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Problem and Solutions of Prisons Overcrowding

by Daniyal


That the Justice system faces quite many problems is not debatable. Although these problems differ in nature and severity, that of prison overcrowding stands among the most urgent of these issues. Several factors have been cited to cause overcrowding in prison. Among these causes is increased incarceration. The implications of increased incarceration and prison overcrowding include increased re-offending, re-arrests, unhygienic prison conditions, violence, and danger towards prisoners and their guards. Although efforts have been directed at eliminating and reducing the problem of prison overcrowding, more needs to be done in this regard since not all the strategies applied are that effective. The government and society have undertaken numerous interventions to help save the situation with little or no success. Reduced incarceration, behavioral-cognitive therapy, increased investment, drug-treatment, education, and stricter supervision are among the alternative approaches by which prison overcrowding may be reduced or eliminated. 


The justice system of any country reflects not only its social infrastructures but also the different times and circumstances the country and its citizens undergo. This assertion is particularly true given that peoples’ trends, attitudes, perceptions, sentiments, and behaviors are often influenced by what is deemed ethical, moral, or criminal. Further, the type, appropriateness, and the severity of punishments given to offenders by a justice system have rather far reaching influences on society’s trends and sentiments. In other words, shifting circumstances and times grossly affect the justice system by either relieving or increasing the stresses facing the system (Useem & Piehl, 2008). In this regard, a lot of issues currently face justice systems world over. Fortunately, governments and other stakeholders such as individual lawyers, police/prison officers, and judges have endeavored to alleviate or eliminate some of the issues/problems that derail the functions of justice systems. Nonetheless, a lot still needs to be done to address these issues since the strategies and policies in use have not adequately addressed most of these issues (Useem & Piehl, 2008). Besides justice-related policies, economic and social policies have also been quite helpful in addressing the myriad issues bedeviling the justice system. It is thus noticeable that the justice system suffers from quite a number of issues and serious reforms are in order.

Problem and Solutions of Prisons Overcrowding

One of the more serious issues affecting the justice system is prison overcrowding, mainly caused by the tendency of justice systems to send many nonviolent offenders to jail. Due to political and societal pressures, quite many attorneys would want to show the public that the system is tough on crimes and criminals, thus sending even nonviolent criminals to jails for immensely long terms (Useem & Piehl, 2008). This paper explores the problem of overcrowding in prisons, discussing its implications, the numerous public and individual policies that have been put in place to curb this problem and other effective solutions that could help address the problem.

Implications of Prison Overcrowding

In spite of the attempts to solve the problem of prison overcrowding, the nation’s justice system has found it rather difficult to keep pace with the in flow of inmates into prisons. This situation prevails despite the added prison space intended to accommodate new convicts. As mentioned earlier, this expanding population of the incarcerated has not only endangered the lives of prisoners but also that of their guards. Moreover, the efforts to correct convicts have been derailed by this overcrowding. The Government Oversight Office study Growing Prisoner Crowding Adversely Impacts Prisoners, Employees, and Facilities backed up these statements, noting that the currently overburdened Bureau of Prisons network has swelled beyond reach and is projected to reach 45 percent of its size by 2018. In fact, the limit, according to the said report, was exceeded by the highest margin in 2004 during which the prisons exceeded their maximum levels, referred to as the rated capacity, by 41 percent (Government Accountability Office, 2012). The study also cautioned that overcrowding in jails places wardens in risk, as more prisoners are packed into tiny cells, contributing to greater prisoner misbehavior. As a result of this brutality, prisoners and prison personnel face heightened stress and abuse, jeopardizing their welfare and protection. Overcrowding often means that in detention institutions, access to amenities like the cafeteria, exercise yards, and television rooms is restricted. In addition, overcrowding causes a lack of anonymity and increases the likelihood of inmates lashing out or assaulting their officers. assIn more serious scenarios, these negative effects of prison overcrowding may ripple outside the walls of prison facilities (Government Accountability Office, 2012). For instance, if there are not enough space, budget, and facilities for training, job creating, education and drug rehabilitation programs, there is a heightened likelihood that inmates would commit more serious crimes on their release.

