One of the major problems we face today in society is prison overcrowding. “Current data shows that more than 1 in 100 adults in America over 2 million people are incarcerated, earning the United States the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world” (Exhum, 2011). The majority of those people incarcerated are serving non-violent drug related sentences. This paper will show how the constant increasing numbers are putting a strain on several different aspects of the criminal justice system and show several implications from this problem but also offer a viable alternative to the problem.
The large number of non-violent offenders serving long term sentences in the prison system has placed such a strain on the system by having so many incarcerate inmates for extended periods. This strain has cause a severe overcrowding in the prison system and as soon as one inmate is released several more are put in their place. “According to experts, this dramatic increase in incarceration was the result of the War on Drugs and related punitive drug policies and not driven by an increase in rates of drug use or a dramatic increase in drug crime” (Collica & Furst, 2012). This policy that is not effective has succeeded in creating an overcrowding situation in the prison system by having more than half of the incarcerated people serving drug related sentences. These non-violent offenders are forced to endure deplorable conditions, be denied medical needs, and suffer many mental and emotional issues associated with overcrowding, but many are not offered a chance to be rehabilitated so that when they are released they can become productive citizens. Therefore many will return to the prison system even after they have served their time. They feel desperate with no means to improve their lives.
There are several physical and mental effects that are suffered by prisoners with overcrowding. “The concept of prison overcrowding slightly departs from structural constraints and expands to more adequately assess the total effect of overcrowded prison conditions, such as various physiological effects like added stress, increases in blood pressure, and higher levels of anxiety”(Pitts, Griffin, & Johnson, 2014). The mental and emotional problems that prisoners suffer within these conditions put an unnecessary strain on their health both mental and physical. These issues may be pre- existing but are also amplified by the extreme stress and strain they must endure in their daily routines. These are not the only issues faced with overcrowding. Instead these are only the beginning of a long list of issues that arise because of the overcrowding situation.
Another implication of this problem is violence among prisoners. “Alabama’s prison system currently houses nearly twice as many inmates as it was designed to handle. These tight living conditions often cause violence amongst inmates, much of which goes unreported” (Bachman, 2014). These conditions keep the prisoners on edge and tempers have a tendency to erupt more often than they would in a less crowded more temperature accurate facility. The lack of sufficient air conditioning to provide a suitable temperature for inmates with the excessive number of incarcerated people leads to a lot of violence and fights among the inmates. The heat along with the massive number of people crammed into these facilities creating these crowded conditions makes it a very dangerous situation for the guards who are working the facilities. As with any situation, when there is not enough people to perform the task at hand there are certain things that do not get the attention or care that is needed to perform the task properly. This same philosophy is applied in the prison system. When there are not enough guards to properly care for the inmates then situations arise because someone or something is not maintained properly.
While the guards maybe properly trained the shortage of employees and the combination of tight unbearable conditions leads to a very volatile environment for the guards. One simple mistake can prove fatal for anybody involved in an altercation. A normal uprising that could be calmed down by several guards may now end up being a fatal situation because only one person is doing the job of several. An injury or loss of life has now increased because the number of guards needed to run the facility is not being met.
The fact that this problem is not only affecting “criminals” shows us how much of a social issue it has become. “Moreover, the system suffers from a critical shortage of guards. Because of understaffing one guard is often responsible for overseeing an entire dormitory, making riots a constant and very real threat” (Bachman, 2014). This shortage places the current guards in harm’s way every time they report in to work. The ability of one guard to maintain constant supervision over an entire dormitory and not experience any kinds of threats or violence is very slim. Even the best trained, and physically fit person cannot overcome the numbers involved when a riot results from the sheer conditions being forced to endure in the prison system.
The overcrowding has become such a problem that it resulted in a Supreme Court case, “overcrowding has overtaken the limited resources of prison staff; imposed demands well beyond the capacity of medical and mental health facilities; and created unsanitary and unsafe conditions that make progress in the provision of care difficult or impossible to achieve” (Brown v. Plata, 2011). This case showed how the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners were being violated by overcrowding. The increases in the number of incarcerated people lead to a decrease in the quality and quantity of care that the inmates receive.
The Eighth Amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment, which many inmates were being forced to endure because of conditions from overcrowding. Many inmates were denied both medical and mental help. The medications that were supposed to be dispersed were not being dispensed when needed. The horrible overcrowded conditions along with the failure to provide necessary care were a blatant violation of these rights protected under the constitution.
Meanwhile one of the influences that leads to these overcrowded prisons is the fact that some of the more recent policies have taken away the judges right to determine the length of a sentence for an inmate. “Perhaps the most direct influence on prison admissions comes from the courts determinate sentencing procedures that remove judicial discretion in sentencing length for inmates” (Pitts, Griffin, & Johnson, 2014). The increasing larger sentences of drug abusers play an important role in this problem. The longer sentences mean more people are in jails and prisons for a longer amount of time. These policies like “Three Strikes” and “Truth in Sentencing” have all but removed any chances for rehabilitation and moved straight to giving life sentences for the offenders who have “three Strikes”. The truth in sentencing has not improved the term of sentences being ordered but rather has given people of color longer sentences because judges can no longer use their own discretion when issuing the punishments.
