The proliferation of crime in civilized societies creates the need for interventions by officers of the law to restore order and ensure that people respect the individual freedoms of their fellow citizens. The prison system offers one way of reducing crime by incarcerating offenders in a way that respects their rights while also protecting society from their antisocial behavior. However, increasing population figures also mean that the prison system now encounters more offenders than it can accommodate while maintaining its capacity to provide inmates with individualized rehabilitation options. As a result, the modern prison system has many flaws that hinder its work and render it a reactive rather than proactive entity due to the limitations imposed by the overcrowding issue. Considering the criminal justice system still considers imprisonment among its primary responses to offending behavior, it is imperative to understand the root causes of prison overcrowding and develop solutions that can improve the situation and help in decongesting the prison system.
How Prison Overcrowding Occurs
The term prison overcrowding refers to situations where demand for space in prisons becomes more than the available space, leading to suboptimal placement of prisoners in a way that prioritizes the needs of the prison system rather than those of the prisoners that it seeks to rehabilitate. An analysis of the United States indicates that 2.5 million American adults resided within the prison system as of 2011, with the majority of them living in overpopulated prison environments (Pitts, Griffin, " Johnson, 2014). Moreover, some prisons in the US now hold over 1.5 times the populations that they intended to incarcerate during their formation, which indicates that many prisons in the country may also face the same problems and in fact counteract rather than reinforce the spirit of rehabilitation. What this means that there is an entire prison system that is incapable of meeting its obligations since overcrowding renders the initial plans of the prison system obsolete. However, the prison system exists as part of a larger criminal justice system, making it imperative to understand the causes of this issue to ensure that any resultant solution achieves long-term success.
The evolution of the American penal system led to its current state where it allows prisoners to get their freedom for good behavior during their incarceration as a means of acknowledging their rehabilitation and reducing the number of prisoners within the system (Sundt, Salinsbury, " Harmon, 2016). However, these prisoners often encounter a criminal justice system that changed since their imprisonment since new laws come into play every day and continue to increase the number of offenses for which individuals can receive prison sentences. In this environment, released prisoners the risk of returning to prison for offenses that they do not consider as crimes while also creating opportunities for non-inmates to receive prison fines for contravening new and upcoming laws. Simon (2015) highlights this as one of the key contributing factors to the inability to decongest prisons since the criminal justice system continually creates new opportunities for incarceration rather than introducing laws that reduce the number of offenses for which prison terms are compulsory.
As noted, it is increasingly more difficult for people to avoid prison terms due to the criminal justice system’s current approach to rehabilitating offenders by making prison a deterrent to antisocial behavior. However, it also offers opportunities for individuals to engage in involuntary community service as a way for them to repay their debt to society and avoid going to prison. Simon (2015) notes that it is particularly interesting that the criminal justice system also considers offenders who failed to comply with community service requirements as targets for incarceration. Sundt et al. (2016) add that the amount of time that people spend incarcerated also reduces their ability to assimilate into society effectively. This would mean that prison time prevents rather than prepares a prisoner for better outcomes as part of society and limit this institution's ability to have the rehabilitative effect that it intends to have on prisoners.
The contention of imposing prison terms for particular crimes is that the individual gets an opportunity to think about his or her actions while society has an opportunity to continue with its activities without the offender's interruptions. For instance, the three strikes law aims to serve the needs of the population as well as those of offenders by incarcerating them for a set period depending on the severity of the crime an impose lifetime incarceration for repeat offenders (Reid, 2015). However, the realities of the modern world make it evident that this approach fails since it can hand out long sentences for crimes whose gravity calls for rehabilitation rather than incarceration, as is the case with individuals facing charges for drug offenses. Moreover, Simon (2015) also conducted research that showed that more than 70% of released inmates commit other offenses upon release and thereby find themselves back in prison less than two years after their release. These statistics thereby disprove the theory that incarceration has the potential to rehabilitate offenders effectively.
The Impact of Prison Overcrowding on Society
When they are away from society, incarcerated individuals find themselves at a disadvantage since they not only have to catch up with social events when they leave prison but also encounter changes in technology and in the legal field as well (Reid, 2015). As a result, they find themselves at a disadvantage when interacting with other people as well as competing for gainful employment after they leave prison. The implications for these offenders’ risk of reoffending are evident in the fact that income is an essential component of survival in modern society and the prisoners who leave the prison system without adequate skills have a higher risk of reoffending (Goomany " Dickinson, 2015). This discrepancy places released prisoners at loggerheads with society since each side considers the other as the offending party, which increases the amount of friction between former prisoners and the society that they seek to rejoin after the termination of their incarceration. In this way, prison overcrowding compounds the problem by placing more prisoners in such situations and magnifying the effects of the criminal justice systems affinity for incarceration as a means of punishing offenders.
