This issue brief addresses the issue of overcrowding in the federal prison system. I am still in the process of revising and constructing the infographics, as well as finalizing the notes.
The Cost of Overcrowding
In light of the recent economic recession, the United States government has repeatedly made sweeping efforts to curb unnecessary spending and increase efficiency. Numerous programs have been cut or restructured in attempts to reduce their cost to the American taxpayer. Nevertheless, one exorbitantly expensive federal program has remained largely unaltered in recent years, despite the possibility of considerable savings. This is the federal prison system, already plagued by overcrowding and burdened by increasing demands on its limited capacity.
The potential savings from the nearly $7 billion spent in federal prisons each year are too promising to ignore. Reducing overcrowding would free existing government funds and thereby lighten the burden on American taxpayers. To achieve this, policy makers have only two options at present: undertake the costly expansion or construction of facilities and thereby create the need for a greater number of trained staff members, or begin working to counteract the inflation of prison populations. In the long term, only the latter of these is truly viable. A variety of plausible solutions to the problem of overcrowding have been proposed, however, these proposals must be explored sooner rather than later. The government cannot wait for another economic crisis to focus on frugality, especially in an instance with such broad opportunities for savings. Acting to cut costs now will continue to aid the recovering economy and ensure economic stability in the future.
The Consequences of Overcrowding
The thought of inmates having to share cells and surrender other comforts because of the swelling populations in federal prisons is of little concern to most Americans. Few members of the general public worry about the living conditions of the thousands of convicted criminals serving their sentences. However, overcrowding can have an extensive impact on the operation of a prison, negatively affecting both inmates and staff in a variety of ways. The inefficiencies that arise from the overcrowding problem amplify its cost to the government and, consequently, the taxpayer.
-infographic (cost of housing inmate vs. average household income)
Although they do serve to protect the public from criminals, U.S. prisons are intended to serve primarily as correctional facilities in the majority of cases, reforming those inmates who will eventually be released and rejoin the public. For these individuals, maintaining an environment that can foster reform and facilitate their progress is paramount to the correctional aspect of the federal prison system. Unfortunately, overcrowding often serves to undermine this goal. In order to hold populations that exceed their capacities, prisons have been forced to sacrifice many of the elements vital to the psychological process of reform that inmates undergo.
The most significant effect of overcrowding on individual inmates is the increased demand on limited resources. With prison budgets already stretched thin, only the bare minimum is allocated to address rising populations. This means that the availability of inmate programs, particularly opportunities for rehabilitation and education, is seldom increased to meet the demands of a larger population. These programs best prepare inmates for life after their release, and limited access has increased the likelihood that former convicts will be without the necessary guidance or skills to avoid returning to lives of crime. Consequently, the number of repeat offenders has increased, thus perpetuating the overcrowding problem and leading to more costs for the American taxpayer.
Overcrowding can also have more subtle effects on prisoners. Just as the availability of certain programs is often restricted by population growth, access to other resources is also limited. Everything from library books to something as simple as space in the facility must be shared between a greater number of individuals; in many cases, this leads to psychological stress and anxiety. Such stress can have a variety of adverse effects on inmates; the most troubling, however, is the prospect of it leading to agitation and thereby acts of violence. Prisoners being held in facilities that are beyond their capacities find themselves in much closer proximity to other inmates at all times of the day; this increases the number of possible victims should a violent encounter occur, forcing inmates to be extremely cautious and staff members to be particularly vigilant. Furthermore, overcrowding requires that many inmates share cells, and an alarming number of prisoners report that they live in fear of their cellmate. Therefore, they feel threatened not only during meals and recreation among the general population, but also when they should be able to rest in relative safety. This other face of the stress issue, that experienced by potential victims, is not only equally detrimental to the psychological process of reform, but also poses just as much threat of violence should an inmate act out of desperation or fear.
The many drawbacks of overcrowding for inmates are, of course, only one side of the issue. The staff members who oversee and run the U.S. federal prisons on a day-to-day basis are also harmed by increasing populations. The mounting responsibilities of operating beyond capacity seldom come with reinforcements or added compensation; the increased workload is left to the same number of employees earning the same wages. Unfortunately, this demanding workload also entails a considerable amount of danger. Increasingly outnumbered prison staffs must continue to maintain order and security using protocols inadequately designed for their current circumstances. The increased job demands and threats to personal safety can lead to stress and fatigue among prison employees, which greatly increases the chance of a critical mistake being made.
Infographic: staff to prisoner ratio
One can plainly see that the intertwined psychological and physical impacts of prison overcrowding, both on inmates and staff members, are part of a cycle. Rising stresses contribute to more problems, which in turn fuel stress; all the while their initial source, swelling populations, continues to grow unhindered. This detrimental cycle cannot be broken under current procedures. Of the existing options, augmenting facilities and staffs or eliminating the problem of overcrowding, only the latter is both affordable and viable in the long term.