Cases abound in which those leaving prisons find it rather hard to re-enter society once out of prison. This problem could be traced to the prison system’s failure to assist inmates re-enter their community. It is thus in order to decrease the overcrowding problem, a mandate that lies squarely with the Department of Justice, which should construct new prisons, lighten sentences and/or reintroduce parole for federal crimes (Government Accountability Office, 2012). The trend in which the prison system focuses more on prisoner and facility security at the expense of rehabilitative or corrective objectives should be reversed.

Expert Opinion on Prison Overcrowding

Statistics and expert reports and opinions have also supported the existence and implications of overcrowding issues in prisons. According to the GAO analysis for the 2006-2011 fiscal years, there were more than 218,000 inmates locked in the network of federal and privately-run prisons. In fact, approximately 48% of these prisoners committed drug-related offenses (Government Accountability Office, 2012). In the same period, reportedly, five federal prisons were opened while four minimum security camps were shut. This implies that there was an increased space for almost seven percent more inmates while the prison system took in more than nine percent more prisoners in the same period.

Despite the many attempts at reversing prison overcrowding, a lot of controversies have surrounded these efforts both at the local and national levels. The core among these controversies is the different public perceptions of the positive and negative impacts of prison overcrowding on inmates and society. For instance, some believe that there are quite few and ineffective chances for rehabilitation in prisons since inmates are not adequately supervised and they are often confined in cells for long hours (Government Accountability Office, 2012). Thus, there is often a lot of tension and violence among prison officers and inmates. This school of thought argues that for important lessons to be learnt in prison, the system must be under minimal pressure, safe, and effective. There are thus growing concerns on prison safety, more so for young-offender institutions and dispersal prisons, which regrettably have unsuitable, unhygienic and cramped accommodation/conditions (Smith, 2006).

Societal Responses: Public and Formal Responses

By now, it is quite apparent that prisons world over are overcrowded, mostly due to the insufficient resources often allocated to these facilities for expansion and significant improvements in service provision. In essence, prison overcrowding has become the most pressing and urgent criminal justice issues facing the government.  In its general meaning, prison overcrowding refers to the insufficiency of jail space and resources, which places pressure on authorities to build more jails and acquire more facilities. The United States of America is perhaps the most affected country with regards to prison overcrowding. This is especially so due to its high incarceration rate. As a matter of fact, a 2008 study carried out by the Pew Center revealed that in every one hundred US citizens, one is under the supervision of the criminal justice system (Gleason, 2012).

There are several causes of prison overcrowding in the US just as in any other country. For instance, in the US, mandatory minimum sentences for crimes such as drug crimes have been cited as a major cause of prison overcrowding. Prison overcrowding has also been worsened by the fact that it is rather expensive and time-consuming to build prisons, implying the few available and overstretched prisons have to accommodate more inmates than they are meant to do (Gleason, 2012). The other factors to which prison overcrowding could be attributed are lack of and failure to use different alternatives to jail terms by the judiciary, bureaucracies in the movement of prisoners from one facility to the other, deterioration and aging of existing facilities, and under-funding by the government. However, the origin of the current trend of increasing jail population could be traced to the last fifty or sixty years during which judges have consistently sent more and more offenders to prison. In fact, this trend was more severe in the 1970s. However, the trend reversed a bit in the 1980s when the judiciary started giving out alternative punishments such as community sentences, fines, and cautions (Gleason, 2012). These alternatives were adopted after the realization that the conditions in some jails were quite intolerable and that the then trends could culminate in the doubling of prison population within the first decade of the 21st century. Despite these attempts in the 1970s and the 1980s, the trend soon reversed and prison population rose again, resulting in further crowding (Gleason, 2012). The return of this worrying trend was occasioned by stakeholders who believed that only prisons work in correcting and rehabilitating both violent and nonviolent offenders.

