The federal prison system has been unable to keep pace with the steady flow of inmates pouring into its facilities during the past five years, despite adding space for thousands of new offenders, according to a U. S. Government Accountability Office report. The report also found that the Bureau of Prisons has already surged to 39 percent above capacity and is projected to jump to more than 45 percent above its limits by 2018 (GAO, 2012). According to a The New York Times article written by Adam Liptak (2011), overcrowding in prisons rose to its highest levels since 2004, when federal prisons were 41 percent beyond capacity.
As more and more inmates are crammed into ever tightening living spaces increases in violent incidents are surly going to rise. “Overcrowding in prisons negatively effect the mental and physical health of both the inmates and prison staff” (GAO, 2012). Inmates in overcrowded prisons have a higher rate of illness and mental health issues than the general population. For example, an estimated 37% of inmates have hypertension where as only 1% of the un-incarcerated population suffer from this disease. The alarming prevalence of communicable diseases like hepatitis C, TB, and HIV/AIDS among prisoners poses a serious public health problem.
Overcrowded conditions and poor health education in prisons, as well as weak community-based public health programs, compound the problem. Also, since condoms and bleach are illegal in prisons, many inmates who are victims of rape or engage in consensual sex are at risk of transmitting diseases in prison and after they are released back to their communities. Even those with short-term sentences can become infected in prison with a contagious disease. The links between drug use, hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, and incarceration help explain the rise in infectious diseases in our nation’s prisons.
Other studies done have found that a high prison population has a direct, negative effect on the psychological state of inmates. Overcrowding is known to cause stressful situations, which in turn cause inmates to act out violently. The violent out burst of the inmate or inmates prompt prison staff to react inappropriately due to the absurdly over populated prisons. Prisoners are subjected to varying levels of stress. The obvious being separation from family, friends and the uncertainty of the future. These stresses made worse by the poor conditions of food, water, hygiene and sleeping accommodation.
It isn’t just prisoners who develop problems in overcrowded facilities. With more prisoners confined to limited spaces, prison staff is forced to cut back the time inmates have in the cafeteria, recreation yards and television rooms. Two and three inmates are bunked in rooms designed for one prisoner or in common areas that were never meant to be used as cells. Staff has limited time to deal with bad behavior, fewer resources to tackle crime and violence within the prison and less chance to screen potentially dangerous inmates.
Staff also has less time to spend with individual inmates and cannot ensure they complete their rehabilitation and education programs. As a result the staff becomes a target for angry prisoners. As a result their working lives can be made much more stressful and dangerous. One way to curve the swell in the prison population is by addressing the mental health problems of the justice system. Prisons are the wrong place for people in need of mental health treatment, since the criminal justice system emphasizes deterrence and punishment rather than treatment and care.
For people with mental disorders who have committing minor offences, diverting them towards mental health services before they reach prison will help to ensure that they receive the treatment they need and also contribute to reducing the prison population. Legislation can be introduced which allows for the transfer of prisoners to psychiatric facilities at all stages of the criminal process. To help improve the overall health of the prison inmates could be organized and trained in preventative health care including basic sanitation, food preparation and personal hygiene.
Also, using low risk inmates to cultivate vegetable gardens, raise livestock like cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens to provide additional and more varied food for prisons. This could help improve nutrition and also provide inmates with meaningful activity. While at the same time addressing the health of the prison, the security of the prison can be solved as well. Often the movement of prisoners is restricted as a means of controlling the situation and providing safety for all involved. Unfortunately this adds to the stress and hostility felt by inmates.
Reducing inmate idleness, by increasing opportunities for exercise and sports, and by allowing religious activities can up the security of the prison. Active inmates are less likely to feel stressed and hostile. There are alternatives to incarceration and they are on the rise in an attempt to accommodate the rising rates of overpopulation. Boot camps are one of most wildly used in the United States, with the first put into place in Georgia and Oklahoma in 1983. The intention was to maximize deterrence, to reduce prison crowding, to reduce the rising costs of prison housing and to reduce re-offense.
Boot camps are intended to be less restrictive than prison but harsher than probation. They stress vigorous physical activity, drill and ceremony, manual labor, and other activities that ensure that participants have little, if any, free time. Strict rules govern all aspects of conduct and appearance. Correctional officer’s act as drill instructors, initially using intense verbal tactics designed to break down inmates’ resistance and lead to constructive changes. (Ashcroft, Daniels, & Hart, 2003) Boot camps have three main goals: reducing recidivism, reducing prisons populations, and reducing costs. As for two of the three goals the
Boot Camps showed positive results, however, for reducing repeat offense it had a 52% fail rate. The high fail rate is thought to be a result of the short terms of boot camp. The average term was 90 to 120 days. Another popular alternative to prison is the use of Electronic Monitoring also known as tagging. This is a device that is usually attached to the wrist or ankle of the violator. The device monitors the offender and the specified location where he or she is allowed to be present. The device transmits an electronic signal indicating whether the offender has had any unauthorized absences or has tampered with the device.
Only 826 offenders in the United States, participated in electronic monitoring programs in 1987. 1998 saw this number increase to over 95,000. (National Law Enforcement Corrections Technology Center, 1999) Electronic monitors can be used in a number of situations, including pre-trial services on conditional release and convicted offenders on probation, parole or house arrest. It may also be used as part of intensive supervision or work release programs. If a decision is made to release an accused on a recognizance bond (a bond that oes not require a payment to be made to the court) a judge may order that the accused be monitored electronically. Monitoring at the pre-trial stage allows offenders with limited financial resources to return to their homes to await trial, rather than spend weeks or months in custody. (Howard, 2000) Participation in electronic monitoring programs at the post-trial stage is determined either by the courts or by corrections authorities, but to participate in the program, an offender must pose only a minimum risk, be non-violent and have four months or less remaining in his sentence.
If these criteria are met, the offender is released on a temporary absence and allowed to return his home while under the supervision of corrections workers. (Howard, 2000) In the United States, it is estimated that electronic monitoring supervision costs between $5 and $25 per offender per day, which translates to a range of $1,825 to $9,125 per year. (Howard, 2000) Compared to $45-$60 per day inside prison is quite a difference of savings and it also offers relief of the overcrowding effect.