Areas for Improvement
In order to effectively and efficiently address the issue of overcrowding in federal prisons, the source of the problem must be clearly identified. In reality, there are a number of interrelated factors contributing to the growing populations of inmates throughout the United States. While it could be argued that inadequate facilities with limited capacities are the issue, expansion of the prison system not only promises to increase both short and long-term costs, but fails to offer any solution to the continued growth of inmate populations. Therefore, those factors directly contributing to this growth should be examined with priority over the physical limitations of the existing prison system.
The problem begins shortly after a felon is convicted, arising at the point of sentencing. In varying efforts to ensure that the judicial system was impartial and unbiased, strict policies were set regarding the sentencing process. Unfortunately, many of these policies have had unforeseen and undesired effects that now contribute to overcrowding. For instance, minimum sentences were set for some criminal acts, leaving judges no leeway regardless of extenuating circumstances. This means that even those criminals a judge may deem no longer a threat to the community must still serve at least the minimum period of time prescribed to his or her crime, leaving some convicts in prisons much longer than they would be if judges were permitted to exercise their discretion in terms of sentencing.
Similarly, the institution of harsher penalties for certain crimes and the elevation of some crimes to higher felony classes have led to longer sentences for inmates in cases that would have seen them out of the prison system considerably earlier in the past. Furthermore, the possibility of having a sentence shortened as a reward for good behavior has also been eliminated to a certain extent for many inmates. Just as some crimes now carry longer sentences under new laws, many also incur a minimum time to be served by the convicted. This concept was implemented to ensure “truth in sentencing,” but it has cemented the effect of longer sentences on overcrowding by reducing the number of inmates eligible for early release.
The number of former inmates returning to prisons also contributes to unnecessary population growth. No argument can be made against repeat offenders, particularly those who show flagrant disregard for the law, receiving more severe sentences for successive violations of the law. Nevertheless, many of those returning to prisons are re-incarcerated as the result of minor infractions. Just as the penalties for violating certain laws have become more severe in recent decades, so have those for violating parole. Unfortunately, a slight breach of parole terms is now more likely to send a former inmate back to prison, once again preventing prisons from escaping the problem of overcrowding.
Factors contributing to rising populations in prisons also exist outside of the judicial system. Several social elements also play a significant, albeit less direct, role in the issue. It is a sad reality that those facing poverty are more likely to turn to crime. Recent economic hardships can therefore account for a percentage of prison population growth. Unfortunately, however, even as the economy shows improvement, a large number of Americans continue to live in poverty, their situations made inescapable by cuts to welfare and aid programs. Similar cuts to rehabilitation programs also contribute to prison overcrowding, as unavailability of affordable treatment options increases the likelihood of conviction for those suffering from addiction to illegal substances. Unfortunately, the impoverished are also more likely to use and become dependent on these substances.
Poverty also plays a role in the judicial system, despite efforts to make it less biased. Defendants without financial means often cannot afford to post bail, and therefore await their trials in prison, unnecessarily contributing to the already overgrown population. They are also more likely to depend on a court-appointed public defender, many of whom are burdened by massive caseloads and therefore cannot provide thorough and dedicated service to each client. This makes the likelihood of conviction, and consequently the population of the prison system, increase.
Although the presence of multiple contributing factors, especially some that seem largely insurmountable, may make resolving the overcrowding issue appear to have little chance of success, it provides an advantage for policy makers. Because many of the roots of overcrowding are independent of one another, they allow for multiple approaches to be taken at the same time without risk of overall failure should one be unsuccessful. Simultaneously undertaking more than one solution would expedite the resolution process, providing more immediate relief to the overburdened prison system and its staffs.
It has been widely accepted that expansion will not resolve the problem of overcrowded prisons in the long run; therefore, a broad range of potential solutions addressing the contributing factors previously discussed have been proposed. First and foremost, the minimum sentences attached to many crimes should be reduced. While their implementation has likely led to more uniform sentencing, it has not necessarily ensured more just sentencing. Judges should be granted more discretion so that sentences can be considered on a case-by-case basis. Where appropriate, the possibility of early release should also be made available to inmates who exhibit good conduct, regardless of the length of their original sentence.
Efforts should also be made to reduce the number of inmates who return to prison after their release. While parole violations should not be taken lightly, they should not immediately lead to re-incarceration either. The parole process should focus on reform and utilize other, more constructive penalties, such as community service, for first-time violators. Support and rehabilitation programs must also be supported to aid the post-release reformation process. Finally, the government should focus on reducing the circumstances that lead to crime. A portion of the money saved from restoring federal prisons to their operating capacities should be allocated for welfare and aid programs or other prevention programs. Available funds should also be used to augment the existing education programs offered to federal prisoners, decreasing the likelihood that they will commit another offense out of necessity.
These proposals are designed to improve upon existing systems with little or no need for initial investment. Much can be achieved simply through revision of current practices; savings can then be utilized to further the impact of the reforms already made. Ultimately, despite the daunting nature of the problem, judicial and related social reforms will lead to reduced prison populations and better allocation of the funds provided by the American taxpayer.