How To Deal With Prison Overcrowding

Feb 19, 2015 - by Brittni Brown - 0 Comments

About  50 percent of the individuals sentenced to time in prison are there because of drug-related crimes. Most are not major players in the drug trafficking industry, but rather are users or are selling to make ends meet. These two groups in particular would likely benefit from entering alternative programs rather than entering the prison system. Graduates of drug treatment programs are 74 percent less likely to be involved in drug use and/or misconduct over a 14-month period when compared to a control group.

by Brittni Brown

The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population but supports over 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated, making it the largest jailer with over 2 million incarcerated. Statistics such as these often beg the question, why?

Why are there so many additional inmates in one of the world’s most developed countries? Are we raising our children to be criminals? Are we just a country that holds our moral baseline to a lower standard? Or, perhaps, are we over-sentencing the nation’s minor crimes in a way that is actually detracting from our economy?

The number of people being incarcerated in the United States has not always been so astronomically high. Before the Nixon administration began The War on Drugs in the mid-1970s and the Reagan administration greatly expanded it in the early 1980s, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug related crimes hovered below 50,000.

Since that time, the number of prisoners serving time for these types of offences has skyrocketed. By the end of 2013, nearly 98,200 - 51 percent - of the people within the federal prison system were locked up on drug related charges. The vast majority of these crimes were minor first time offences.

The criminalization of minor drug crimes has significantly contributed to massive overcrowding problems, impacted the psychology of prisons, and diverted tax dollars from rehabilitation to expansion. None of these changes have been beneficial to the over 90 percent of prisoners who will eventually be released and thrust back into society. The fact of the matter is that minor drug crimes should entail less prison time. People convicted of minor drug crimes are in need of alternatives to incarceration. 

According to a study completed by the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report released in early 2012, the Bureau of Prisons inmate population has swelled to over 39 percent above capacity. The same study found that in high-security prisons this statistic jumped to 55 percent overcapacity. Furthermore, prison overcrowding is expected to continue to be a growing problem and officials estimate an increase to over 45 percent above capacity by 2018.

Dealing with these staggering overcrowding statistics has led a number of federal and state prisons to adopt some questionable strategies to accommodate. One such strategy is to stuff cells meant for one person with two or three beds, providing barely the minimum amount of space required by federal regulations for the incarcerated. In extreme cases, common areas, such as gymnasiums,  have been improvised into makeshift dormitories that house about as many good behavior inmates as will fit.

The complete lack of privacy is bound to push some prisoners to the breaking point, a fact noticed by prison officials. In an interview with the Huffington Post, the GAO’s director of Homeland Security and Justice, David Maurer, said, “If you start cramming more and more people into a confined space, you’re going to create more tensions and problems. It creates the possibility that someone’s going to snap and have a violent incident.”

Topreserve the safety of both inmates and prison employees, guards are forced to limit the number of people in common areas such as the cafeteria, recreation yard, television room, and learning centers. With overcrowded populations, this means that the incarcerated have even less time to escape the confines of a crowded personal space. Maybe this is why a recent study released by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) found that inmate aggression was on the rise and highly correlated with inmate overcrowding. 

Skyrocketing Costs

Another issue that arises when more and more citizens are being incarcerated is the need to fund federal and state prisons. Between 2006 and 2011 the BOP built five new prisons to help alleviate overcrowding in already existing facilities. These new prisons were meant to absorb an estimated 7 percent inmate population growth. However, the actual growth was somewhere around 9.5 percent.

In its 2014 report, The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Overview, Policy Changes, Issues, and Options, the Congressional Research Service discussed a number of fiscal issues relating to the use of tax dollars to fund a rapidly expanding prison system. The report stated that the cost of housing an inmate had increased significantly in the last 13 years from an average of $21,603 in 2000 to $29,291 in 2013.

Additionally, in the same time frame, the appropriations for the BOP increased from $3.668 billion to $6.445 billion. Unfortunately, with all of the expansions needed to simply house inmates, much needed infrastructure repairs have been lacking. The Bureau estimated that they would need an additional $342 million to address approximately 159 modernization and repair projects in already existing prisons.

Less and Less Rehabilitation

Because so much of the annual budget is diverted to building new prisons and hiring additional guards, less and less money is being applied to much needed rehabilitation programs within prisons. Overcrowded prisons tend to offer less access to job training, education, and drug treatment programs, which further compounds the issue and significantly increases the likelihood of released individuals returning. 

Roughly 53.5 percent of inmates serve sentences of less than 10 years. Not having access to all of resources such as job training, education, and drug treatment programs poses a significant problem to the economy of the United States. Returning to society after years behind bars can be tough enough, but entering an economy with a criminal record and minimal job skills makes it nearly impossible for a significant portion of the released criminal population to successfully adjust. Nearly one in three released convicts to return to prison due to a parole violation and/or having committed another crime.

Practical Solutions: Drug Treatment Programs

In looking at all of these statistics, it becomes apparent that a feasible solution to significantly lower both the number of people entering the prison system and the percentage of them who will return multiple times is to invest more heavily in alternative forms of punishment for minor drug crimes.

As previously stated, approximately 50 percent of the individuals sentenced to time in prison are there because of drug-related crimes. Many are not major players in the drug trafficking industry, but rather are users or are selling to make ends meet. These two groups in particular would likely benefit from entering alternative programs rather than entering the prison system.

Pretrial programs are one way to reduce the number of short term stays in the system. Often times individuals brought to court are expected to pay a certain amount in bail in order to be freed before their trail. For many, this financial burden is not feasible and they spend this waiting period in a cell.

These pretrial programs aim to look at the individual’s likelihood of making bail based upon financial status, family relationships, and job security. They aim to keep working individuals in the job force although they face minor charges, which eases both the costs to the accused and the costs to the facility that holds the individual while they wait for trial.

Approximately 65 percent of the people incarcerated for drug-related offences are addicted to some illegal substance. The high concentration of addicts in the prison system does not really lend itself to a stable support group for those individuals actually attempting to change their lives. Drug education programs both inside and outside of prisons, however, have been shown to make a significant difference and need to be more thoroughly invested in. According to the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, while in prison only about 11 percent of addicted inmates actually receive treatment.

Thankfully, this is a statistic that is starting to change. Now, every four minutes someone is sent to drug treatment over prison -- very encouraging news. These drug treatment programs have been shown to decrease the number of people relapsing into addiction. Graduates are 74 percent less likely to be involved in drug use and/or misconduct over a 14-month period when compared to a control group making this a promising option for first time offenders. 

These programs typically offer both inpatient and outpatient services (in the form of halfway houses) that address both the addiction in question and the root psychological causes behind it. They help patients to learn how to defeat the addiction and to stay away from the drug in the future. Furthermore, they offer a healthy support system and counseling that help to build a foundation for a more successful future.

Drug treatment programs have been shown to significantly decrease the spending needs of the Bureau of Prisons. For every dollar spent on community outreach and drug education/treatment centers, nearly $18 are saved from incarceration needs within the prison system.

These programs have a much higher success rate at approximately 60 percent. Investing and implementing them more broadly as an alternative to incarceration will significantly decrease the number of people in an overcrowded prison system. This, in turn, will ease the psychological impacts of overcrowding. Additionally, it will allow officials to invest less money in expanding the system and more money into improving rehabilitation services which will lower reincarnation rates and increase the number of inmates that can rejoin society in a successful manner.

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