The prison system faces an overcrowding problem as the operational capacity of the prison facilities available nationwide exceeds the design capacity. Common consequences arising from this phenomenon include violence and fighting among inmates.
A 2019 report collated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that the total population of prisoners nationwide at the end of the year was approximately 1.43 million. While 88% of these prisoners serve their incarceration sentence in state-owned facilities, 12% are under federal jurisdiction.
The capacity of these federal prison facilities is overstretched and operates at 100% or more of their operational design. Likewise, most U.S states operate at 75% or more of their standard capacity, including nine state prison systems running at full capacity or higher. For context, only Maine has an inmate population not up to 50% of its prison system’s rated capacity.
Causes of Overcrowding in Prisons
Mass incarceration is a nationwide problem causing overcrowding in state and federal correctional facilities. A study asserts that the growth of the U.S prison population since 1970 is up to 700%. Typically, one in every 99 adults in the U.S is serving an incarceration sentence.
The explosive incarceration rate since 1970 arose from strict criminal justice policies that included mandatory minimum sentencing for many criminal offenses and three-strike laws punishable by life imprisonments, sometimes without parole.
Such policies increased the admission rate of inmates and the length of incarceration sentences. In essence, the increase meant that more people stayed behind bars and ultimately caused the overcrowding of prisons.
The war on drugs accounts for the spike in incarceration growth rate over the decades. In a bid to battle drug-related crimes and the prevalent use of drugs, federal and state lawmakers enacted laws that resulted in the overcriminalization of drug-related activities. Under federal laws, many drug offenses are punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that law enforcement agencies made a total of 1.65 million arrests nationwide related to drug abuse violations. A 2020 study also estimated that one in five incarcerated offenders is guilty of the commission of a drug offense.
Conditions attached to probation, parole, and other forms of community supervision used to keep released offenders in check may be counter-productive. Usually, these conditions are restrictive, and parolees may find it cumbersome to satisfy them. Parole and probation involve long-term supervision and bureaucratic conditions that many parolees cannot constantly adhere to.
Unfortunately, parolees that violate their conditions may face incarceration regardless of how minor the violation is. In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 69,855 adults earlier released under parole violated it and returned to incarceration.
The CSG Justice Center also researched that the violation of parole supervision is the cause of the imprisonment of up to 45% of inmates housed in state prisons nationwide. While the essence of parole and probation is to lower the prison population, the supervision program fails to achieve this.
Violence and Fighting Among Prisoners as a Result of Overcrowding
Violence and fights among inmates are usual consequences of overcrowding in federal and state prisons. At the extreme, this may result in a prison riot. Prison overcrowding makes the interaction between inmates inevitable, and cases of aggressive behaviors resulting in violent acts are a common occurrence. Following an increase in inmate population in 2011, there was an estimated 40% increase in inmate violence compared to the previous year in Alabama.
A study posits different models of inmate violence including:
- Importation Model: This model postulates that inmates with a violent criminal history find it easier to display aggressive acts while incarcerated. Generally, the model attributes the aggressive behavior of inmates to their background and values. Inmates are more likely to engage in prison violence if they have a more violent criminal history and other related social problems. When such inmates interact in an overcrowded prison facility, fights, and violent acts are almost unavoidable.
- Deprivation Model: This model suggests that inmate violence occurs due to the difficult and oppressive prison environment with limited resources available to inmates. Incarceration deprives inmates of their freedom and other resources, and they have to engage in unconventional acts to satisfy their needs. Consequently, inmates are bound to exploit and exhibit aggressive behaviors against others to get some resources. An overcrowded prison environment will reduce the resources per inmate available in the facility, resulting in violence and fights between inmates to secure theirs.
- Gang-related Model: Gang members contribute to a large percentage of inmate-to-inmate homicide and assaults. Inmates affiliated with gangs import violent values into the facility and use them to gain power or resources. Fights between rival gang members resulting in several reprisals are also a common phenomenon in this case. Essentially, the larger the members in a gang, the more prevalent their activities are. Prison overcrowding allows gang members confined in the same facility to carry out violent acts and reprisals against rival gangs.
Reducing Overcrowding in Prisons and Curbing Violence Among Prisoners
A significant reduction in inmate population will essentially reduce overcrowding in the prisoners and curb violence among inmates. While the growth trend of the prison population is currently on the decline, states and federal governments must adopt more policies that will further decrease the population.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics recorded a 3% decrease in the prison population in 2019, compared to the prior year. The decrease was the lowest rate recorded over two decades. The bureau also recorded a 17% decrease in the inmate population from 2009 to 2019. However, it had no significant effect on the Federal Bureau of Prison, and some state prisons are still operating at 100% capacity or more.
A review of the sentencing policy regarding long sentences and mandatory minimum sentences may further reduce the number of individuals admitted in prisons and the period of incarceration for offenders. Likewise, correctional departments can implement better prison policies to improve the conditions and programs of the prison environment.