Problems of Overcrowding in America's Jails and Prisons Including Plausible Solutions Term Paper

Pages: 10 (3087 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 8  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Criminal Justice

Overcrowding in American Jails

When Chief of Corrections Statistics Program Allen Beck (2001) testified that prison facilities were less crowded today than they were in the last decade, his report elicited a debate on the definitions of capacity and overcrowding in American prisons and jails (Trovillion 2005). In the opinion of Richard Stalder of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections in Louisiana and as president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, overcrowding is having more prisons than what resources can support. Another national expert, Vincent Nathan, said that an architect designs a prison for a certain number of people or occupants until the political aspect of capacity enters the picture. When two persons occupy a cell intended for only one, the capacity doubles. It is then referred to as operational capacity until someone comes to say he can run the prison safely for twice the number of the population for which it is originally designed. Beck's report provided data on deaths in custody to show a decline in homicides and suicides from the 80s to the 90s. He pointed to the decline as indicative of increasing control over facilities and deplored the lack of reliable or standardized information on assaults in prisons and jails. Professor Craig Haney argued that the seeming increase in the control of prison populations and the decline in death was partly the result of the extreme use of isolation and the proliferation of both lethal and non-lethal weapons in the units and the use of such tactics as the long-term solution to prison violence (Trovillion).Download full
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TOPIC: Term Paper on Problems of Overcrowding in America's Jails and Prisons Including Plausible Solutions Assignment

An estimate of 2 million men, women and young boys and girls, mostly of color, are locked up today (Miller 2000). There were approximately 268,000 behind bars in all the 50 states in 1979. At present, there are almost 1.3 million. All of today's local jail facilities keep almost 700,000 and the projection is that around 6.5 million American citizens will be under some correctional supervision. The common perception has been that jail overcrowding results from increasing crime rate, increased violence or the general population growth. Records, however, show that the major contributions to jail overcrowding have been the number of police officers, the number of judges, the number of courtrooms, the size of the district attorney's staff, policies of the state attorney's office on priority crimes, the size of the staff of the whole court system, the number of available jail beds, the willingness of victims to report crimes, police department policies on arrest, the rate of arrests within the police department, and the actual volume of crime committed. While the manner of tackling serious crimes has largely remained the same, those who commit minor violations now incur harsh penalties, thereby widening social control. Prominent British criminologist Andrew Rutherford noted that all natural tendencies towards stability seemed to have disappeared and, in its stead, there have been unprecedented increase in prison populations, accompanied by the lack of forces to impose limits. Carnegie-Mellon criminologist Alfred Blumstein commented that politics had limited the concern for limiting prison populations by sternly demanding increased punishments as a way of achieving some end. For more than two decades, politicians have outstripped one another in demanding the harshest punishments. In the process, they have defined what is criminal, relaxed the limits of the police to enforce laws, and modified the mandatory use of prison and non-institutional means of control or correction. The trend has produced offenders devoid of trust when released from prison, where the distrust is shaped (Miller).

Another observation is that the rapid increase in crime, with the proliferation of drugs as its fuel, has been overloading the correctional system (Joel 1989). Recent statistics show that federal and state prisons have almost doubled in the last decade. Despite the public's get-tough-on-crime position and the insistence on severe and punitive sentences, the criminal justice system simply cannot impose swift and certain penalties. Federal district court judges impose upon state facilities to reduce the population in that crowded conditions inflict cruel and unusual punishment. Court orders are based on the Eighth Amendment, which does not define overcrowding but simply determines it according to arbitrary standards, which in turn differ from one judge to another. These court orders compel prison authorities to release dangerous convicts prematurely and without considering the potential risks on the population. Many judges agree that there is overcrowding when two inmates share a cell. A cell may be as large as 80 square feet or more than twice the size of an officer's quarters, which can accommodate two or three men. It provides a color television and air-conditioning and can hold inmates for less than 10 consecutive hours a day. Some courts consider only the population density of a cell and observe the guidelines of the American Correctional Association and the Department of Justice. These guidelines stipulate that a prisoner in an adult correctional facility should not be confined in a 60-square-foot cell for more than 10 hours a day. Association officials endorsed these criteria for adoption by correctional agencies in the control of their populations but the agencies had not done so and, instead, evolved their own unofficial criteria. The courts would want to dictate prison conditions but they lacked sufficient knowledge of prison operations in order to make effective decisions on maintaining order and instilling discipline. Few courts actually visited the cells for first-hand observations. They also expected state officials to implement their orders quickly and without regard to the costs incurred in implementing these orders. The irony was that while the ability of judges to make these important decisions was limited, their power to enforce and impose them on prison managers increased (Joel).

Inmates do not need to pursue or perform heroic deeds in order to secure early release (Joel 1989). They will secure early release because of the American prison system itself, which is forbidden by federal court orders from overcrowding. The Oklahoma government, for example, pointed to the three-month 36% leap in the crime rate to the State's early-release program. The overcrowding problem is also projected to get worse. While the 1988 federal and state prison population growth average was 800 additional beds a week, the current growth average has jumped to 1,800 a week. The surge has placed tremendous strain on the prison system. The condition triggered more court orders. Studies said that trends suggested that the increase in the volume of prisoners in the federal system alone would more than double in the next decade (Joel).

An increasing awareness of overcrowding grew in the last three decades. In 1970, there were no court orders to improve prison conditions (Joel 1989). Today, at least 49 states are covered by these orders, which limit their prison populations. As a result, these facilities have been compelled to trim their prison populations. Hence, in 1985 alone, more than 18,600 inmates were released by some States in fulfilling the orders. It has been observed that, in America, crime does not lead to punishment. While reported crime rates rose by more than 24% in the last decade, many convicts serve only a small part of their prison terms or never go to prison at all. Records also show that, although approximately 83% of all Americans fall prey to a violent crime in their lifetime, roughly only 55% are unreported and only 48% of offenders are arrested. The fact is that courts can now challenge almost every aspect of prison life, ranging from quality of food and medical care, sanitation, education, recreation, the availability of law libraries, staff training and prisoners' rights. Furthermore, some judicial sanctions on inhumane conditions intended for specific inmates are extended to the entire correctional facility. |A 1969 Supreme Court decision upheld the legal right of state inmates to question or challenge prison conditions in a federal court. The Bureau of National Affairs reported that the number of petitions on the improvement of prison conditions filed in federal courts rose from 20,000 in 1976 to 37,000 in 1987 alone. Sentiments continue to grow that it is high time Congress acknowledges the existence of a steadily rising crime emergency along with an acute shortage of prison space in both federal and state levels. More and more believe that, instead of the courts issuing orders that would bring prisoners back in the streets, lawmakers should take decisive and effective steps to provide more prison space as quickly and economically as possible (Joel).

American jails and prisons today are composed exclusively of cells for solitary confinement, sensual deprivation and psychological torture (Miller 2000). Incarceration today is characteristically racial and largely spurred by drug offenses. Young black men are imprisoned 14 times more than white. Between 1986 and 1996, the rate for African-Americans increased from 10,102% in Louisiana; 5,499% in Georgia; 5,033% in Arkansas; 4,284% in Iowa; and 1,473% in Tennessee. They are also mostly poor and belong to the minority or ethnic groups. U.S. records show that there are now more than 50 million criminal files and at least 4… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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"Problems of Overcrowding in America's Jails and Prisons Including Plausible Solutions."  July 16, 2006.  Accessed January 18, 2022.