How Prison Overcrowding Can Be Effectively Mitigated

Subject: Law
Pages: 15
Words: 3883
Reading time:
14 min
Study level: College


The issue of prison crowding has taken a central place in the criminal justice debate over the past decade. Most of the states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have reported serious overcrowding problems with complaints by prisoners and administrators growing in intensity as the rate of prison growth outpaces that of resources available for the new prisoners. The Equal Justice Initiative notes that the US has set itself apart as the nation which over utilizes imprisonment in its criminal justice endeavors. America’s prison population has over the past two decades grown at an unprecedented rate and at a scale that exceeds the capacity of the available prison facilities. Glaze reveals that the United States has the largest prison population in the world with more than 1.6 million people being in the system as of 2009 (2). The growing prison population is cause for concern since it results in overcrowding which has detrimental effects. Prison overcrowding is a major problem since it may result in the institutes being overwhelmed with violence, health problems, and administrative chaos (Bleich 1126). With these considerations, it makes sense to analyze the issue of overcrowding in the US prisons system and come up with ways to address the issue. This paper will highlight the current challenges that prison overcrowding poses and offer ideas on how prison overcrowding can be effectively mitigated. The paper will begin by defining overcrowding and try to explain how the problem came to be so pervasive in the US prison systems.

Prison Overcrowding Problem

The correctional facilities are an integral part of a country’s criminal Justice System since they give the government the means by which it can punish and rehabilitate members of the society who have been found guilty of some criminal offense. Most prisons are run by the government while some are outsourced to private contractors such as Wackenhut Corrections and Corrections Corporation of America. Overcrowding is defined by Haney as a situation where prisons facilities accommodate more prisoners than the physical infrastructure was designed to accommodate (265). The connection between crowding and increased prison populations is self-evident since if populations are increasing higher than the capacity of prison institutes, then the prisons will get crowded. Another definition of overcrowding is the situation where a prison “houses more prisoners than its infrastructure can humanely accommodate” (Haney 265). This second definition is significant considering the fact that in the past 3 decades, many prison facilities all over the country have raised their rated capacity without a parallel increase in the resources available to the inmates.

The US prisons have grown exponentially in the past 4 decades making the US prison population the greatest in the world. As of 1970, there were 250,000 people in state and federal prisons, and in 1989; the figure had grown to 630,000 people (Bleich 1129). These figures pale in comparison to the current prison population of 1.6 million individuals held in the state or federal prison system (Glaze 2). An obvious consequence of the rising prison population is an increase in prison costs. This is because more inmates translate to increased expenditure to cater for basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing. Miller states that the cost of providing for the basic living conditions for the inmate’s accounts for 25 percent of the cost of running prisons (10). The increased cost leads to overcrowding since the state and the federal government are not able to provide resources at the same level as the prison population. Haney states that the issue of prison overcrowding has been raised by prison administrators and other policymakers but nothing has been done to alleviate the situation and convicts continue to be sent to these overcrowded facilities (268). Correctional officials, therefore, have limited options but to try and accommodate the influx of prisoners in the best way they can.

Causes of Overcrowding

There have been several major sources of the overcrowding problem in prison systems in our country. Many researchers agree that the criminal justice policies followed by the US have been the primary source of the rise in prison populations throughout the states. A particular policy that has made the prison overcrowding problem worse is the policy requiring the mandatory incarceration of convicted criminals and the increase in the incarceration periods. Haney observes that such stringent policies were adopted in the 1980s as politicians and policymakers embraced “get tough on crime” policies in a bid to deal with escalating criminal activities (266). The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 led to an imposition of mandatory sentencing for some crimes and also increased the minimum sentences for some crimes (Pollock 148). In addition to this, the act made it possible for judges to mete out longer sentences and even remove the possibility for parole for some offenders. Such policies were welcomed by the public which expected the criminal justice system to fairly and justly impose negative consequences for negative conduct. The current criminal justice policies which favor incarceration are unjust since in many cases, the offenses do not fit the punishment meted out to the guilty. In addition to this, these pro-incarceration policies fail to fulfill the rehabilitative role of the criminal justice system and therefore create the problem of repeat offenders.

