Overcrowding is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the American prison system. This in itself creates a multitude of problems. For one, overcrowded conditions mean that there are fewer resources such as educational, vocational and rehabilitation programs available to inmates. The limitation of these valuable resources creates competition among the inmates that invariably leads to discontent and violent behavior. Another problem is that of misclassification. Due to the limited number of beds, prisoners are often classified according to available space rather than the appropriate security level. This not only slows down their progress through the system but it puts further stress on an already overwhelmed system.
The problem of misclassification also places the inmate in a vicious cycle where failure is inevitable. The cycle begins with putting the prisoner in the wrong classification followed by a negative reaction caused by the stress of lack of progress through the system and a lack of available services. These negative reactions usually take the form of inappropriate behaviors which lead to sanctions and/or the label of failure to adjust. This delays parole so therefore the prisoner remains in the facility for a longer period of time thus continuing to take up space and contribute to overcrowding.
Another problem that contributes to overcrowding is the incarceration of offenders who are mentally ill. Since the mental hospitals were closed in the 1990’s, the burden of caring for this population of offenders has been put on the shoulders of the prisons and jails. The problem with this is that these inmates require special services that they often do not get while they are in the system. According to an article on PBS.org, two reports released by the Department of Justice since 1999 say that as high as 16 percent of inmates in the correctional system suffer from mental illness. Of these, only 60 percent reported that they received any mental health treatment. As a result, these inmates usually end up in segregation because they cannot cope with the stress of being in prison.
A large portion of the overcrowded conditions in the prison system is a result of the war on drugs. This war alone costs taxpayers a large amount of money each year because new prisons are needed to house the ever growing population of drug offenders. These offenders do not need to be locked away. Instead, they need drug treatment which they could receive within the community. While they are in prison, these offenders often receive little or at best mediocre treatment for their addiction. In essence, they are simply being warehoused to keep them away from society. Once they are released, the majority of these offenders return to their former communities and their old way of life. This in turn leads to recidivism thus further contributing to the problem of overcrowding.
So, what are some possible solutions to this ever-growing problem? This is an issue that remains at the forefront of debate among both legislators and the general public. One possible solution would be to expand treatment programs within the community for low-level offenders such as the mentally ill and those addicted to drugs. This saves beds for violent offenders while holding these offenders accountable within their communities. It also gives them a better chance of getting the help they need. Another solution would be the use of GPS (global positioning services) that allows the offender to be closely monitored without being incarcerated.
While there are no easy solutions to this problem, there is work underway to develop alternatives to incarceration. Among these are drug courts and work requirements for first-time low-level drug offenders.