Prison: Overcrowding, Recidivism & Reform

Prisoners are stacked three high on triple bunks in what was the gymnasium at Solano Prison.
Prisoners are stacked three high on triple bunks in what was the gymnasium at Solano Prison.

It’s common knowledge that the United States has the largest prison population worldwide. Between probation, parole, jail and prison, the U.S. correctional population exceeds 7 million people. * Overcrowding is one problem, phenomenal spending on what has become big business is another and recidivism (rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration) is at the heart of this national crisis that affects all of us, whether we know it or not. While an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it seems that we are more interested in building prisons rather than funding libraries and education, a proven deterrent from criminal behavior.

Prison Reform. What does this mean? How can we change a system that is obviously not working? We all want to feel safe and most would agree that people should be held accountable for their actions. But when over a third of all prison inmates return to prison for new or recurring offenses and/or parole violations, we must acknowledge that simply locking someone up is not the solution. Prison systems today do not release people that are rehabilitated; they release people with $200 and say “Best of luck, see you again soon!” There is also a widespread perception and likely a reality that criminals only learn how to be better criminals in prison.

Statistics are alarming and there is no black & white here. There are so many different needs concerning violent and non‐violent offenders, men and woman prisoners, youth and adult offenders. With so many issues facing us in regards to how we can improve the current system, ultimately the responsibility falls on the shoulders of everyday people like you and me, as it’s not just the system that needs improving. We must all work at being better citizens, recognizing that we make a difference through our own children, through our votes and voices. My fear is not that someone will break into my house and murder me; my fear is that future generations will be robbed of the opportunity for an excellent education while taxpayers spend their hard earned dollars on a fake sense of security.

There are solutions out there. The following comes from the ACLU website, offering a thorough examination of the work we still have to do.

ACLU Policy Priorities for Prison Reform (1/31/2001)

Reduction in Incarceration: Over 2 million men, women and juveniles in the United States live behind bars. The majority of them were not convicted of a violent crime. Unfortunately, the political will of a few lawmakers has locked these people up. Many sentences could have been better served outside prison walls and saved millions in taxpayer dollars. Despite this reality, ʺtough on crimeʺ agendas encouraged the development of mandatory minimum sentencing and ʺthree‐strikes‐and‐your‐outʺ legislation causing soaring rates of incarceration which have overwhelmed an already burdened prison and jail system. Alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders are necessary to reduce overcrowding, to constructively and appropriately sentence convicts, to minimize financial costs and to protect offenders families from upheaval.

Improvements in Conditions of Confinement: Despite political rhetoric comparing prisons to hotels and resorts, the reality is that most prisons are overcrowded, often dangerous, provide sub‐standard medical and mental health care and do nothing to prepare prisoners for when they return to the free world. For the past 30 years, the federal courts provided the last recourse for prisoners right to constitutional conditions of confinement. Now, the power of the federal courts is being restricted. Prisoners right of access to the courts is being limited, as a result, prison conditions will become harsher and more punitive. In Georgia, a senior prison official watched while guards brutally beat handcuffed inmates. Correctional officers in California encouraged combat between prisoners by placing rival gang members together in the prison yrd and then shot inmates when they fought. The practice of overcrowding cells and subjecting prisoners to unsafe and unsanitary living conditions also continues to exist The Constitution protects prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment; it is essential that their rights be protected and that inhumane treatment be prevented.

Emphasis on Rehabilitation and Treatment Programs: Educational and vocational training as well as substance abuse treatment services are crucial in order to provide proper rehabilitation to offenders and to reduce recidivism. National surveys indicate: 70% of inmates entering state prisons have not graduated from high school, 19% are completely illiterate and 40% are functionally illiterate.(1) Prison programs that seek to change these statistics make an important difference in the lives of prisoners and for the outside community. Prisoners accorded the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills are better equipped to resist a life of crime once outside f prison and more likely to gain employment and become self‐sufficient. Programs treating alcohol and drug addiction have a similar impact in rehabilitating prisoners. Eighty percent of prisoners are convicted of crimes because of substance abuse.(2) Assisting and treating these addicted individuals will help them stay off drugs and away from crime.