The war on drug policy began by the Nixon administration in the 1970s is also responsible for the phenomenal increase in the US prison population. Jones reveals that drug offenders make up the higher percentage of prisoners in the system (492). While some of these individuals are guilty of high-level crimes such as possession and large-scale distribution of drugs, most are only guilty of possession of drugs without any intention of distributing or even consuming them. To make the situation worse, the criminal justice system has been in favor of issuing ever prolonged sentences for drug offenders. This has led to an increased prison population since individuals who would have previously been served with modest sentences now have to serve longer mandatory sentences.

The decrease in public funding for mental institutes has also contributed to the overcrowding problem currently experienced in the US. Starting from the mid-1990s, the government reduced public funding for mental health hospitals and a policy of deinstitutionalization led to many mentally ill persons being incarcerated. The American Public Health Association states that some mentally ill individuals are placed under custody to protect the community from the dangers that such individuals pose (511). Mentally ill individuals make up a significant portion of the prison population. The American Public Health Association estimated that in 2001, 16% of the incarcerated were mentally ill (512). If more resources were channeled to mental health institutes, there would be a significant reduction in the number of mentally ill patients currently serving time. Such institutes would also be better placed to address the needs of the mentally ill than prisons are.

The movement away from parole board discretion was responsible for the increase in the prison population since prison administrators could no longer adjust prison populations through flexible parole criteria (Bleich 1147). Equal Justice Initiative notes that while parole helps to ease the burden on prisons, the tendency to re-incarcerate parolees for minor technical violations has negated the positive impact that parole has traditionally had and therefore contributed to the overcrowding problem. Miller reveals that due to this practice, the majority of the inmates in Californian institutes are parole violators. The lack of emphasis on rehabilitative strategies led to the overcrowding problem that America currently faces. Miller notes that as more funds were channeled to sustain the punitive criminal justice policies, fewer funds were directed to other programs such as health care and education (7).

The Immigration Reform Act of 1996 has also been blamed for the increase in the prison population in many states. Miller explains that this legislation changed the sentencing laws for undocumented immigrants and subsequently led to the doubling in the number of noncitizens who were incarcerated in the prison system (2). This stretched the resources on an already overburdened prisons system. Alladina admits that there is an underlying profit motive for the criminal justice process (130). While prisons are primarily run by the state and federal government, there has been much privatization in the sector. Private prisons emerged as a direct result of the punitive criminal justice policies enacted since the late 1980s which led to an explosion of the prison population. Before then, the idea of privatized prisons that would be run for profits was regarded as unconstitutional. Most penitentiaries outsource products such as; clothing, food, and medical. The profit motive is therefore there since full prisons will require more of these services and hence increased profitability for the organizations that are providing the products for the prison.

Negative Impacts of Prison Overcrowding

Overcrowding has a negative impact on the lives of the prisoners since it increases levels of violence. As it is, aggressive and violent behavior has been a major problem in correctional facilities all over the world. There are various causes of prison violence and aggression and this include: problematic management strategies, the prevalence of substance abuse and the existence of violent subcultures (Lawrence and Andrews 274). However, crowding has been blamed for further exacerbating these problems. Research by Lawrence and Andrews found out that there is a relationship between crowding and the perception of aggression (281). Specifically, the research findings indicated that there is an association between crowding with increased levels of arousal, stress, and fatigue. Prisoners who experience crowding are therefore more likely to interpret events as aggressive and therefore engage in violence. The Increases in violent and aggressive behavior in prisons can therefore be attributed to the crowding phenomenon. The increase in stress created by overcrowding also predisposes the imprisoned individuals to suffer from depression and mental illnesses. Overcrowding does not only affect the mentally ill but also the inmates who are in good mental condition. Pollack notes that “overcrowding stresses even the most even-tempered and mentally healthy inmate” (58). Miller notes that prisons are becoming an increasing drain on the state budget due to the increased fees for medical and psychiatric care which has been caused by overcrowding (1).

