According to recent data, one out of every thirty-five people in the United States is either incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. The data demonstrate the overcrowding of the country’s jail system, which has been a developing issue for decades. Since the 1970s, the number in the country’s jails has expanded by more than 700%, and studies estimate that this accounts for 25% of the entire global prison population (“Prison overcrowding is a growing concern in the U.S.,” 2017). Between 2002 and 2010, the United States spent over fifty billion dollars per year on its prison system. The overcrowded nature of the federal and state prison system is as a result of a number of both social and economic issues including unemployment and increased crime and illegal activities in the country. The problem also has adverse effects on both the society and prisoners themselves with studies showing that the poor state of the system leads to further increase in crimes, violence, and psychological disorders among the involved parties.
Definition and Causes
To understand the current situation and its consequences it is first vital to understand what is meant by prison overcrowding and the factors that lead to it. Although at its core, the size of the facilities is the function of how many people are incarcerated and how long they remain incarcerated, the key to understanding the situation is the normative and factual elements of the system. The normative approach to defining the phenomenon is provided by the international and regional human rights mechanisms which prohibit inhuman, cruel and degrading punishment and treatment of prisoners while guaranteeing human dignity (Albrecht, 2012). However, the lack of an internationally accepted device for constructing a uniform instrument of measuring overcrowding. As such, courts are left with only the option of taking a case by case approach which does not rely on one indicator but considers a number of factors in a process that eventually weighs the interest of security, prison administration, economics, and personal rights of prisoners. Thus, according to Albrecht (2012), prison overcrowding can be defined as the multi-dimensional assessment as the basis of the overcrowding menace located in the judgement of whether there are proper systems, healthcare, programs related to rehabilitation, safety of both the prisoners and the staff, sanitary and kitchen facilities, visiting, and facilities for education, work, and outdoor exercises are delivered and operated in accordance with the standards of the conditions of occupancy.
Albercht (2012), suggests that the primary cause of the overcrowded nature of the United States prison system is the excessive use of prison sentences and the gradual growth of prisons populations over the years. The most prominent example of how the overuse of imprisonment is exhibited by how the State of California has an extremely high rate of incarceration which has even gone beyond the nation’s standards and the resulting overcrowding nature of its prisons. This led to the court decision demanding the State to reduce the prison population by approximate fifty-five thousand individuals in a period of three years if it would be able to re-establish proper prison conditions that do not infringe the rights of the prisoners as established under the 8th amendment (Albercht, 2012). Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics argues that the problem is as a result of amendments to legislation which make previously legal activities illegal, high rate of recidivism and harsher penalties for criminal acts. The bureau’ statistical analysis indicates that over 2.2 million Americans are inmates in either federal, state or local jails with over four million serving parole and probation. The lack of employment opportunities can also be blamed on high prison populations (“The problem of prison overcrowding must be addressed,” 2017). Sociologists argue that unemployment is a leading cause of increased criminal activities which on the other hand leads to high rates of incarceration.
Relationship to the 8th Amendment
Essentially, the 8th Amendment was set to prevent the inflection of cruel and unusual punishment. The piece of legislation requires that prisoners are provided with humane conditions and that conditions that have been proven to be harsh but to physically or psychologically harm the incarcerated do not violate the Constitution (Meeropol & Head, 2010). To determine that overcrowding goes against the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners, it is vital to meet both the objective and subjective factors as established in previous lawsuits. To meet the objective standard, there needs to be evidence of deprivation of fundamental human rights or exposure to extreme harm. In a situation where a prisoner is suing the prison system for the violation of his or her 8th Amendment rights, the presiding judge must pass the lawsuit through the objective test which would ascertain that the conditions under which the prisoner was kept posed not only significant but also severe threat to the individual’s safety and health (Meeropol & Head, 2010). As such, overcrowding only relates to this pieces of legislation if it causes the above-mentioned harms and as previous literature on the subject indicates, such objective measure can be legally proven in court.
