Prison Overcrowding In the United States


A country’s Criminal Justice System serves a very essential role in preserving harmony in the society. The prison facilities which are a part of this system are of great importance since they act as the avenues through which members of the society who break the law can be punished and rehabilitated. The US has very modern prison facilities which have been set up to fulfill this retribution and rehabilitation aspects of the justice system. However, the United States suffers from a high number of inmates and Randall (2009) reveals that the US is the country with the largest number of prisoner populations in the world. This situation has led to an increase in cases of overcrowding in the available correctional facilities. Overcrowding has many negative effects both on the prisoners and the efficiency of prisons as correctional facilities. This paper will review the problem of prison overcrowding in the USA and propose steps that can be taken to deal with the situation.

The Overcrowding Problem

The US has been plagued by an increase in the number of offenders which has led to a phenomenal growth in the prisoner population. This has resulted in overcrowding with some facilities being forced to operate at maximum capacity or even higher. Haney (2006) states that overcrowding in prisons means more than just the number of prisoners in relation to the facilities capacity. Overcrowding also includes prisons accommodating more prisoners than the infrastructure available can humanely deal with. This infrastructure includes medical resources, rehabilitation programs and recreation facilities.

As a result of overcrowding, practices such as housing two prisoners in a cell that was designed for one (double-celling) are the norm. Haney (2006, p.267) notes that in the late 1970s, double-celling was viewed as problematic and deemed a violation of “basic standards of decent housing, health, and institutional security”. Correctional officers therefore tried their best to avoid this practice and only resorted to it under dire circumstance. Today, this undesirable practice of double-celling is the norm and many prison administrators view themselves fortunate if they are able to keep the limit per cell to below two inmates at any time (Haney, 2006, p.268).

Overcrowding leads to major administrative issues for prison staff and affects the health and behavior of the inmates (Pollock, 2002). As a result of the excess number of prisoners, prison personnel are stretched to the limit and unable to carry out the rehabilitative programs for the prisoners. The primary goal of many administrators has therefore shifted to keeping the prisoners confined and complacent to prison rules. This is in spite of the fact that the primary purpose of the prison system should be to rehabilitate criminals so that they can be integrated back into the society.

Overcrowding also leads to negative health implications for the prisoners. Infections diseases such as tuberculosis, which is air borne, are easily spread through overcrowded prisons. Prisoners are also prone to STIs as a result of overcrowding which results in sexual activities going on uncontrolled. A report by the CDC (2010) stated that HIV/AIDS infection rates are 5times higher in prisoners than in the free population.

Due to overcrowding, prisoners are at times transferred to facilities that are far away from their home area. This has an adverse effect on the prisoner since it results in losses in human connections. Pollock (2004) states that parenting is a nightmare when the parent is transferred to a prison that is far away therefore making it impossible for their children to visit. This is a major issue considering the fact that in the year 2000, 2% of children in the US went to see a parent in prison.

Causes of Prison Overcrowding

Many authors agree that the current system results in offenders receiving punishments that do not always fit the crime committed or serve the rehabilitative and re-integrative goals of the Criminal Justice System (Haney, 2006: McCaw, 2009; Alladina, 2011). For example, drug users today constitute the highest number of offenders admitted to prison. These inmates include individuals whose only offense was possession of drugs and not necessarily consuming or distributing it. Pollock (2002, p.53) documents that drug offenses “account for the largest percentage of women in prison”. Further worsening this situation is the tendency for longer sentences to be given for offenses such as drug trafficking.

Another reason for overcrowding in US prisons is that judges are at liberty to increase the length of a convict’s sentence. Pollock (2005) note that as a result of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, judges can impose longer sentences or remove the parole possibility for chronic offenders.

Policies such as the three-strike law which has been enacted by some States have also increased the overcrowding phenomenon. This is evident in California which is the state that utilizes the three-strike law on the highest degree compared to other states. Pollock (2005) demonstrates that such laws do not deter crimes but by contrast serve to exacerbate the indulgence in certain kinds of crimes such as homicide. Studies by Marvell and Moody (2001) found that states with the three-strike law experienced an 11% increase in homicides compared to states that did not enact this law.

Solutions to Overcrowding problem

The solution to overcrowding that has been embraced by most States is building more prison facilities to accommodate the surplus prisoners. This method has a major flaw since there is little evidence that the increase in incarcerations has had the desired effect of reducing crime in the country. Pollock (2005) demonstrates that despite massive expansion of federal and state prison capacities, crime rates are in fact rising. This means that the enormous amount of money used to build and maintain prisons is not justifiable. In the past three decades, the cost of running prisons has increased significantly due to the massive influx of prisoners since the late 1970s. The cost of running the prisons is eventually bore by the taxpayers.

