Prison overcrowding, also called “prison crowding,” is a matter of great contention and concern in current criminal justice public policy debates in both Canada and the United States. Coming to public attention as a social problem most recently in the United States in the late 1970s, prison overcrowding has coincided with the unprecedented growth in the nation’s prison population over the past several decades.
Because of the “war on drugs” and mandatory sentencing, the United States has become the world’s foremost jailer. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of its prisoners, approximately 2.4 million, a number that steadily increases by about 3 percent each year. In 2006, federal prisons were operating at 37 percent above capacity.
The criminal justice system responded to what some jurisdictions call the “crisis” of prison overcrowding through diversion strategies, relying more heavily on jails for the overflow of prisoners, doubling up prisoners in one cell (also called double bunking), hotly debated early release strategies, and an increasing reliance on private (for-profit) prisons, to name a few. However, policy focus on capacity issues sometimes detracts from the actual conditions of privacy, security, and manageability (including meeting basic needs for nutrition, health, and sanitation) within prisons.
In 2006, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons held public hearings, which included expert testimony on prison crowding. The conveners pointed out that no academic literature shows an established connection between overcrowding and violence. However, this research is not from the perspective of corrections officers and inmates whose daily experience may lead them to different conclusions. The debate on overcrowding in part thus hinges on experiential viewpoints and definition of terms.
The human experience of “crowding” or “being crowded” has both physiological and psychological components. Research studies show that among the many negative effects of prison overcrowding on inmates are competition for limited resources, aggression, higher rates of illness, increased likelihood of recidivism, and higher suicide rates. Prisoners in overcrowded prisons often cannot get prison work assignments, leading to idleness-related frustration and the higher likelihood of interpersonal conflicts, assaults, and rapes. Staff cannot monitor activities as effectively or identify prisoner problems. If they do identify a problem situation, they have few options to reduce animosities. For example, they may be unable to separate prisoners and place them in different facilities.
Certainly, the amount of space per inmate is a factor in determining at what point a prison contains too many inmates. In fact, the official definition of prison crowding relies on measures related to capacity: either design capacity, the number of inmates that the prison architect originally intended to be housed in that institution, or operational capacity, the number of inmates that a facility’s staff, existing programs, and services can accommodate. However, perceptions of crowding may be equally or even more important.
Experiencing a space as crowded or overcrowded— inside prison or not—is related to social density, exigent circumstances, and individual expectations. Residents of urban areas may have lower expectations of personal space than people living in less densely populated areas. Individuals housed in cells alone may feel less crowded than those housed in a large barracks with greater objective space but much less privacy.
Data from the end of 2005 showed 23 states and the federal prison system operating at 100 percent or more of their highest capacity. Despite some prisons operating below capacity, perceptions of crowding may remain, particularly as space inside prisons that was originally meant to house fewer inmates is converted to house more. Experts report that the average U.S. prisoner has living space of about 60 square feet, an area just slightly bigger than the size of a king-sized bed.
Prison overcrowding also includes a lack of appropriate programming available to the incarcerated. With high levels of illiteracy, few educational or substantive employment programs, as well as limited access to mental health resources, the potential for disorder in prisons is high. In addition, corrections staff may face greater difficulty in managing an inmate population that exceeds a building’s planned capacity, particularly if those professionals are understaffed or inadequately trained.
By the late 1980s, successful crowding litigation brought by prisoners’ rights advocates and prisoners led to prisons in 36 states compelled by court order (or engaged in such lawsuits) to reduce crowding. In 2006, the states spent a combined total of nearly $35.6 billion on corrections, with a budgeted total of $37.6 billion for 2007. A major factor driving this increased spending is prison overcrowding.
At least eight states now transfer some prisoners out of state and often into private prisons to cope with crowded conditions. In 2007, a successful class action lawsuit on behalf of state prisoners in California resulted in a court ruling that inmate overcrowding contributed to constitutional violations of inadequate medical and mental health care in the state’s prisons.
- Bleich, Jeff. October 1989. “The Politics of Prison Crowding.” California Law Review 77(5):1125—80.
- Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. 2005. “Overcrowded Facilities and the Uses and Effects of Isolation: Public Hearing 2—Day 1.” Newark, NJ. Retrieved March 28, 2017 (https://www.vera.org/projects/commission-on-safety-and-abuse-in-americas-prisons/hearing-2).
- Moore, Solomon. 2007. “States Export Their Inmates as Prisons Fill.” New York Times, July 31, p. A1.
- National Conference of State Legislatures. 2007. “State Funding for Corrections in FY 2006 and FY 2007.” Retrieved March 28, 2017 (https://static.prisonpolicy.org/scans/StateFundingforCorrectionsinFY2006andFY2007.pdf).
- Sabol, William J. 2007. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2006. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, November. Retrieved March 28, 2017 (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p06.pdf).
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