federal law does not allow the BOP to transfer inmates or supervise the release of inmates outside of current law. Mandatory minimum sentences restrict the ability to grant early release or otherwise modify prison sentences.
What’s Needed to Really Make an Impact?
Though state prisons are doing everything they can to manage their growing prison populations, the real problem is that our prison populations just shouldn’t be growing this much. Since corrections budgets are already going through the roof, simply adding more money to state budgets to control these populations will not work.
The real solution will be repealing legislation that mandates long prison sentences for every offense, finding solutions to recidivism and investing in programs like drug and alcohol courses that serve as alternatives to incarceration.
Only by sending fewer people to prison can we really solve the issue of overcrowding. Until then, overcapacity rates are only expected to go up.