Prison crowding also poses a problem since it gives prison administrators, prison employees, and legislators a useful vehicle with which to pursue their individual agendas. Bleich articulates that prison administrators benefit from prison crowding since it supports their demands for larger budgets, more personnel and increased control over prisoners (1127). Prison employees benefit since the perception of overcrowding necessitates increased hiring. Overcrowding also allows prison guards and administrators to escape blame for prison disturbances since they can blame this on the overcrowding problem. Prisons administrators can therefore get away with mismanagement since overcrowding acts as a scapegoat for them to avoid taking responsibility. The perception of crowding is beneficial to prisoners since it offers an opportunity to reduce their sentences. With the massive crowding in prisons, many states are being forced to implement early release programs so as to contain the problem. This move is highly controversial since the rationale behind prisons is to punish the guilty party by having him/her serve their term in the penitentiary.

Prison leads to a disruption in the lives of prisoners and their families since this mandatory separation causes strains to family life and causes children to grow up without either or both of their parents. Even without overcrowding, imprisonment has negative outcomes on the future prospects of an individual. To begin with, being imprisoned isolates the person from his/her family and this has negative psychological implications for both the inmate and his family. Another negative outcome is that once a person has served their term, it is harder for them to become gainfully employed since many employers are reluctant to have ex-felons on their pay-role due to the stigma attached to the ex-convict status as well as the higher risk of recidivism that the person poses. To try and deal with overcrowding, prison administrators sometimes transfer prisoners to states far away from their home location. Pollock reveals that this move which is necessitated by overcrowding has an adverse effect on the prisoner and his/her family since it leads to reduced connection (23). Inmates who have children or spouses are especially more affected by this since it is hard for their families to visit them on a regular basis.

It is difficult for prison administrators to effectively manage overcrowded facilities. Pollock reveals that overcrowding is responsible for many administrative issues which result in negative consequences for the prisoners (23). The excessive number of inmates means that the prison staff is stretched to the limit and they are not able to carry out their tasks efficiently. A major role of imprisonment that suffers due to this limitation in resources is the rehabilitative aspect of incarceration. The excess number of prisoners means that many prison administrators and guards have as their primary concern keeping the prisoners in compliance with prison rules. Such prisoners are therefore not effectively rehabilitated and when they get back to society after completing their terms, they are predisposed to engaging in criminal activities again. Miller also observes that overcrowding increases the cost of running the prison since many guards are required to work overtime which increases the prison budget significantly (11). In addition to this, overworking leads to a high rate of turnover among the prison staff which decreases the efficiency with which the prison is run.

The negative health impacts of overcrowding are horrendous with the Equal Justice Initiative reporting that the prison health care system is so abysmal that it is rightfully regarded as “a gross violation of the constitutional rights of the inmates”. Overcrowding combined with poor sanitation leads to the rapid spread of diseases such as tuberculosis among the prison residents. Sexually transmitted diseases are also prevalent in the prisons due to overcrowding which makes it hard for the prison administrators and guards to deter uncontrolled sexual activities and rape among prisoners. The negative health impacts result in an increase in the cost of health care for the inmates and this cost is borne by the taxpayer. Miller documents that in 2007, California spent over $700 million on health care for prisoners which was a 200% increase from 2000 (12).

Addressing Overcrowding

Overcrowding poses significant challenges to the prison system and solutions to this problem must therefore be come up with. Overcrowding can be solved by increasing the physical capacity of the penitentiaries so as to accommodate the excess prisoners. Pollock states that the quickest method of dealing with overcrowding is acquiring additional space within the institution and constructing either temporary or permanent additional facilities (59). This method has been employed by many states which have expanded their facilities so as to contain more prisoners in a humane environment. However, this method has only served as a temporary solution to the prisoner problem since once a prison’s capacity is increased, the high rate of incarceration leads to the new space being taken up and the overcrowding problem persists (Pollock 231).