There are numerous public and individual policies that have been applied to curb prison overcrowding. Although some of these policies have been rather effective, a number of them have proved futile. Generally, the interventions recommended could be chosen, based on two main criteria; their capacity to improve the quality of prisoners’ and prison officers’ lives and their applicability and implementation with little or no new legislations and colossal amounts of money. Importantly, these interventions should be quite effective and appropriate in reducing or eliminating the consequences of prison overcrowding such as reduced staff moral and prison facilities’ security and control (Smith, 2006). Importantly, the health and wellbeing of prisoners should be the other basis for the implementation of whatever strategies chosen. In addition, these strategies must seek to lower the levels of conflicts and violence in correctional facilities. Among the long-term goals of these interventions should be successful rehabilitation, which would translate into reduced re-offending.

Although those directly involved in daily prison operations may not have the capacity or the authority to build new prisons and purchase bigger and larger-capacity facilities, there are several interventions that they may undertake. First, they may uphold and improve the security of the parameters of prisons and other correctional facilities. Additionally, they may reduce idleness in prisons, classify prisoners, improve health, sanitation, and grow food (Smith, 2006). To improve the conditions in prisons, the use of volunteers, training of staff, non-sentenced prisoners, review cases, speed up release, reduce sentences, and other alternatives are highly advised (Smith, 2006). However, these are just short-term solutions; there are long-term strategies that could offer lasting solutions.

The first long-term strategy would be to avail mobile judges that move from one prison to the other holding hearings, thus lowering the population of remand prisoners. Second, judges ought to use probation and community service as alternatives to prison sentencing. Third, the legislature should also adopt laws that would reduce the length of sentences meted out on offenders. Parole boards should also be handed more powers to supervise and order the release of prisoners that pose little danger to society (Useem & Piehl, 2008). Additionally, parole boards should have more powers to sanction technical parole violators outside prison precincts.

Alternative Solutions and their Effectiveness

Notwithstanding the interventions used, it is quite apparent that the use of alternatives to incarceration is perhaps the most effective solution to prison overcrowding. These strategies should thus not only prevent crimes but also divert the attention of would-be criminal and convicts to alternatives that could be more effective than prison terms. These approaches have also been shown to be comparatively cost effective, more so with regards to ensuring public safety (Smith, 2006). The first among these solutions is the prevention and treatment of substance abuse in society. The moment people are identified as substance abusers and treatment is commenced, the probability of substance abuse problems and related crimes escalating are reduced. This ensures that the escalation of such problems and crimes to an extent that would warrant incarceration is prevented. In this regard, some have recommended the increasing of taxes on substances such as beer and wines. Once it is impossible to prevent drug abuse or treatment has failed, it may be in order to create drug courts, which would offer alternatives to incarceration for drug abusers. These courts would be chiefly effective since judges feel that incarceration is rather ineffective on drug offenders who just return to their drug abuse upon being released (Useem & Piehl, 2008). An example of the strategies employed by drug courts is treatment accompanied by intensive supervision. In the event that an offender complies with the stated terms he/she risks facing incarceration or rigorous drug court regimen. Such a regimen would include rigorous drug testing, treatment, completion of education, finding of a job. The reward for sticking to such a regimen would include a substituted sentence.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the other quite effective strategy for dealing with overcrowded prisons. Through this strategy, convicts are sent to probation rather than prison sentences. These therapies assist such convicts to realize and appreciate that they could become law abiding citizens through their productive and pro-social feelings, thoughts, and behaviors (Hough et al., 2008). Additionally, authorities could use intensive supervision of treatment- and rehabilitation-oriented programs for people on paroles and probation. In other words, those on probation and parole should be closer to and have more frequent contacts with their parole officers.

