Prison Overcrowding as a Problem: Informative Essay

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Prison overcrowding is not a new issue in the penal system in the United States. As far back as the original thirteen colonies, there have been problems surrounding the incarceration of criminals. Over the past century, different situations have caused fluctuations in the number of people confined to prisons, in both the federal and state-level justice systems. This issue is not only a threat to the general public, it can hurt state budgets, the employees that work in the complexes and jails, and even the offenders themselves. This paper will try to explain some of the causes of this overcrowding and suggest some ideas that might alleviate some of the burdens on the system of incarceration.

One of the largest antecedents of prison overcrowding is the term sentence for the crime itself. Sentencing terms for some crimes vary differently from location to location, as does population. When more people in a densely populated area are sentenced longer for crimes, the jails become more crowded than in a lesser populated area. The larger cities do not always have the buildings needed to make room for all of the prisoners. When people are sentenced to life with no parole, this guarantees them a spot in a cell, with no chance of leaving. According to The Sentencing Project, there are currently over 50,000 people serving a sentence of life without parole in US prisons. Add to that the number of people serving life sentences with a chance for parole, and it is more than the whole prison population of the United States in the 1970s (Sentencing Project, 2018).

One law that was put into effect that has impacted the prison population is the ‘three strikes’ rule. This rule fundamentally increases the jail sentences of people indicted for a lawful offense who have been previously convicted of at least two or more violent crimes or felonies and limits the ability of these criminals to get a prison term other than lifelong incarceration. While it gets these repeat offenders off of the streets, it also fills up the space in the prisons for a longer period of time. The problem with this law is that it varies from state to state as to the crimes included, and some non-violent offenders have been caught up in the mix. Many of these people could be released or transferred to another program and lessen the burden on the system.

Former President Richard Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs’ in 1971 to attempt to curb drug abuse in the United States. Included on this list of scheduled drugs was marijuana. While the majority of these laws focused on the larger issue of widespread drug trafficking into the country, they also focused on low-level, everyday recreational drug users. In 2012, 22% of federal marijuana sentences carried terms of 10-20 years or more, and half of those were first-time offenders with no other criminal history, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS, 2015). Compare this to the recent sentencing of Dallas police officer Amber Guyger of only 10 years for the murder of an innocent man in his own home. A reevaluation of the sentencing terms could make a drastic impact on the number of prisoners in the jails at any one time. The concept of cleaning the streets was a good idea, but unfortunately not a really well-thought-out plan. The number of incarcerated individuals increased, but the number of prisons to put them in did not.

Another major issue causing overcrowding is funding for jail and prison space. Incarceration centers on smaller levels, like those of counties and cities, often do not have enough funds to expand. When they become overcrowded, offenders are often sent to larger state-level facilities, which in turn become more congested. Due to the fact that taxpayers usually do not want to give more of their money to house criminals, tax bonds do not often pass in these areas, and the overcrowding continues. Most taxpayers do not want even more criminals in their backyards for fear of becoming victims in the event of an escape. When voters do not approve budget increases to support the prison systems, lawmakers have to find a way to ‘make it work’. This often means moving funds from other programs to the prison system, which then leaves other people without support. The Bureau of Justice reported in 2004 that the average yearly cost in 2001 for an inmate in Louisiana was about $13,000 (Stephan, 2004). In today’s money, that is approximately $18,500 per inmate. Potential budget cuts in Louisiana for 2018 could have forced the early release of nearly 10,000 non-violent offenders and dropped nearly a third of those on parole into self-supervision. Some departments had to think outside the box to find ways to house an ever-growing number of offenders. In New York City where land is at a premium and crime is always ongoing, a barge built in New Orleans was put into a detention center. It opened in 1992 with 16 dorms and 100 cells to house those convicted and awaiting sentencing (NYC DOC, 2019). In many situations, the need to spend money at the time to save money in the future was not well received.

When referring again to Nixon’s war on drugs, it should be noted that this plan was not just conceived to protect the welfare of American citizens. In an interview in Harper’s Magazine with John Ehrlichman, assistant of domestic affairs under Richard Nixon, author Dan Baum was told the real reason for the war on drugs. Ehrlichman explained who Nixon’s main political enemies were: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. Do you understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did” (Baum, 2016).

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What better way to control your enemies than to lock them up and throw away the key? The problem is that this war on drugs has been going on since 1971, and the real targets are blacks and Latinos. The majority of ‘hippies’ at the time tended to be white, middle class, and college educated, but they did not end up in prison with the numbers of blacks and Latinos. Prior to 1970, the average incarceration rate for males was about 200 men for every 100,000 people. By the middle of the 1980s, it had doubled in number to 400 per 100,000. Just after the year 2000, the numbers had doubled again to nearly 800 per 100,000 people. That means 1 out of every 100 men was imprisoned on drug charges of some sort, and the majority of them were black and Latino (Perry, 2019). According to the United States Bureau of Statistics, the black male arrest rate was four times that of white males in 2009. After a decrease in the 1990s, this upturn was reminiscent of the rates back in the 1980s (Snyder, 2011). The disparity in income levels between blacks and Latinos and their white counterparts often insured that they ended up in a cycle of incarceration. Whether they stayed for a longer sentence or left and came back, they all were counted in the overcrowding. Sadly, this is not a thing of the past, as blacks are still five times more likely to be arrested on drug charges than whites. As long as this targeting along racial lines continues, so will it add to the prison populations.

