Prisons have been overcrowding for many years and both Connecticut and California know of this issue all too well. This issue in Connecticut reaches “a crisis point about every 10 years.” (“Factors Impacting Prison Overcrowding”) This lets the public know that the problem has been going on for so many years, yet, not much is being done about it. Many inmates suffer due to the poor living conditions, especially when no solutions are enacted. As well, in California, their 33-prison network was designed to hold about 80,000 prisoners, but has held more than twice that during some years. (Rutten) This means that not every inmate receives equal attention whether that is in the form of healthcare or educational programs. How are inmates supposed to then become functioning members of society?
One of the reasons why prisons are becoming so overcrowded is due to the fact that recidivism is such a huge issue. Recidivism is defined by Merriam Webster as a “a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior; especially: relapse into criminal behavior.” This means that because convicted criminals are not trained on how to properly function in society once they are released, they resort to the only method in which they know how to survive: more crime. Two-thirds of convicts who are released from prison are expected to return to prison within three years for committing a crime similar to or worse than what they were previously convicted of. (Moore) This last resort method occurs to most individuals due to the fact that prisons do not provide inmates with educational programs to improve their cognitive abilities or treatment programs to aid them in recovery. In addition to this and due to the overcrowding, inmates sometimes need to be transferred from one prison to other, often times in different states. According to an article in the New York Times titled, States Export Their Inmates as Prisons Fill by Solomon Moore, “moving inmates from prison to prison disrupts training and rehabilitation programs and puts stress on tenuous family bonds… making it more difficult to break the cycle of inmates committing new crimes after their release.” Jeanne Woodford, a former corrections chief and ex-warden at San Quentin State Prison said, “We catch people and release them. We don’t do anything for them while they’re incarcerated and we’re really just disrupting their lives over and over again…” (Rothfeld) These two statements adequately portray the issue of overcrowding and its effects on the inmates contained within prisons all over the country. Without rehabilitation and educational programs, the recidivism rate will continue to grow and the cycle will never be broken.
Another reason why prisons are becoming so overcrowded is because of the “tough on crime” approach. This approach represents a set of policies, which allows punishment to be viewed as the only reasonable response to crime. (Defending Justice) “The affects of these policies are alarming,” according to Defending Justice: A Resource Kit, published by the Political Research Associates. “Local, state and federal governments have all adopted and implemented these policies resulting in enormous increases in drug arrests, more punitive sentencing proposals…” Because of this, the result usually involves low-level offenders doing time as if they were high-level offenders in facilities that are not suited for them. In Charles Montaldo’s article Mandatory Sentencing Fuels Prison Overcrowding, a FAMM news release reported “one in four prisoners are serving time for a property offense, one in five for a drug offense, and one in 12 for driving under the influence (DUI).” Instead of incarcerating these individuals for their minor offenses, they should instead receive counseling and treatment to help them become better citizens in society. According to Woodford, low-level offenders should be kept in less-expensive alternates such as county jail or rehabilitation programs. (Rothfeld) With the approach to crime becoming more harsh and less understanding or empathetic, the amount of individuals who are arrested and spend time in jail is an important factor in the overcrowding issue. Tim Rutten’s article, A Prison System We Deserve brings up two good points about the system in America. One is that we “simply send too many people to prison for too long relative to their offenses” and two is that there is too much of an impulse to insist of having things that we do not want to pay for (such as mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders.) Non-violent offenders pose less of a threat to society than violent offenders do which is why prison space should reserved for those who actually deserve to be locked up. Non-violent offenders will have more of a chance to alter the criminal path they are on if they are provided with the appropriate programs. Mandatory minimums also play a role in the issue of prison overcrowding. Mandatory minimums set the criteria for any particular crime and also establish a minimum sentence requirement for a crime. Therefore, even if the crime ends up being deemed as a special circumstance, the judge has to rule in accordance to the mandatory minimum and sentence the offender to “X” amount of time in prison. This law is also described as a “chain that binds the hands of judges who seek to do justice and are a weapon in the hands of prosecutors who want to be unreasonable and unjust.” (“Clarifying The Problems with Mandatory Minimums”) Meaning, even if a judge wants to correctly sentence an offender to an amount of time that is less than the minimum, he/she is not allowed to and any prosecutor that wants to strengthen his/her case by being unfair and using this law against the offender, may do so. Judge Rudy Gerber actually helped author the 1978 code that established mandatory sentencing and still said, “After 25 years, the verdict is clear: Arizona’s mandatory sentencing laws do not enhance public safety and they certainly do not deliver justice.” (Montaldo) Other states should learn from the lesson Arizona is portraying with the fact that these mandatory minimums do nothing more for the state other than crowd their prisons and cost them more money than ever before. In 2009, Ali Foroutan was convicted of possession of 0.03 grams of methamphetamine in San Francisco. After that conviction took place, critics of California’s justice system said that Foroutan’s sentence of twenty-five years to life for three-time felons “is the kind of punishment that has made the state’s prisons the most overcrowded in the nation.” (Moore) This case and type of sentencing can be categorized under the Three Strikes Law, which is still established in twenty-eight states. Essentially, this law mandates courts to sentence a repeat offender of three or more serious criminal offenses to a harsher sentence than if they were a first time offender. The problem with this method, though, is that it doesn’t exactly deter criminals. In Foroutan’s example, it probably didn’t occur to him that carrying 0.03 grams of methamphetamine could be characterized as a “serious criminal offense.” Even though possession of any illegal drug could get you jail time, the sentence Foroutan faced to serve seemed more harsh than necessary. According to Joan Petersilia, a parole expert at the RAND Corporation, “That [Three Strikes Law] is a major reason for the overcrowding problem.” There are many solutions to this issue with one of the first being to actually recognize that there is a problem. Prison overcrowding has been overlooked for so many years with officials believing that they simply needed a better staff or better facilities. However, this is not the case and the true problem stems from the many factors previously stated. States such as Michigan, Texas and Nevada are starting to see a change as they begin to demonstrate different methods to tackling the issue of prison overcrowding. Some of these methods include reducing the number of inmates who serve more than 100% of their minimum sentence, establishing more residential and community-based programs, and enacting programs, which ultimately saved one state $38 million in operating expenditures. (“Prison Count 2010”) In addition, Prison Fellowship International suggests that there are ten keys or measures to take in order to improve the conditions in overcrowded facilities. According to the website, the measurements were created with “two criteria in mind: first, does it improve the quality of life of prisoners and prison staff, and second, could it be done (or at least begun) without new legislation or large amounts of money.” The list includes reducing inmate idleness, classify prisoners based on their level of risk and improve sanitation which can all be done with the help of volunteers, a better trained staff and lawyers willing to review cases. Prison overcrowding is caused by many factors such as recidivism, the “tough on crime” approach, mandatory minimums and the Three Strikes Law. All of these factors are those which need to be improved upon if this issue ever has a chance of being fixed. In states such as Michigan and Texas, improvements are already being made and many other states should learn from them. This issue costs the United States billions of dollars and hasn’t progressed at all. Without necessary programs such as rehabilitation or education, this issue will remain for many years to come.