Vocational education in and general education in prison are the other interventions that could help in reducing the problem of overcrowding in prisons. These types of education result in reduced re-arrests, thus helping in the long-term solution of prison overcrowding. Although others might argue that such programs are costly, it is worth noting that they are less expensive compared to what the taxpayer incurs with regards to incarceration.

Just as cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective alternative to prison sentences if outside prison walls so is it inside prisons for drug-related offences. In other words, prison authorities should incorporate cognitive behavioral therapies for offenders to help avert the problems of re-offences and re-arrests (Hough et al., 2008). Obviously, such a trend would see the overcrowding in jails drop by a significant level. Through these programs, convicts are taught that they have the capacity to become law-abiding citizens. In essence, as mentioned earlier, cognitive behavioral therapies and other related programs exploit offenders’ productive and pro-social thoughts, behaviors, perceptions, and feelings. Past and current researches have adversely reported the effect of these therapies on re-arrests, which some have indicated to drop by an average rate of 6.3% with accompanying economic benefits to state and offenders (Hough et al., 2008). Similarly, drug treatment in prisons has also helped in reducing the consequences of overcrowding in prisons by reducing crimes and re-arrests.

Increased funding and other types of investment should also be used to address prison overcrowding. For instance, prison authorities and the government ought to invest more money to hire professional agents to handle prison matters such as inmate accountability, maintenance, data entry, and quality assurance. Such funding would thus allow prison staff to concentrate more on the delivery of services and programs to inmates to help achieve rehabilitative objectives.


The societal Implications of prison overcrowding are quite obvious not only to the government and prison authorities but also the public, which is adversely affected by the crimes committed by offenders and their subsequent arrests and re-arrests. For these and other reasons, more effective alternatives to incarceration such as cognitive-behavioral therapies, drug treatment, probation, paroles, reduced sentencing/mandatory minimums, community services, and professionalized misdemeanor probation should be practiced. More investment in the above programs among others such as data management and public safety cost-effectiveness analysis would also go a long way in reducing prison overcrowding.

  • Gleason, K. (2012). “Pew Report: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms.” Retrieved on January 6, 2012 from http://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/criminal-justice/cost-benefit-longer-prison-terms
  • Written by one Kate Gleason, this is an online article, which analyzes the Pew Report on the high cost and low return of longer prison terms such as overcrowding. This article thus offers an insight into the implications of prison sentencing compared to other alternatives that judges may opt for while punishing offenders.
  • Government Accountability Office (2012). “Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure.” Retrieved on January 6, 2013 from http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-743
  • This is the official website for the U.S Government Accountability Office and the report is quite a valuable reference for the topic of overcrowding prisons, a rather serious problem in the justice system. Specifically, the report contains GAO’s reasons for the study and its findings on the negative implications of crowded prisons.
  • Hough, M., Allen, R., and Solomon, E. (2008). Tackling prison overcrowding: build more prisons? Sentence fewer offenders? (Researching criminal justice). Policy Press.
  • Although published in the UK, this book seeks to propose various ways of tackling prison overcrowding all over the world, making it rather instrumental in the writing of this paper. In a more specific aspect, this book, written by experts of great renown proposes and examines the interventions by which prison overcrowding may be eliminated or reduced to manageable levels.
  • Smith, R. (2006). Prison conditions: overcrowding, disease, violence, and abuse (incarceration issues). Mason Crest Publishers.
  • In this book, the author explores the subject of overcrowded prison and its implications by exploring real-life experiences. Thus, the book, as a reference enables the gathering of information about the realities of prison life.
  • Useem, B., and Piehl, A. M. (2008). Prison state: the challenge of mass incarceration (Cambridge studies in criminology), first edition. Cambridge University Press.
  • This book is particularly important reference for this work since it covers the history of prison overcrowding covering the last quarter century. In addition, the book critically considers incarceration and its influences on the U.S justice system, mainly prison overcrowding. The authors do a splendid job in examining the causes and the implications of prisoner buildup in the justice system, in the process examining the social discontent, safety and security within prisons, and impact on crime and society.

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