In an ideal setting, prisoners have opportunities to engage in activities that can improve their skills and readiness to survive as gainfully employed individuals when they leave the prison system but the reality is that overcrowding makes it more difficult to achieve such outcomes. One of the key concerns that the issue raises is that overcrowded prisons do not hire more staff to ensure that they maintain the ratio of prison officers to prisoners in a way that can ensure that the prison meets the needs of each prisoner adequately and within an appropriate time (Simon, 2015). In this neglectful environment, prisoners have more opportunities to engage in antisocial behavior amongst themselves to the point where prisons pose a danger to the prisoners and expose them to abuse from other prisoners as well as the guards in charge of the rehabilitation process (Goomany" Dickson, 2015). Therefore, rather than acting as a place where prisoners learn to become better people, overcrowded prisons merely allow society to free itself of troublesome individuals without considering the impact that they have on the social outcomes of these prisoners.
Reintegration into society stands out as the biggest problem for prisoners and in an overcrowded prisons situation, it becomes possible to see how a released prisoner could find it difficult to return to the society that he or she left at the beginning of his or her prison term. Moreover, Sundt et al. (2016) argue that the socialization that people undergo in prison differs from their socialization outside the prison system since offenders in overcrowded prisons have to learn to interact with and survive among their fellow offenders. The result is a diminished ability to integrate into the former lives and many prisoners report that these magnify increase the negative effects of the incarceration and suggest a higher chance of acceptance and integration from their fellow prisoners rather than from there former social circles. Consequently, overcrowding in prisons has long-term effects not only on the prisoners themselves but also on their friends, family, and other people with whom they released offender interacted prior to serving their prison terms.
Ideas on Reducing Prison Overcrowding
Even though the most obvious way to reduce prison overcrowding is to build more prisons, doing so amounts to resorting to a short-term solution that reduces the number of prisoners in the prison system but does little to ensure that these new prisons do not end up becoming overcrowded. Rather, the most pertinent changes should focus on the criminal justice system and the way that it approaches the issue of rehabilitating offenders and deterring them from committing other crimes. According to Pitts et al. (2014), the war on drugs is behind many of the cases that result in prison sentences, with the majority of judges opting for the mandatory minimums for this cases but still sending offenders to prison in accordance with the law. Even when these minimum sentences help to deter these individuals from reoffending, they also pose a problem since these offenders face much stricter and lengthier prison sentences if they fail to abide by the terms of their respective paroles or find themselves under arrest for any other offenses after their release.
Instead of focusing on incarceration as the only response to antisocial behavior, the criminal justice system should emphasize the role of community service and house arrest as means of limiting the freedom of offenders until they understand the gravity of their actions and improve their ability to integrate into society as non-offenders. Additionally, Reid (2015) also adds that teaching valuable skills to prisoners can improve their socioeconomic outcomes after they leave prison and limit their affinity for criminal activity as a means of sustaining themselves once they gain their freedom. Considering that they are a destination for billions of tax dollars every year, prisons should also engage in reentry programs that improve prisoners awareness of what constitutes antisocial behavior outside the prison as a means of preparing them for the society into which they seek to integrate (Pitts, et al., 2014). A combination of the strategies can not only ensure that fewer judges opt for incarceration but also reduce the chances that former prisoners find it so hard to become a part of the society that they left that they choose to re0offend rather than reintegrate.
Prison overcrowding is a growing problem not only in the United States but also in other countries around the world and it is imperative for the criminal justice systems to develop long-term solutions to this problem. A key cause of concern is that this overcrowding limits the prison system's ability to reform offenders and instead turns into a place where society sends individuals when it finds itself incapable of rehabilitating them. Moreover, the fact that up to 70% of all released prisoners end up reoffending makes it evident that the current approach to punishment and deterrence does not achieve its intended purpose. An effective response should include I shift towards involuntary service to the community as a means of punishing misdemeanor crimes. Another possible solution would be to teach marketable skills to prisoners and include a program that socializes them for the society that they intend to enter rather than letting them maintain the prison mentality even after the end of their incarceration. These strategies can form the foundation for a penal system that prioritizes the needs of the offenders as members of a larger society and attempts to improve outcomes for them rather than considering them as undeserving of their freedom and the proper attention from the criminal justice system.
Goomany, A., " Dickinson, T. (2015). The influence of prison climate on the mental health of adult prisoners: a literature review. Journal of psychiatric and mental health nursing, 22(6), 413-422.
Pitts, J. M., Griffin III, O. H., " Johnson, W. W. (2014). Contemporary prison overcrowding: short-term fixes to a perpetual problem. Contemporary Justice Review, 17(1), 124-139.
Reid, M. (2015). The Culture of Mass Incarceration: Why Locking Them up and Throwing away the Key Isn't a Humane or Workable Solution for Society, and How Prison Conditions and Diet Can Be Improved. U. Md. LJ Race, Religion, Gender " Class, 15, 251.
Sundt, J., Salisbury, E. J., " Harmon, M. G. (2016). Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous?. Criminology " Public Policy, 15(2), 315-341.
Simon, J. (2015). The New Overcrowding. Conn. L. Rev., 48, 1191.