Being tough on a crime isn’t a bad thing, but there must be a logical conclusion to that toughness. The punishment needs to fit the crime and for the United States, that doesn’t always happen. An outsider looking at the US prison system could easily come to the conclusion that the nation has an addiction to incarceration.
About 1% of the population of the United States is in prison right now.
The incarceration rates in the US easily lead the world, although prison overpopulation percentages aren’t as bad as they are in other countries. In Haiti, for example, there are running at over 200% above capacity, but there are less than 10,000 total prisoners in this small island nation. Venezuela and the Philippines have equally high overpopulation percentages. In comparison, the United States on the whole is operating at 100% capacity – full, but not overfull.
- In May 2013, the US Supreme Court ordered the State of California to begin reducing its prison population.
- More than 30,000 California prison inmates initiated a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement practices that were incorporated because of space issues.
- Disease rates can be 100 times greater in a prison, especially when considering diseases like tuberculosis.
- Despite declining crime rates, the state and federal prison population increased from 307k to 1.6 million from 1978 to 2009.
- From 2009-2012, prison population rates actually declined in the United States, but this stopped in 2013 with a 6,500 increase in prisoners at the state level.
- The federal prison population decreased in size for the first time since 1980, with 1,900 fewer prisoners in 2013 than in 2012.
- The number of persons admitted to state or federal prison during 2013 increased by 4%, from 608,400 in 2012 to 631,200 in 2013.
- Between 1977 and 1985, the total growth in state and federal prison population had increased by 68%, causing 10,000 state prisoners to be housed in local jails.
How can we be tough on crime and not need to spend billions on prisoner populations that only tend to reinforce negative behaviors? There are a number of options available thanks to modern technology. House arrest is a very real possibility with GPS location technology, especially if someone can work at a home-based business. This would allow incarceration to occur, but the individual could still make money for restitution, mortgage payments, or other needs. Grocery delivery is possible with online orders. Although most of the overpopulation issues are in California, the laws are designed to put as many people in prison as possible. That’s the problem that the US faces with prison overpopulation.
The Issues of Prison Overpopulation Aren’t Just Space Related
- People aged 60 and over and those aged 50–59 are the first and second fastest growing age groups in the prison population.
- Between 2002 and 2014, there was an increase of 146% and 122% in the number of prisoners held in those age demographics respectively.
- 37% of the inmates in a prison who are above the age of 50 have at least one disability.
- Ever-lengthening sentences mean people in prison are growing old and frail with high rates of unmet social care and support needs.
- In March 2014 in the United Kingdom, there were 102 people in prison aged 80 and over.
- There were 5 people in prison in the UK who were above the age of 90.
- In the United States, 2.1% of the federal prison population is above the age of 65 – no older age demographics are available.
Let’s take an honest look at the people who are in prison right now – especially the senior population. Is there really a need to keep a 90+ year old as a prisoner? Even if they are convicted of a serious or violent crime, the likelihood that they will continue to be a danger to society is very minimal. Taxpayers are paying for not only the costs of incarcerating this prisoner, but also for their care costs as they approach the end of life. There must be alternatives available that could reduce the prison population size, especially when it comes to the elderly, that allows for more space and a reduction in overall costs.
What About The Global Perspective?
- Prison overcrowding is one of the key contributing factors to poor prison conditions around the world.
- The number of prisoners exceeds official prison capacity in at least 117 countries.
- 16 national prison systems hold more than double their capacity.
- The number of national prison systems that are operating between 150% to 200% of their official capacity: 32.
- In most prison systems, prisoners do not have minimum space requirements.
- Overcrowding can be so severe that prisoners sleep in shifts, on top of each other, share beds or tie themselves to window bars so that they can sleep while standing.
- Drug offenders make up nearly half of the total prison population, yet most prisoners don’t receive any actual help with their addiction.
- A Canadian survey found that 26.4% of inmates stated that they were currently sharing a cell with another inmate and that 12% of inmates felt threatened by their cellmate.
With so much overcrowding going on and many prisons only allowing a prisoner 1 hour outside of their cell during the day at best, there is a lot of potential for violence to develop. Even when prisoners are allowed out of their cell, they are simply placed into a different cell that is in a different location. Is it really “recreation” time if a prisoner is kept in an outdoor fenced cell with nothing to do but walk or talk? Some might say that people are making the choices to be placed into prison, but society in general also has a responsibility to create laws that make sense. Giving someone a standard 10 year prison sentence because they use illegal drugs doesn’t really make sense.
Prison Overcrowding Means Large Staff Shortages
- The Bureau of Prisons has allowed the prisoner-to-staff ratio to increase from 3.5 prisoners for every staff member in 2006, to 5 prisoners for every staff member in 2011.
