Term Paper: Prison Crowding and Violence on Staff

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Prison Overcrowding and Its Relationship to Violence on Prison Staff Members

The debate on whether prison works or not is futile. What matters is that prison is allowed to take its proper place in the criminal justice system, one of excellent last resort, properly equipped and able to cope with those who really need to be there. -- Juliet Lyon, 2002

The epigraph above is reflective of a growing sentiment among American taxpayers that it does not take a smart person to recognize that the criminal justice system is broken, but that it is going to take some smart people to fix it. Today, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world, and the nation's prison facilities are straining at the seams in an attempt to contain it all. The billions of dollars of taxpayer resources that are being thrown at the problem do not appear to be doing any good, either. When something is made a priority, it is by definition supposed to get better but the sad reality is that many of America's correctional facilities are highly overcrowded. It is little wonder that in this environment, an increased incidence of violence has been experienced and things appear to be getting worse instead of better notwithstanding the enormous amounts of money already invested in these facilities.

Statement of the Problem

The last few decades have witnessed a steady increase in the number of people being incarcerated in the United States, as well as the number of these inmates who are being forced to serve longer prison sentences. According to Bracey (2006), "While the crime rate has dropped over a 30-year period, the number of people inhabiting jails has climbed from 744,000 in 1985 to 2,131,080 in 2004. In the same period, the number of people incarcerated per 100,000 citizens has soared from 313 to 736" (p. 253). Both of these trends have contributed to a dangerous level of overcrowding in many correctional facilities in the United States today. As Garland (2007) emphasizes, "Tougher criminal justice policies and high rates of recidivism led to exponential growth in state prison populations, which has placed considerable pressure on correctional facilities and budgets in many states" (p. 64). Not surprisingly, these increased prison populations have also contributed to a higher incidence of inmate-on-staff and inmate-on-inmate violence. In this regard, Garland notes that as bad as things are, they can be expected to get worse before they get better: "Across the country, prison populations rapidly approached or even exceeded capacity, leading to prison overcrowding crises for policymakers. Recent projections make clear that these problems are only expected to worsen" (2007, p. 64). A recent report by the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States suggests that the nation's prison population will grow an additional 13% by 2012 at a cost of $27.5 billion in construction and additional operating expenses (Public Safety Performance Project, 2007). This level of growth represent a significant threat to the several states' ability to pursue strategies that reduce recidivism and improve public safety (Garland).

Hypothesis and Purpose of Study

It is the hypothesis of this study that prison overcrowding significantly increases the rate of violence on correctional officers and inmates alike. To confirm or refute this hypothesis, the purpose of this study was to review the relevant peer-reviewed, scholarly and governmental literature concerning the impact of prison overcrowding on the incidence of inmate-on-staff and inmate-on-inmate violence, with a specific emphasis on how these trends have played out in the United States in recent years.

Importance of Study

Because resources are by definition scarce, it is vitally important to use the existing levels of funding for America's correctional facilities to the best advantage. It is reasonable to assume that some approaches to prison management work better than others in minimizing the impact of overcrowding on the incidence of violence and it is these approaches that represent important best practices for the criminal justice system today. In this regard, Cochrane, Melville and Marsh (2004) emphasize that, "As well as affecting the day-to-day quality of life in prisons, poor conditions, exacerbated by overcrowding, have been linked with prison disturbances and with increased suicides within prisons" (p. 199).

Scope of Study

Although prison overcrowding and its impact on violence is examined in other countries, there is a specific emphasis on the United States.

Rationale of Study

It just makes sense that lower staff-to-prisoner ratio provide more opportunities for inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence in correctional facilities. Although the reasons for overcrowding are multifaceted, some observers even suggest that prisons are being intentionally kept at overcrowded levels in order to justify the increased use of third-party providers for outsourcing correctional services. For instance, Nicholson-Crotty (2004) maintains that the need to reduce costs and alleviate overcrowding represent important components of the political rhetoric used to justify privatization policies. Likewise, Hawaii, just as many other states, currently exports its prisoners to private prisons out of state because of prison overcrowding in its own state (Coyle, Campbell & Neufeld, 2003). In this environment, identifying opportunities for reducing the incidence of violence in overcrowded correctional facilities represents a worthwhile and timely initiative.

Overview of Study

This study used a five-chapter format to achieve the above-stated research purpose and to confirm or refute the study's hypothesis. Chapter one of the study introduced the topics under consideration, presented a statement of the problem, the study's hypothesis and purpose as well as the importance of the study and its scope and rationale. Chapter two of the study provides a critical review of the relevant and peer-reviewed literature. Chapter three describes more fully the study's methodology, including a description of the study approach, the data-gathering method and the database of study consulted. Chapter four of the study consists of an analysis of the statistical and other relevant data developed during the research process and chapter five presents the study's conclusions, a summary of the research and recommendations for policymakers.

Definition of Key Terms

Jail. These facilities are generally used for confinement while pending trial, awaiting sentencing, serving a sentence that is usually less than 1 year, or awaiting transfer to other facilities after conviction.

Parole. Community supervision after a period of incarceration. These data include only adults who are on active or inactive parole supervision or some other form of conditional release, including mandatory release, following a term of incarceration.

Probation. This is court-ordered community supervision of convicted offenders by a probation agency. In many instances, the supervision requires adherence to specific rules of conduct while in the community.

Prison. This refers to confinement in a state or federal correctional facility to serve a sentence of more than 1 year, although in some jurisdictions the length of sentence which results in prison confinement is longer (Bureau of Justice, 2008).

Chapter 2: Review of Related Literature

Today, the United States has the world's largest prison system, but it also has the world's highest rate of incarceration, estimated to be the highest rate historically of any society except slave-holding societies (Hunt, 2007). All told, although the United States has 5% of the world's population, it accounts for approximately 25% of the world's prison population (9.2 million). According to Hunt, "Demographically, the U.S. system is 47% African-American, 15% Latino, 33% White, 1% Asian, and 1% Native American. But when the figures are broken down into rates per 100,000 inhabitants, whites are incarcerated at a rate of 234 per 100,000 and nonwhites at 900 per 100,000, among whom African-Americans are incarcerated at 1,815 per 100,000" (p.68). The figure for black men alone is a staggering 3,145 per 100,000; however, less than 25% of the American prison population is incarcerated for violent crime, less than one percent for homicide and more than 50% of the prison population is there for drug-related crimes (Hunt, 2007). As many as 60% of prisoners in American prisons are estimated to have untreated mental disorders, while more than 90% are people who live in poverty (Hunt, 2007).

One of the original arguments in support of prison privatization was that it would help ease prison overcrowding; however, since the prison population has exploded from about 51,000 in 1986/7 to approximately 71,000 in mid-2002, the number of new privatized prison spaces available has failed to maintain pace with the number of offenders who have been sentenced to prison (Coyle et al.). According to Coyle and his colleagues, "Even the private prisons have been overcrowded" (p. 170).

In spite of increased spending on corrections, recidivism rates remained unacceptably high across the country, with more than half of people released from prison being recommitted with in three years. Analyses of prison admissions identified high rates of failure among people on community supervision, a key factor driving prison admissions. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of people recommitted to prison for violating the terms of their parole supervision increased 652%. Consequently, parole violators, as a share of all prison admissions, increased from 17% in 1980 to 35% in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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