Now that we have discussed some of the causes, we can take a look at what can be done to try and relieve some of the overcrowding. These include temporary plans in use by some facilities, programs already in place in most prisons and justice systems, and a few brainstormed ideas that could help in the future. Not all of these options can promise success or ensure sustainability, but at this point, any relief from the pressure is a positive result.

One of the temporary fixes currently in use by many larger prisons and those at the state level is to send some prisoners out to smaller county and parish jails run by the Sheriff’s Departments. These smaller jails receive compensation from the state for housing their offenders when the state no longer has room. This concept is workable to a degree. It is sustainable as long as the county jails have room and for as long as the state has the funding to pay the counties. When a community sees a growth in population, its crime rate can increase as well. If that happens, local law enforcement will need the jails for their own use. If the state funding dries up, the prisoners are sent back to the state prisons. This is a true temporary fix; in that, it is basically a shuffling of the prisoners from one place to another. The use of privatized prisons is another way to relieve the burden on state and federal prisons, but at the same time, they rely on a continuous influx of offenders. These prisons are ‘for profit’, which means they make money based on how many prisoners they have incarcerated. While this does relieve the overcrowding elsewhere and for a time, it does not help with the recidivism rates overall.

With all of these procedures currently in place by the justice system, there are still other options to relieve the pressure. If some of these options were more seriously considered, it could mean a great deal to the number of incarcerated people. The first concept includes a reevaluation of current laws. The idea of reducing mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent drug crimes would reduce the population by at least one-third or more and save over $2.5 billion over 10 years. Another idea is to give greater judicial discretion in cases where the person is a first-time offender with no record, or if the crime was of the ‘white-collar’ variety. One idea introduced has been an earlier release date for lower-risk convicts based on the completion of prison programs. Many inmates do not voluntarily participate in these programs because they think they will not benefit. If they had another incentive, they would more likely be involved. Not only would this lower numbers, but it would also give the offender a better start after release.

Another concept deals with the number of senior citizens currently incarcerated in state and federal prisons. From 1993 to 2013, the number of offenders over the age of 55 in state prisons doubled (Carson and Sabol, 2016). Not only does an aged person add to the overall count of prisoners, but they also require more medical care than the average inmate, and that tends to increase the costs to the prisons for their care. The release of older prisoners would not only ease the burden of space and cost, but they tend to have a lower recidivism rate than other inmates. With the release of these prisoners, there would be a lesser need for additional medical prisons to house them. When they leave, some of those with mental issues could then be transferred over to their recently vacated spots. This would remove the mentally ill from places where their illness could be better treated and lessens the risk of harm to everyone involved.

One of the many reasons offenders return to prison is that they were not prepared for life on the outside. Since so many are from lower-income lives, they do not have the support systems that others have. One idea is to provide more federal funding to companies that are willing to employ recently released convicts and parolees. This makes money for the business and provides the former offender a basis from which he can begin rebuilding his life. The stigma after prison is a strong one and the barriers for them are many. Without money, a parolee will find it hard to establish himself after release. They will earn money from their job, be able to get affordable housing, leave the shelters or homeless encampments, and continue with the treatment and reintegration programs they need to succeed on the outside. Another good idea for the workforce is the concept of apprenticeship programs. These programs can help the offenders more than some due to the fact they learn an actual trade. Upon completion of the program, they would then be placed with a business doing that job. They would have actual training and job skills that will help them keep the job. One of the best things about this idea is that it can be customized to the person. Not only male offenders would benefit, but also women and those with children, young adults coming from juvenile incarceration, and people with disabilities. If idle hands are the Devil’s playground, then put them to work and keep them busy. That way, everyone benefits.

As you can see from the points presented here, one of the main causes of overcrowding is the justice system itself. With some revamping of current standards and a reconsideration of sentencing terms and laws, the overcrowding that the justice system deals with today could be lessened in a way that benefits everyone. Offenders could be less inclined to re-offend when they can provide for themselves, taxpayers would not have to shoulder so much of the cost burden, prisons could safely and more adequately address those who remained in their care, and the budgets of state and federal departments would require constant increases. It would be a win-win situation for everyone. This 40+ year-long ongoing ‘war on drugs’ has been a losing battle with the status quo. The justice system needs to reassess the sentencing process in light of newer laws and public opinion. The time for change has come or the cycle will continue to repeat itself.

Works Cited

  1. Baum, D. (2016, March 31). [Report]: Legalize It All, by Dan Baum. Retrieved from
  2. Carson, E. A., & Sabol, W. J. (2016, May). Aging of the State Prison Population, 1993–2013. Retrieved from
  3. New York City Department of Correction Facilities Overview. (2019). Retrieved September 27, 2019, from
  4. Perry, M. J. (2019, August 29). The Shocking Story Behind Richard Nixon's 'War on Drugs' That Targeted Blacks and Anti-War Activists: American Enterprise Institute - AEI %. Retrieved from
  5. Snyder, H. N. (2011, September). Arrest in the United States, 1980-2009, compiled by U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from
  6. Stephan, J. J. (2004). State Prison Expenditures, 2001. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from
  7. Taxy, S., Samuels, J., & Adams, W. Drug Offenders in Federal Prison: Estimates of Characteristics Based on Linked Data (2015). Washington D.C: U.S. Department of Justice.
  8. THE FACTS OF LIFE SENTENCES. (2018, December). Retrieved September 21, 2019, from
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