- The average wait time for entrance into in-prison rehab programs ranged from 131 days in high security prisons to 80.2 days in minimum security prisons.
- The amount of time drug offenders serve in federal prison has increased 250% since 1987.
- At one prison facility, there were only 3 phone calls allowed for every 156 prisoners who wanted to call home because of staff shortages.
- The only prisons where visitation rights haven’t been affected in the United States because of overcrowding are immigration violation facilities.
- Despite the number of shortages, the serious assaults on prison staff has gone down, on average, just July 2010.
- The drop in less serious assaults in the same time period is even more dramatic, falling from a peak of 1 incident per 1000 inmates to 1 incident per 2500 inmates.
The problem with these statistics is that they swing both ways. As prisons appear to become safer, prison officials decide that they need fewer and fewer staff. This trend continues and seems like a good idea because it saves money. Then inmates can take advantage of these staff shortages to commit crimes within prison walls and then the staffing issue is addressed for a period of time. With the increased staff, assaults go down again, and so open positions are left unfilled to save money again until more people are injured. Prisoners are also affected by staff shortages because they don’t receive as many of their legal privileges. It could be said that it is in a prisoner’s best interest to be somewhat violent behind bars because that’s how they can make sure that they get all of their rights enforced.
The Lack of a Cohesive Prison Culture is Not Something New
- Experts on incarceration were writing about how prison culture wasn’t helpful for rehabilitation upwards of 200 years ago, but nothing has changed in most national prison systems in that time.
- More than 70% of inmates that are granted parole end up returning to a state prison, which is more than double the rate that existed in 1981.
- Returning parolees make up 37% of California’s prison system right now.
- The 3 Strikes law in California added over 87,000 inmates to the prison system, which is the same amount of inmates that would need to be removed to eliminate overcrowding in the state.
- More than 11% of California’s annual budget is dedicated to the prison system accounting for over $10 billion.
- Each inmate costs the State of California $72,142, but the average income for a California household is just $58k.
Much of the prison overcrowding problem is the attitude of society in general. When prisoners are removed from the general population base, there’s an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that occurs. People are placed into prison because they represent some sort of threat. What happens to that prisoner once the threat is removed no longer becomes an issue for the average citizen. As the California statistics on overpopulation prove, however, it is in everyone’s best interest to work on the prison population issue. Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds are at stake.
Are The Inflated Budgets of Prisons Contributing to the Problem?
- Between 2000-2013, appropriations for the BOP increased from $3.668 billion to $6.445 billion.
- High security facilities are operating at the highest rates over capacity and cost the most per inmate to operate.
- Despite the billions being spent, the Bureau of Prisons reports that it has a backlog of 159 modernization and repair projects with an approximate cost of $342 million.
- The three biggest reasons for population increases are the elimination of parole, increase standard sentencing guidelines for more crimes, and changes to criminal codes that make more activities a crime that requires jail time.
- Between 1940-1980, the US federal prison system population remained static, yet it doubled in size between 1930-1940 when more money was given to the Bureau of Prisons.
- For contract prisons, the growth rate has been dramatically lower than other prison entities, but their funding is also more static.
During the 40 years when funding to prison systems were fairly static, the prison populations also remained fairly static. When more money was granted for more prison beds or demands were made for stricter sentencing laws that required more money to enforce, alternative options weren’t as high a priority and so law violators were simply placed into prison because it was simple and easy. Overpopulation statistics prove that simple and easy isn’t working any more and especially so in California. Maybe the best solution would be to de-fund prisons to a certain extent so that alternative options can be developed and the serious, high-risk offenders can be appropriately housed.
What Could Be Changed Right Now?
- Immigration offenders accounted for approximately 31% of all inmates entering the federal prison system.
- Violent crime offenders make up just 9% of the overall prison population.
- 99% of those sent to federal prison on drug charges had trafficking include amongst the charges that were brought against them.
- Weapons offenses constitute another 10% of crimes, but aren’t actually violent crimes.
- The proportion of inmates has gone down since 1998 in all categories except for weapons offenses, which have double, and immigration offenses, which have tripled.
- 70% of offenders who are sentenced to prison receive a sentence of up to 5 years.
- In 2011, offenders were more likely to be sentenced to a term of 1-3 years instead of a term that was less than a year in length.
By taking a second look at our sentencing laws and finding alternatives to immigration imprisonment, we can dramatically reduce prison populations. If we can do that, then not only could we potentially prosper more economically, but we can create a system where there are actually opportunities for a life to be corrected and a new journey can be found – a journey that doesn’t have to involve a life of crime.