Subjectively, prison overcrowding can be related to the Eighth Amendment if the prison administration and officials were aware of the deplorable conditions of the facility but did not take any reasonable actions to correct the situation. A prisoner has to have evidence physical or psychological injury that resulted from the denial of basic needs. The subjective test as shown in Wilson v. Seiter 1991 is proven if the officials acted with a deliberate indifference which means they were aware of the existing adverse situation but neglected their duties. Similarly, Farmer v. Brennan 1994 indicated that the same could be proven if records showed that the prisoner filled complaints about their accommodation conditions, but the prison officials did not take the necessary actions to improve the situation (Meeropol & Head, 2010). As such, the relationship between the 8th Amendment and prison overcrowding can be seen as a legal issue that only the judicial system can determine since prison officials argue that the prison system does not have adequate funding to alleviate the problem. It can also be seen as a moral and ethical issue since the government is aware of the existence of the problem and how it relates to fundamental human rights but hides behind financial excuses.
The increased prison populations in the United States is as a result of changes in the law to first reduce crime rates and secondly to improve public safety. The current system is based on the reasoning that by incarcerating the criminal elements and separating them from the general population crime rates and security would improve. In theory, prison sentences work as a deterrence and incapacitation mechanism of reducing crime. In that, by incarcerating the criminal elements in the society, the system incapacitates them by separating them from the general population within which they could commit crimes. Similarly, the system deters crimes by posing the threat of lengthy punishment to those who could engage in misconducts in future or those who could go back into their criminal behaviors after being released back into the mainstream society. In theory, this not only reduces crime rates but also reduces the rate of recidivism based on the fact that the likelihood recidivism diminishes with age.
However, this is only in theory and depends on having competent rehabilitation programs within the prison system. Other studies have shown that with the current state of the system the effects are inverse and former convicts are more likely to go back to their criminal ways. According to Neyfakh (2015), although it might be difficult for some to feel or see overcrowding and the inhuman conditions in prisons as a moral issue, the fact that these studies have shown that persons serving time in overcrowded conditions are more likely to violate their parole conditions upon their release which forces the government to spend more money when they are rearrested and sent back to prison should be a significant concern. The studies showed that approximately three percent of the persons who fail to their mandated parole meetings come from overpopulated prisons. In addition to this, almost two percent of those who violate the parole conditions through drug use and abuse, level 1 transgressions, and drugs possession are also from overcrowded prison facilities. As such, it can be argued that the current mass incarceration approach to fighting crime only leads to more crimes rather than rehabilitating the convicts (Neyfakh, 2015).
The debate over psychological effects of imprisonment is based on how much harm and benefits are produced by the system. According to Haney (2006), despite the rate at which correctional facilities have attempted to cope with increased prison populations, many of them remain overcrowded. The result of this is increased chronic psychological pains of imprisonment. It is thus not a surprise that many literature of the adverse psychological effects of incarceration are majorly based the section of overpopulated facilities. The system is supposed to offer mental punishment for crime but is overcrowding conditions it surpasses the humane standards.
In conclusion, overcrowding has been a major problem not only in the United States but also the world as a whole. In the U.S alone, statistics show that one in thirty-eight individuals are incarcerated, on parole, or on probation. The high populations in the prison system possess both legal and ethical questions which cannot continue being ignored. These conditions act against the reasons why the prison system was established in the first place by first failing to rehabilitate criminals properly and secondly potentially increasing crime and recidivism rates in the society. As such, it is a high time for the relevant authorities to implement policies that would either do away with the mass incarceration approaches, provide other measures of fighting crime such as improving employment opportunities or improving the prison system to enable it to accommodate the increasing population and be able to offer proper rehabilitation services.
Albrecht, H. (2012). Prison overcrowding- Findings effective solutions: Strategies and best practices against overcrowding in correctional facilities. Retrieved from https://www.mpicc.de/shared/data/pdf/research_in_brief_43_-_albrecht_prisonvercrowding.pdf
Haney, C. (2006). The wages of prison overcrowding: Harmful psychological consequences and dysfunctional correctional reactions. Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, 22(22), 265-293.
Neyfakh, L. (2015). Serving time in overcrowded prisons makes ex-cons more likely to reoffend. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2015/11/overcrowded_prisons_may_increase_recidivism_rates.html
Meeropol, R., & Head, I. (2010). The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook. New York: N.Y. Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild.
Prison overcrowding is a growing concern in the U.S. (2017). Retrieved from https://online.ccj.pdx.edu/news-resources/articles/prison-overcrowding-is-a-growing-concern-in-the-u-s.html
The problem of prison overcrowding must be addressed. (2017). Retrieved from https://online.ccj.pdx.edu/news-resources/articles/the-problem-of-prison-overcrowding-must-be-addressed.html