Another method through which overcrowding can be reduced is the use of electronic monitoring as opposed to sending convicts to the penitentiary. Electronic monitoring is a method that makes use of trackers which are placed on the prisoner all the time, therefore, allowing the correctional officer to monitor the convict who serves his/her sentence from home. Alladina defines electronic monitoring as a new form of punishment that allows inmates who do not pose a danger to society and who meet other set criteria can serve their time at home (126). The offenders are supposed to stick to certain predetermined terms and conditions and their movement is also restricted and regularly monitored by correctional officers. An important fact with electronic monitoring is that the cost of maintaining the offender as well as the monitory cost is borne by him and not the federal or state government. This makes this method very economical as opposed to incarceration which places the economic burden on the government and therefore the taxpayer. Another benefit of monitoring is that the inmate can continue carrying out productive activities such as employment.

Early release can assist to ease the pressure off the prison system. This is because such a strategy will have an immediate impact on the overcrowding problem since if prisoners are allowed to leave earlier, they free up resources in the institution. Pollock states that early release can be implemented by creating a system where the prisoner earns credits for good behavior or is awarded parole (60). The inmate is required to maintain good behavior outside and if he/she violates the terms of his early release, he risks being re-incarcerated. Opponents of early parole and other punishments which do not include incarceration argue that offenders should receive stern punishments so as to fulfill the retributive and deterrent roles of the criminal justice system. However, research indicates that the threat of incarceration has not had the intended deterrence outcome since crime rates are increasing. Policymakers, therefore, need to look at other alternatives to incarceration. There obviously needs to be a balance between curbing the rising number of inmates and ensuring public safety. Parole boards should therefore consider the relative risk posed by the inmate before granting him an early release. An important consideration with the early release is that the inmates should not be returned to the prisons for minor violations of the terms of their early release.

The increased growth in the prison population over the past three decades calls to question the relevance of the current criminal justice policies which place too much emphasis on incarceration. Jones asserts that “Judges should be sensitive to the impact their sentences have on all components of the criminal justice system and should consider alternatives to incarceration in cases involving offenders who pose no serious danger to society” (493). The state and federal prisons are overflowing and it is necessary for the criminal justice system to explore alternatives to simply sending the guilty to the penitentiary. Stringent punishments were also expected to have a higher deterrence factor. As it is, Incarceration occurs when a person breaks the law and he/she is sentenced as a form of punishment for the crime. The incarceration would therefore not occur if the person were stopped from breaking the law in the first place due to the adverse consequences they would have to face for their crimes. However, statistics demonstrate that stringent punishments have not achieved their intended deterrence outcome.

Considering the fact, the drug offenses have been the primary contributor to the prison overcrowding problem in the past 3 decades, a review of drug laws could have a monumental impact on prison populations. A common characteristic of most convicts who are guilty of drug offenses is that they are non-violent and therefore pose little danger to society. Pollock suggests that the adoption of a policy of help as opposed to the current punishment for drug offenders would help deal with the problem (67). For example, California enacted the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act in 2000 with the aim of reducing the growth of the prison population in the state. Pollock reveals that this act states that offenders who are convicted of drug possession are eligible for drug treatment as opposed to incarceration (67). Such legislation has had the impact of reducing the growth of the prison population in California and also played a more positive role in rehabilitating the offenders than incarceration would have.

