Prison overcrowding is referred to as one of the major social problems in the United States. The problem of prison crowding has also touched Great Britain, some European countries, and finally, the developing world. During the 14 years between 1980 and 1994, the U. S. prison population has grown 172 percent (Bleich, 1999); more than 30,000 state prisoners spend their days and nights in country jails, waiting for new cells. The consequences of prison overcrowding are reflected in the whole set of broad social phenomena, from prison violence to higher rates of recidivism.
The late 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s have been characterized by the growing number of prisoners in the U. S. “The United States produced a rate of growth in the nation’s prison population that scholars and legal commentators have repeatedly characterized as ‘unprecedented’” (Gaes & McGuire, 1995). The number of prisoners was growing so fast that prison officials failed to develop effective systems and supervising networks that would maintain social and criminal stability across all correctional facilities at the federal level.
The reasons and causes of prison overcrowding are numerous and require different approaches; but with financial and social resources being limited, federal authorities are unprepared to meeting the social challenges of prison overcrowding in the U. S. Organizational instability in prison system produces numerous adverse effects, including the development of dysfunctional psychological responses among younger prisoners and the system’s inability to satisfy the basic needs of prisoners.
The causes of prison overcrowding are different and numerous: mandatory minimum sentencing, denial of parole, a variety of “zero tolerance” criminal policies, drug wars, and even trivial acts’ criminalization lead to the prisoners’ population increase (Bleich, 1999). Poverty and homelessness are the two indirect causes of prison overcrowding. The absence of effective anti-recidivism programs results in the growing number of prisoners in all types of correctional facilities.
However, the discussion of prison overcrowding issues should start with the evaluation of psychological problems inmates face in crowded cells: “there is growing evidence that the Post Incarceration Syndrome is a contributing factor to high rates of recidivism. The cruelty of guards and staff remains a primary problem; those in prison are subjected to verbal violence and ridicule for anything from sexual preference to gender identity” (Gaes & McGuire, 1995).
These violent attitudes significantly contribute into the growing levels of recidivism; many of those who have been imprisoned for the first time are sentenced for the second and the third time before their first imprisonment term comes to an end. Objectively, prison overcrowding forms a kind of a vicious circle, with violence, assaults, disciplinary penalties and recidivism in its center. The problem would not be so complex, if not for the growing social tensions between the inmates, the prison staff, and the rest of the American citizens.
Prison overcrowding leads to the development of dysfunctional behaviors among prisoners, to the growing amount of unsatisfied needs, and to excessive application of force and violence needed to maintain social order in prisons. These threatening tendencies lead to the disruption of the traditional social structures, where the “imprisoned” gradually replace “socially free” population, further increasing the level of society’s criminalization in the country.
Dysfunctional behaviors are particularly problematic among younger prison population; young prisoners are more susceptible and vulnerable to the changes which occur in prison; recent researches have proved young prisoners’ vulnerability to “restricted conditions, since there is neither the space, the facilities, nor the resources to provide inmates with a full range of training, work, and educational opportunities, when there are too many prisoners to cope with” (Ekland-Olson & Barrick, 1983).
Young prisoners are more sensitive and volatile in their aggressive reactions to the new type of prison environment; as a result, they are more likely to be punished by prison officials through segregation units, isolated housing unites, or similar administrative measures. In these violent contexts, young prisoners risk committing another crime, thus contributing into the growth of recidivism in the American prisons.
Dysfunctional psychological responses and the growth of “young recidivism” are not the only consequences of prison overcrowding; by filling prisons and jails above their capacity, prison officials fail to satisfy even the basic needs of prisoners. Health, nutrition, and social needs of prisoners are simply neglected, raising their sensitivity to various types of social threats, including health epidemics, aggression, and violence. Beyond normal sleeping and eating conditions, prisoners need vocational training, education, and meaningful jobs.
Prisoners require extensive work experiences that will further help them adapt to real-life conditions beyond the prison walls. Prison overcrowding deprives prison officials of effective and reliable needs assessment and screening instruments and strategies, which could be universally applied to improve the prisoners’ well-being. The current prison system in the U. S. does not guarantee that prisoners’ basic civil rights will be followed while they are being imprisoned.
Unfortunately, thousands and thousands of prisoners are still in need of treatment and counseling for different types of mental and physical health disorders (Bleich, 1999). As a result, by the time these prisoners are released on probation they are likely to face social rejection and negligence, leading recidivism and violence. Intimidation and force remain the two most effective instruments used to maintain order in prisons. A crowded prison can be compared to a “boiling cauldron of inmate hostility, ready to erupt instantaneously into a riot” (Cavadino & Dignan, 2002).
In the absence of other relevant governing mechanisms, violence seems the easiest universal method of keeping prisoners’ behaviors under control. “For example, in maximum security prisons in California, guards armed with rifles are strategically positioned inside mainline housing units and authorized to respond to inmate disturbances with lethal force” (Gaes & McGuire, 1995). Violence and intimidation are further aggravated by the lack of appropriate staff resources that could potentially maintain stability and organizational order in prisons and jails.
Violence and the lack of professional staff negatively impact the quality of relationships between prison officials and inmates, making the crisis of control and legitimacy the central social element of prison overcrowding in the U. S. (Cavadino & Dignan, 2002). In the light of the abovementioned issues, the natural question is whether overcrowding can be minimized and avoided, and what should be done to improve the quality of life in prisons.
Researchers and professionals suggest that probation reform may change the situation in the American prison system. “Forty percent of prison intakes are from probation violations, and half of those violators are put into the prison system because of technical violations” (Hicks, 2006). By reducing probation sentencing terms and simplifying supervision rules, prison officials are likely to resolve the majority of issues related to prison overcrowding and its social consequences.
Federal authorities and criminal justice professionals are to reconsider the criteria applied to zero tolerance policies and juvenile delinquency, to minimize the portion of young population in prisons. Ultimately, the basic needs of current prisoners should be assessed and addressed, to ensure that ex-prisoners are able to adapt to the changing real-life conditions and to return to regular work and life performance after being released from prison (jail). Conclusion Prison overcrowding leads to the development of distorted and dysfunctional social visions in the American society.
Violence and intimidation remain the two widely accepted instruments of maintaining order in prisons. Young prisoners are particularly vulnerable to aggression and violence in jails. The reduction of probation sentencing terms and supervision rules simplification may resolve the majority of social issues related to prison overcrowding in the U. S. , but federal authorities still lack appropriate resources that could be used to simplify the organizational structure of prison system in the country.
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