Electronic monitoring of prisoners is a method which allows correctional officers to monitor convicts who are allowed to serve their sentences from home. Electronic Monitoring is defined as a form of punishment that “allows inmates who meet certain requirement to serve time at home” (Alladina, 2011, p.126). The offenders are required to fulfill some stipulated terms and conditions such as urinalysis test and movement restrictions on the offender. Even so, the restrictions are not like those experienced by people in prison and the offender can engage in productive activity such as employment. Electronic monitory allows correctional officers to monitor the whereabouts of an offender and limit his/her movement when necessary. If the offender violates set standards, then he is incarcerated. Alladina (2011) also notes that the offender is required to cover the cost of the electronic monitoring which makes this method very economical.

A feasible strategy for coping with prison overcrowding is acceleration of early release. This will lead to a direct decrease in the number of current inmates in the correctional facility. Early release can be because of good-time credits earned by the inmate or parole. Pollock (2005) states that parole allows for supervision after the release of an offender and the parolee is re-incarcerated should he relapse. The risk of being incarcerated for violating parole rules helps to keep the offender on the right side of the law. Despite the advantages of this strategy, sensationalism by the US media combined with the fear of victimization by criminals who are released before they have served their full sentence discourages this strategy.

The proportion of prisoners being punished for drug crimes is significantly high due to the “war on drugs” started by the Regan Administration. Mauer and King (2007) report that the war on drugs has resulted in drug arrests increasing more than threefold over the last three decades. As it has been noted, most of the convicts who fall under this category are not violent and they do not pose a danger to society. Adopting a philosophy of help as opposed to punishment for drug abuse offenders is therefore a possible means through which the overcrowding issue can be tackled with. Pollock (2005) proposes that offenders who are convicted of drug possession should be eligible for drug treatment as opposed to incarceration. This approach has the potential of greatly reducing the growth in prison population since many convicts are imprisoned due to drug related offenses.

McCaw (2009) proposes Asset Forfeiture as an alternative form of punishment to incarceration. This form of punishment has many merits compared to imprisonment. To begin with, the offender does not have to go to prison which means that the prisons will not suffer from overcrowding. The life of the offender will also not be disrupted as it would be if he was sentenced. Prison disrupts the lives of prisoners and their families since this mandatory separation causes strains to family life. Using Asset Forfeiture as a replacement for prison sentence would also have a high deterrence factor since people want to maintain their possessions. McCaw (2009) also assets that this form of punishment would result in the government making money from the criminal as opposed to imprisonment which leads to the government using billions of dollars to maintain offenders in correctional facilities.


Overcrowding in the US prisons is a major problem which has many negative impacts. This paper has highlighted some of the causes of overcrowding in the US prisons and the negative effects that overcrowding brings. Steps which can be taken to ease the pain of prison overcrowding have been proposed and their effectiveness discussed. This paper has noted that building more prisons is not the best solution and as such, a more balanced approach needs to be taken towards crime fighting. Solutions such as early parole, use of electronic monitoring, and alternative punishments such as community service can help fight overcrowding. By implementing such solutions, the efficiency of our correctional facilities can be guaranteed and these facilities can then effectively fulfill their roles as rehabilitation centers.


Alladina, N. (2011). The use of electronic monitoring in the Alaska criminal justice system: a practical yet incomplete alternative to incarceration. Alaska Law Review, 28: 1.

CDC (2010). HIV Among African Americans. Web.

Haney, C. (2006). The Wages of Prison Overcrowding: Harmful Psychological Consequences and Dysfunctional Correctional Reactions. Journal of Law & Policy [Vol. 22:265.

Marvell, R.B. & Moody, C.E. (2001). The Lethal Effects of Three Strikes Laws. Journal of Legal Studies, 30: 89-106.

Mauer, M & King, R. (2007). A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and its Impact on American Society. Washington, D.C: The Sentencing Project.

McCaw, C.E. (2009). Asset Forfeiture as a Form of Punishment: A Case for Integrating Asset Forfeiture into Criminal Sentencing. American Journal of Criminal Law. Vol. 38:2.

Pollock, J.M. (2002). Women, Prison & Crime. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Pollock, J.M. (2005). Prisons: today and tomorrow. NY: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Randall, K (2009) 7.3 million in the US prison system. Web.

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