Weber asserts that an asset forfeiture is an effective tool in law enforcement since it punishes the wrongdoer while at the same time removing the tools of the crime from his hands (8). These objectives are accomplished since once the assets of the criminal are seized, illegal activities such as money laundering or counterfeiting cannot be carried out. Asset forfeiture, therefore, incapacitates the criminal. This form of punishment is also the most effective means of recovering property that can then be used to compensate innocent victims who may have been harmed by the actions of the criminal (Weber 8). Asset forfeiture can help mitigate prison overcrowding since it can be used as an alternative to imprisonment. It has the advantage of ensuring that the convict can engage in productive life since his life is not disrupted as it would be if he was imprisoned. The deterrence factor of asset forfeiture is also great since most people who engage in crime do so because of the monetary benefits therein. Ensuring that the wrongdoer is deprived of the proceeds of his actions will have to serve as great deterrence since the incentive to engage in economic crime will be significantly reduced. Weber elaborates that taking assets from criminals “sends a signal to the community that the benefits of a life of crime are illusory and temporary at best” (9).


The criminal justice system of a Nation plays a critical role in the preservation of harmony among the citizens since it ensures that the society has legally sanctioned means of dealing with wrongdoers. Imprisonment is one of the tools of punishment used by the justice system so as to preserve harmony in society. However, the policies in place have led to a surge in prison populations all over the US. This paper has demonstrated that the overcrowding problem has not been caused by an increase in the number of crimes being committed but rather by the changes made in the criminal justice policy. These practices have led to the execution of harsher punishments and the criminalization of activities that were previously treated less harshly, therefore, increasing the number of people who qualify as “criminals”. Changes, therefore, need to be made in the policies so as to reduce the overcrowding problem in US prisons.

As a matter of fact, Imprisonment will always be an integral part of our criminal justice system since a criminal justice system that is too lenient will not fulfill the retributive function of the justice system since aspiring wrongdoers will not fear the consequence of their crimes. Harsher criminal justice policies have led to overcrowding and research indicates that these policies have not resulted in lower crime rates. It is, therefore, necessary to ensure that there is a balance between the harsh policies and the leniency of the system.


Overcrowding is a major problem in prisons all over the US and it has led to many negative outcomes for the inmates, prison administrators and the entire community. This paper began by highlighting that the prison systems are a fundamental part of the administrative system of any functional society. Even so, this paper has demonstrated that they are not the only means that can be used to deal with wrongdoers in society. The paper has demonstrated that prison overcrowding was caused by changes in criminal justice policies that led to an increase in the prison population without providing any accompanying increase in corrections appropriations. It has been noted that while many states have made impressive efforts to limit inmate admission and increase the capacities of their facilities, these measures have only had a marginal impact on the overcrowding problem. The paper has proposed the adoption of other strategies apart from incarceration so as to deal with the overcrowding problem and also reduce the crime levels in the country.

Works Cited

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American Public Health Association. “The need for mental health and substance abuse services for the incarcerated mentally ill”. American Journal of Public Health 91.1 (2001): 511-512. Web.

Bleich, Jeff. “The politics of prison crowding”. California Law Review 77.1 (1999): 1125- 1180. Web.

Equal Justice Initiative. U.S. Supreme Court Reviews Prison Overcrowding and Horrendous Conditions of Confinement. 2010. Web.

Glaze, Lauren. Correctional Population in the United States, 2010. Washington: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011. Print.

Haney, Craig. “The Wages of Prison Overcrowding: Harmful Psychological Consequences and Dysfunctional Correctional Reactions”. Journal of Law & Policy 22.1 (2006): 265-293. Web.

Lawrence, Claire and Andrews Kathryn. “The Influence of Perceived Prison Crowding on Male Inmates’ Perception of Aggressive Events”. Aggressive Behavior 30.1 (2004): 273-283. Web.

Jones, Michael. “Prison overcrowding: the sentencing judge as social worker”. Widener Law Journal 18.1 (2009): 491-498. Web.

Miller, David. The Drain of Public Prison Systems and the Role of Privatization: An Analysis of State Correctional Systems. Boston: ProQuest, 2010. Print.

Pollock, Joycelyn. Prisons: today and tomorrow. NY: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2005. Print.

Weber, Richard. “Asset Forfeiture”. United States Attorneys’ Bulletin 55.6 (2007): 1-76. Print.