Problems of Overcrowding in Prisons

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The problem

The number of people incarcerated in prisons across the world has increased over the last couple of years (Alinejad & Nazarinejad, 2015). This has led to overcrowding, a phenomenon that has raised a great concern among the interested parties. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), overcrowding refers to a situation in which the number of prisoners in a correctional facility exceeds its capacity (Pollock, 2009). Statistics indicate that in the year 2010, prisons across the United States had more than two million inmates, which was beyond their maximum capacity. Most state prisons have exceeded their capacities by more than 100% (Pollock, 2009). This happens when the rate of prisoners’ release is lower than the rate of incarceration. A survey conducted to assess the severity of this problem found out that prison space was often freed up through transfers or the demise of prisoners, which happened very rarely (Alinejad & Nazarinejad, 2015). Legal experts argue that there is an urgent need for courts to find alternative ways of punishing the offenders. Creating new legislation will allow the judges to have access to several options for sentencing offenders (Taylor, 2008). It is important to understand the numerous ways in which prisoners interact with each other and the possible dangers of having overcrowded correctional facilities (Taylor, 2008).

Efforts being made

A number of steps are being taken to address the challenge of overcrowding in prisons. The main step has been to identify the causative factors that lead to overcrowding. Several reasons are responsible for overcrowding in prisons. First, there is insufficient space to cater for the high number of prisoners (Pollock, 2009). Lack of adequate space to accommodate criminals is the main reason for overcrowding in prisons. Second, fluctuating incidences of crime lead to high rates of incarcerations. Therefore, the number of offenders imprisoned transcends the carrying capacity of prisons, thus causing overcrowding (Jefferson, 2011). Third, changes made to legislation that deal with incarceration of criminals have contributed significantly to the problem. For example, California and New York states have adopted legislation that requires the arrest and consequent prosecution of all the offenders in court (Taylor, 2008). This has led to an increase in the number of criminals sentenced to jail. Other notable causes of overcrowding include poor management of correctional facilities and high rates of recidivism (Jones, 2009).

Overcrowding in prisons is associated with many risks that affect the welfare of prisoners. The first risk is deteriorating health conditions due to factors such as poor sanitation (Pollock, 2009). Accommodating too many people in a small area can have serious health implications. The second risk is spreading of skin and airborne diseases (Taylor, 2008). Health care experts argue that some diseases are easily spread in the overcrowded places where the mobility of people is highly restricted. Skin diseases in prison are common due to sharing of facilities and poor hygiene. The third risk factor is stress and depression. According to psychologists, prison environments are very stressful especially if there is overcrowding (Alinejad & Nazarinejad, 2015). Such conditions promote sedentary lifestyles, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, pessimism, as well as loss of meaning and purpose in life. The fourth risk is increased chances of riots and violent behavior (Jones, 2009). The high number of inmates leads to high levels of interactions that often result in conflicts and misunderstandings (Jones, 2009).


The issue of overcrowding in prisons has been a major issue of concern for a long period. Numerous strategies can be used to provide a lasting solution. Examples of such strategies include construction of more prisons, reduction in the number of offenders sentenced to jail, and adoption of alternative methods of punishing nonviolent offenders (Hough, Allen, & Solomon, 2008). Countries, such as Iran and the United States, have made numerous attempts to streamline their judicial system in a bid to reduce the number of incarcerations. It is important for all the departments of the judicial system to work in harmony with other stakeholders involved in running and managing correctional centers in order to find a lasting solution to the problem (Jefferson, 2011). Moreover, this will ensure those factors that contribute to the high number of inmates in prisons who are dealt with in an effective manner (Jones, 2009).