Many of the experts agree that prison overcrowding is a real and serious issue. “With the extreme overcrowding of prisons and the financial burden of these sentences, changes to Three Strikes have become necessary” (Collica & Furst, 2012). This law was created to protect society from “career criminals who rape women, molest children, and commit murder” (Collica & Furst, 2012) .Unfortunately the reaches of this bill has exceeded those wishes and now affects many non-violent offenders.
As Collica & Furst explains ” After almost 2 decades, a case is being made for alterations to the law, which would exclude petty theft and minor drug charges from the “serious crime” definition that can earn an offender life”(2012). These offenders could be capable of reform if given the opportunity but changes must be implemented to the law to ensure this happens.
There are alternatives to these overcrowding problems. One of those solutions is realignment. Realignment is designed to promote rehabilitation and reentry by moving offenders closer to their families and community-based services. Community agencies can more easily access inmates in local jails, building relationships and encouraging inmates to access their services after release” (Petersilia, 2014). This is not a fool proof system many states and cities are experimenting with how to make this system work. During the learning process there will be many policies and programs that are not a proper fit for the community but those programs may work in another stat, city, or community. The attempt at finding alternatives to the problem at hand is entirely better than just ignoring the fact that the problem even exsists. While not every program is a success even one new approach can help relieve the strain on the system and the inmates that are forced to endure the hardships.
Experts can seem to agree that realignment offers more positive results which the individuals compared to just sending them to jail or prison and then when the incarceration time is over they are simply “thrown” back into society. Non-violent offenders can benefit more from community based agencies by being closer to their families and encouraging positive rehabilitation instead of just promoting punishment. Many non-violent offenders given the proper program to rehabilitate them may continue on to be productive citizens in society. This idea is much more promising instead of adding another body to the already overcrowded prisons.
There is a learning process and there are still many issues to work out along the way. One such example is in California. “California is not only experimenting with how to downsize prisons, but its fifty-eight counties are experimenting with fifty-eight different approaches to sentencing and corrections reform.” (Petersilia, 2014). The different approaches offer a variety of problems but also give a variety of new solutions. The key to success with this program is going to be finding out what works for each community. What may be successful in one area may not have as positive results in another area. The variety or problems from this may offer up new solutions that work in those areas that traditional methods fail in. When communities find a program that works to keep the prisons from overcrowding and to help reduce recidivism it is a win for all involved.
There has been research to show that correctional experts have seen vocational education increases the chances of successful reintegration of offenders within the community and reduces recidivism. (Collica ; Furst, 2012) The use of rehabilitation and reintegration programs gives the offenders a sense of hope and encouragement to succeed in their communities. The ability to have the offenders use community based services and offering more probation and home arrest programs relieves the not only the physical overcrowding but also the financial strain on many criminal justice systems.
One such method is to lessen the drug offenses to misdemeanors and send offenders to rehabilitation centers and offer vocational education to improve the quality of life for the offenders to encourage them to seek more positive aspects in their daily lives, when there is hope offered, the urge to improve your current situation increases.
Oklahoma recently passed a bill that would make most drug offenses misdemeanors and the money saved from not sending so many people to prison will be used to create more community based services to offer not only drug and alcohol abuse but also general education and vocational training to help reduce the overcrowding problem but also to keep these individuals from slipping through the cracks and leading to recidivism. While everything sounds good on paper and hopefully the end result will be positive, there is still a learning period where all things do not always go as planned. This new bill will not fix the problem overnight, but as many want to believe it is a step in the right direction to finding a way to improve the current situation with the prison system and the large amount of drug related sentences being served in these strained facilities.
The community will only prosper if there is a way to offer these individuals a sense of hope and understanding. When a person can become a productive citizen it goes a long ways towards improving the community that they live in. Most offenders do not want to break the law; they are reacting out of a sense of desperation. A large number of people are not given access to services in an area. This is true with people who are poor or people of color who suffer from institutionalized racism, which occurs when there is race-based discrimination in housing, education, employment, and services. “Researchers have shown that people living in poor neighborhoods are predisposed to engage in criminal activities for economic survival or to cope with everyday life stress” (Collica ; Furst, 2012). When a person turns desperate for survival they tend to resort to doing things that the rest of society deems unnatural. These individuals do not need more extreme punishments; they need someone to give them a reason to want to improve their current situation.
The use of rehabilitation and reintegration programs help with not only the drug abuse problem but offer education and job skills. If a person cannot find a job or live a productive life outside of the prison then they are going to find a way to get back in. Programs that offer education and job skills will help these individuals improve not only their own lives and that of their families but also gives them a chance to improve their community as well. These individuals need help not more punishment after release.
When we give a helping hand it helps the offenders know that there is hope and a chance for something better and goes along ways towards helping this major issue of prison overcrowding facing society today. Funding more programs to offer community based programs will help lift the burden of overcrowding in prisons and provide the change that many of these individuals are searching so desperately for.
There is no quick fix answer to fix every problem faced by the overcrowding but there are viable alternatives to offer the offenders a way to not only receive the help they need to become productive citizens but to also relieve the problem with so many offenders in prisons being non-violent drug charges. The process of locking someone up for year after year for drug abuse and then just releasing them back into society has shown in the past that this method is not effective. The offenders need to feel that they can do something productive in society. If they return to the same situation from which they came from when the crime was committed studies show it is only a matter of time before they commit another crime out of desperation for lack of change.