Halt Transfers of Child Offenders to Adult Facilities: Children locked up in adult facilities are eight times more likely to commit suicide, five times more likely to be sexually attacked and twice as likely to be assaulted by staff than juveniles confined in a juvenile facility. Adult institutions also lack the same type of programs and services that juvenile facilities provide to rehabilitate young offnders. Essentially, by incarcerating child offenders with adults we are giving up on the future of these children. The likelihood they will return to crime rises when they are initially imprisoned in an adult institution.

Attention to Concerns of Female Prisoners: Women comprise only 6.4%(3) of adult inmates, but they constitute the fastest growing segment of the inmate population. Women’s increasing numbers require special examination of the issues particular to their confinement. Seventy‐eight percent of women in prison have children.(4) Many of these mothers run single‐headed households and leave their children behind when they enter prison. If female inmates do not have family members who can care for their children while they are in prison they may lose them to foter care and have their parental rights eventually terminated. Additional obstacles exist for pregnant inmates because of medical concerns and their rights to reproductive choice.Correctional facilities often do not provide proper gynecological care, have limited prenatal and postpartum care and no abortion services. Inmates who wish to terminate their pregnancy usually must go outside the facility and pay all expenses. Growing attention and awareness of sexual misconduct among corrections staff towards female inmates is also important. In California, women were harassed by prison guards who unlocked their cell doors at night and permitted male prisoners to enter and abuse thm. One female prisoner complained to the facilityʹs administration and was later beaten, sodomized and raped by three men who had been told of her grievances. Issues facing female inmates are often overlooked because their numbers are not as large as that of male prisoners; however, their concerns are just as legitimate.

Decriminalization of Mental Illness: Ten percent of adult inmates and 20 percent of juveniles are known to suffer from severe mental illness.(5) Correctional institutions have replaced mental hospitals as the largest warehouser of this community. The impact and influence of an individual’s mental illness affects their likelihood of arrest and incarceration. The majority of arrests are for nonviolent offenses. When the mentally ill are incarcerated they encounter prisons and jails inadequately equipped to serve them. Untrained staff, limited medical care and access to medication, and inappropriate facilities and treatment put mentally ill prisoners in an extremely vulnerable situation. A prisoner in Utah returned from the hospital after an attempted suicide and was cut off from his psychiatric medication and restrained on a metal table for 12 weeks. The inmate developed pressure sores, defecated on the table and was bathed with a hose while shackled. He wore only undershorts and usually was denied a blanket. Only after a court order did the inmate finally return to a mental hospital. These horrifying conditions only exacerbated his illness.

Elimination of Private Prisons: The decision to place an offender in prison, and the decision to impose a particular length of sentence, are critical social policy decisions that should not be contaminated by profit considerations. Encouraging rehabilitation and establishing productive instructional programming in a safe and secure facility for prisoners ad protecting the surrounding community should be the top priority of a prison. Cost‐conscious private industry has little financial incentive to meet constitutional standards. A companies loyalty lies primarily with its stockholders. A 1998 Department of Justice report cited the inexperience and lack of training of staff at an Ohio private prison and detaild the resulting excessive use of force by staff. After two stabbing deaths, several escapes and medically‐related deaths, a lawsuit resulted in a $1.65 million settlement to be paid by the private corporation to the prisoners.



1. The Center on Crime, Communities & Culture, Education as Crime Prevention: Providing Education to Prisoners, Research Brief: Occasional Paper Series 2 (Sept. 1997).

2. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and Americaʹs Prison Population (Jan. 1998).

3. Darrell K. Gilliard, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 1998, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice (March 1999).

4. Steven R. Donziger, The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission (New York, N.Y.: Harper Perennial, 1996), p.153.

5. Fox Butterfield, ʺBy Default, Jails Become Mental Institutions,ʺ The New York Times, 5 March 1998.

* Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Corrections Statistics" available at

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