Workability of the solutions

Strategies that effectively addressed this challenge include the use of rehabilitation centers and the development of alternative methods for sentencing offenders (Taylor, 2008). These strategies have been effective because the number of criminals going to prison has declined significantly over the last five years. In the past, every criminal was punished by receiving a jail sentence that lasted from a few months to several years. However, this approach has been replaced by more effective ways of punishing offenders. Mitigation strategies, such as expanding the capacity of prisons and offering counseling to criminals, have not been very effective. For instance, the strategy to expand the capacity of prisons has not been fully implemented because it is a very costly undertaking (Hough et al., 2008). Expansion of prisons would require transfer of inmates to other facilities while the construction takes place. On the other hand, counseling has not been effective because many criminals agree to change but remain trapped crime circles due to the lack of alternative means of supporting themselves and their families (Hough et al., 2008).

Things that can be done differently

A number of changes can be made in order to address this challenge in a more effective manner. First, governments need to develop legislation that will give judges several options for sentencing criminals apart from sending them to prison (Jefferson, 2011). Judges should be given the freedom to make use of rehabilitation centers and other forms of punishment in order to reduce the number of offenders going to jail. Second, creating more programs that place inmates on parole can be used to address the problem. This strategy has been used in the past but it can be expanded to accommodate more offenders. Parole has been effectively used to decongest prisons. This strategy involves conditional release of an inmate that allows them to serve the remainder of the sentence outside the prison as long as they comply with the terms of release (Hough et al., 2008).

The cost

The amount of money spent by the government annually to run prisons is approximately $74 billion. This implies that more than $30,000 is spent on each inmate annually (Hough et al., 2008). Legal experts argue that using prison decongestion strategies, such as putting inmates on parole and rehabilitation centers, will increase costs. Additional funds will be needed to support the activities of officers monitoring offenders in various facilities (Hough et al., 2008). The process of decongesting prisons will cost the government an additional $1 billion or more. The direct expenditure of the criminal justice system will increase because more officers will be needed to monitor criminals in rehabilitation centers, as well as those on parole and community service. In addition, the cost might increase if the government decides to build new jails. The estimated cost of building a mega jail is more than $100 million (Hough et al., 2008).

Consequences of the proposal and the likely culprits

The proposal that judges should have more options for sentencing offenders and creating programs to put inmates on parole will have a number of consequences. It will affect inmates and increase the overall cost of running prisons. First, alternative means of punishing, such as house arrest, counseling, and rehabilitation centers, will help to reduce the number of people going to jail (Taylor, 2008). These alternative approaches will prevent people that commit nonviolent crimes from going to prison. The aforementioned strategy will also improve the safety of prisons through improvement in sanitation and reduction in cases of violent behavior (Taylor, 2008). Second, the proposal will definitely have financial implications because more money will be needed to take care of offenders on parole and in rehabilitation centers (Alinejad & Nazarinejad, 2015). The people that will be greatly affected by the proposal will be inmates, as they will experience changes in the quality of life once the population starts to decrease (Taylor, 2008). Prison officers will also have lesser workload because they will be dealing with fewer inmates.


Overcrowding in prisons is an issue of concern in many countries across the world. Factors that lead to overcrowding include fluctuating crime rates, lack of adequate space, changes in incarceration legislation, and poor management of prisons among others. The rise in cases of drug trafficking also contributes to overcrowding in prisons, as most offenders are found guilty. Some of the best strategies for addressing this challenge include the use of rehabilitation centers, house arrest, counseling, community service, and parole. In order to effectively address this challenge, it is important for the federal and state governments to identify and understand the causes.


Alinejad, Y., & Nazarinejad, M. (2015). Reduction of prison criminal population. International Journal of Academic Research, 7(1), 565-572.

Hough, J. M., Allen, R., & Solomon, E. (2008). Tackling Prison Overcrowding: Build More Prisons? Sentence Fewer Offenders? New York: Policy Press.

Jefferson, J. (2011). Sentencing, drugs, and prisons: A lesson from Ohio. University of Toledo Law Review, 42(1), 881-891.

Jones, M. T. (2009). Prison Overcrowding: The Sentencing Judge as Social Worker. Widener Law Journal, 18(2), 491-499.

Pollock, J.M. (2009). Prisons Today and Tomorrow. California: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Taylor, A. (2008). The Prison Systems and its Effects: Wherefrom, Whereto, and Why? New Jersey: Nova Publishers.

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