Overcrowded Prisons Analysis and Solutions

Prisons are intended to protect society. People who have demonstrated that they are dangerous are confined to protect the rest of us and to discourage criminal behavior by others. Right now in the U.S., persons convicted of violent crimes make up more than half of the prison population. There is nothing wrong with locking such people up. However, conditions in overcrowded prisons do not discourage anti-social behavior. In fact, they encourage it. Criminals come out of prison with their bad values reinforced, and with new illicit skills and alliances.

Prison should punish offenders, for the sake of justice. The punishment should fit the crime though. The eighth amendment to the U.S. constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment, and so do the laws of many countries. By law, those with the power to incarcerate are not supposed to act like criminals when they punish. Conditions in overcrowded prisons torment inmates, with noise, violence, and the lack of any semblance of privacy or breathing room.

After protecting society, and after punishment, comes the goal of rehabilitating the offender. It’s a difficult task. Recidivism, repeated relapse into criminal behavior, is the norm for released prisoners, and has been for years. According to a report by the Independent Committee on Reentry and Employment in 2006, two thirds of the people released from New York State’s prisons and jails are rearrested within three years. Overcrowded prisons cannot rehabilitate.

Prison overcrowding contributes to recidivism by denying the solitude and silence which might promote reflection and perhaps even repentance. Crowding promotes inhuman conditions which further degrade the inmate’s self-control and empathy, the way crowded kennels produce vicious dogs. These circumstances encourage prisoners to think of themselves, as many inmates already do, as victims rather than as perpetrators.

Yet dangerous people must be separated from society. At the same time, society cannot afford to build more prisons and jails. Schools, roads, and social programs are already underfunded. How can we treat our criminals more humanely, and still protect ourselves from them?

Releasing all non-violent offenders would be a start. Put electronic anklets on such people, confine them to their homes, and supervise them closely. Test them for drugs, including alcohol. Not only does this make more room in the prisons, it also saves money. Criminals, if they saw a clear distinction between the sentences that violent and non-violent criminals receive, might make less violent behavior choices.

Spend some of the money saved this way on therapy and medication for the most violent and intractable criminals. For others, provide counseling, to help them re-enter society more smoothly. It is to society’s advantage to help these offenders to cope.

Hire more probation and parole officers, raise their pay, and decrease their case loads. These people protect society, do a difficult job, and could contribute more if given more support. Every prisoner they are able to help stay straight is a saving for society.

There don’t seem to be any permanent solutions for the enormous problem of crime. Some people do not choose to fit into society, and some people can’t. The problem of prison overcrowding can be solved, however, by finding and guiding more of the inmates who able to benefit from supervised release.