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No Room

Federal prisons are becoming more and more crowded; building more super-max facilities will not solve the growing problem.

  • Jacqueline Cremos
July 18, 2012

Inmates at Vienna Correctional Center in Illinois filed a lawsuit against the prison last month, citing abysmal living conditions that undoubtedly result, at least in part, from housing 1900 prisoners in a facility built to contain 925 people. Overcrowded conditions similar to Vienna’s are becoming increasingly common as jurisdictions double and triple prison populations to save money.

This sort of solution does nothing but create more problems. It creates inhumane living conditions for inmates and reduces their potential for rehabilitation and reentry into society.

The federal prison population exploded over the last three decades, growing from 24,000 inmates in 1980 to nearly 210,000 inmates in 2010 (a 760 percent increase). In fact, the United States incarcerates more people (both in absolute numbers and per capita) than any other country in the world. A fair, humane justice system is simply incompatible with these rates of incarceration. When the federal prison system operates at 35 percent above capacity, as it does now, it is difficult to treat prisoners fairly and ensure public safety at the same time.

Put simply, it costs money to keep prisoners. The federal government spent 6.3 billion dollars on corrections in 2007, up from 1.1 billion dollars in 1982 (that’s a 475 percent increase), and prison expenditures continue to grow. To give some perspective, a prison bed costs taxpayers about $20,000 per year. Studies show that housing prisoners in cramped quarters disrupts order and leads to higher rates of inmate suicide. The increased likelihood of disorderly conduct puts inmates and prison guards at risk. In 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California state prisons compromised “inmates’ medical care and mental health” and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. When some of these prisoners are eventually released, their compromised mental health and exposure to violence diminishes their ability to reenter society as fully-functioning, productive individuals.

Some politicians have responded by calling for more prisons, especially maximum security facilities. But this is a superficial solution that does not address the climbing rates of incarceration. The answer should reflect the sources of the problem: the high number of people going to prison, and the smaller number of people leaving prison. According to the Sentencing Project, drug offenders made up 51.1 percent of the federal prison population in 2009. Many of these prisoners were convicted for first-time, non-violent offenses.

In such cases, the justice system should consider alternative forms of punishment, like probation and community service, before resorting to imprisonment. Congress could expand the First Offender Act to allow judges to defer judgment for low-level, non-violent, first-time offenders. Lifting some of the harsh mandatory minimum requirements for federal drug crimes would also relieve the overburdened federal prison system. Drug offenders often receive disproportionately long sentences compared to equivalent categories of offenders. Congress could further expand the retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine offense convictions, to apply to offenders who were sentenced before the Act went into effect. This would help make drug sentences proportionate to the crime.

Another major driver of prison overcrowding is the length of prison terms meted out to offenders. Inmates stay in prison for far too long, thanks to severe mandatory minimum sentences and lengthy guideline penalty ranges for other offenses. More than 6,000 federal prisoners are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole; they are sentenced to die in prison.  This results in a large number of elderly prisoners, whose care costs the Bureau of Prisons two to three times more than care for younger prisoners. As prisoners age, they are likelier to reform, and therefore they make good candidates for release. Introducing the possibility of parole or early release for most prisoners would increase their incentives to practice good behavior and participate in vocational programs, which would decrease their chances of recidivism.

Short of an overhaul of federal drug sentencing laws and other federal criminal statutes, a combination of fairer sentences and more opportunities for early release for prisoners that demonstrate good behavior would help solve the problem of overcrowding. These reforms would reduce the number of inmates in the federal prison system at any given time, allow prisons to devote more attention to the mental and physical care of inmates who require it, and increase the incentives for offenders to reform and successfully re-enter society.

For more information about prison overcrowding, visit these links:

Prisoners in 2009, by The Bureau of Justice Statistics

Quick Facts about The Bureau of Prisons, by The Federal Bureau of Prisons

Trends in US Corrections, by The Sentencing Project

The Expanding Federal Prison Population, by The Sentencing Project

Throwing Away the Key: The Expansion of Life Without Parole Sentences in the United States, by The Sentencing Project

Cruel and Unusual: US Sentencing Practices in a Global Context, by the University of San Francisco School of Law’s Center for Law and Global Justice