Crowded Prisons: Nation of Convicts

29 April 2015
The United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but it houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. That is 716 per 100,000 of the national population, the highest in the world. The prisons are therefore overcrowded, often with four or five prisoners per two person cell (Walmsley). Most of the incarcerated in the United States are serving time for non-violent or victimless crimes, such as drug offenses. This should cause one to wonder, What are prisons supposed to do? What is their purpose? What is the best way to deal with crime? And does refining the answers to these hold any key to preventing prison overcrowding?
In 2010 California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, published a proclamation declaring a prison overcrowding state of emergency. It listed several factors as probable causes of the overcrowding: increased population, parole policies, sentencing laws, and recidivism rates. The proclamation states that due to these circumstances all 33 prisons in the state were at or above maximum operational capacity, with 29 of them so overcrowded that more than 15,000 inmates were being housed in conditions that pose substantial safety risks; Such as areas never intended or designed for housing inmates, including prison gymnasiums, dayrooms, and program rooms with approximately 1,500 inmates sleeping in triple-bunks. The health and safety risks threatening not just the inmates, but the men and women who work for the prisons as well, with less safety for the employees in the more open areas being used for housing, and the overcrowding causing heightened risks of violence, loss of control, and transmission of infectious illnesses due to tight living quarters and overwhelming of sewage systems resulting in thousands of gallons of sewage spills, including contamination of drinking water (“Prison”). Along with the health and safety issues, the problem of prison overcrowding can have financial and societal implications.
Prison overcrowding has many hidden costs. The overwhelming of utility systems caused by overcrowding has damaged fuses and transformers, leading to costly replacements, power failures and blackouts, and the sewage discharges have damaged state and privately owned property, as well as contamination of public ground water, resulting in fines and penalties, all of which costs the tax payers (“Prison”). Prison overcrowding also leads to more people unable to work, and who must be housed and fed, again funded through tax payers at an average annual cost of $45,006 per inmate (Sullivan). The loss of the intended use of dayrooms and program rooms also leads to the elimination of recovery and therapy programs which help reduce the recidivism rate through academic, vocational, rehabilitational, and mental-health assistance. The elimination of these programs leads to incarceration not helping the inmates change their ways, thus only housing them for a limited time before releasing them back into the same situation, with no new coping skills, or education for them to utilize in creating a less criminal life. In fact due to the poor conditions in these prisons, inmates can come out with more drug and gang connections, violent reactive behavior, and increased mental disorders. The federal court Coleman case found mental-health care in prisons to be below federal constitutional standards, and the suicide rate in prisons to be as severe as averaging one per week (“Prison”). Under these conditions it would seem prisons, instead of making society better and safer, are actually making it worse.
One of the concerned facilities listed in the California proclamation is Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California, which has an operational housing capacity of 3,902, but it currently houses 3,958 inmates, many of them housed in areas designed for other purposes (“Prison”). Karen Kemplin was a former inmate of that facility from 1998 until 2008; In an interview conducted for this essay, she confirmed that during her stay there it was overcrowded, with women living in the gym, and that conditions were unsanitary due to the number of inmates. She mentioned noticing the crowding, leading to many acts of violence, including that she personally witnessed one inmate kill another (Kemplin). This is affirmed by the proclamation which stated “In the last year, there were 125 incidents of assault/battery by inmates — 75 of them against staff — and 15 weapon confiscations.” (“Prison”). Karen also said that she saw many inmates who were suffering from severe depression, especially “Lifers” people who were sentenced to life imprisonment; and many people who needed medications, but were not being provided with them. She did, however, praise the prison’s rehabilitation programs, noting that she utilized the academic program as well as the vocational ones, learning “dry cleaning and PI Laundry” (Kemplin). Budget cuts in 2009 drastically reduced the number of academic and vocational assignments (Institution). Rendering the prison even less helpful than it was while she was there, it now has a recidivism rate of approximately 72% (“2009-2010”). All of these things should cause one to wonder: What exactly are prisons meant to be, and what are they meant to accomplish?
Are prisons and jails meant to help people? To teach the convicted individual that what they did was wrong, and how to properly function in society. To help them stop abusing drugs or alcohol, and to show them that there are better ways to resolve conflicts than violence, and to help those who are mentally ill finally realize that they need treatment, and to facilitate it. Or, are prisons meant to be societal vessels of vengeance, punishing those who have wronged others? (Gilligan). Depending on who a person asks, the answer to this could be different, or even fall somewhere in-between. If one were to listen to a group of people commenting on a recent court case which led to a conviction, they would almost undoubtedly hear someone say “Good! Now let him know what it is like to be raped – daily!” or “Ha! He won’t last long in prison. People in there don’t treat too kindly people convicted of that. We will see him in a body bag in no time. Let the sicko get what he deserves!” For the people saying those things, prison is clearly meant to be a form of vengeance. But how does vengeance improve society?
Prisons and jails can serve another purpose, or the system could even change in such a way that makes them obsolete. Instead of focusing on vengeance, the system could help people. Rather than simply locking people up, stashing them away behind walls for a time, not helping them in any way, and in fact hurting them, making them more unstable and violent, just makes things worse for everyone, both the convicted and victims, past and future; The system could, as every good parent knows, use the occasion of in individual doing something bad, as a moment to teach them why what they did was wrong, and educate them on how they should of done things (Gilligan). To realize that the person may themselves be going through hard times, and that their actions could be a cry for help.
If a person is stealing, maybe they are having trouble gaining employment or balancing their checkbook, or perhaps they have acquired a bad habit which is draining their resources. The way to stop such crimes in not to simply throw them in prison for a few years, for when they get out, if the conditions of their life are still the same, they will return to stealing if they believe that is the only way to get food, money or other things they want. The criminal behavior thus continuing to reoccur, causing more theft to the community, and not improving the lives of the convicted or society around them (Gilligan). Now if the system would ask the individual why they committed the crime, and assist them in finding employment, balancing their checkbook, or getting rid of their habit; both the individual and their community would benefit, and the future thefts would never take place.
The same applies to violence, perhaps that person was raised in a violent environment and that is the only method they know to solve disputes, or maybe they themselves were being abused and fought the abuse in the only way they saw how, instead of seeking help, which sadly society is not always willing to give. They could also be suffering from psychological conditions which causes them to lash out or act cruelly. These people need help; be it education in how to non-violently resolve disputes; assistance in getting out of an abusive living situation or relationship; or therapy of some sort. This would help prevent future acts of violence from these people, making them, and everyone around them safer. This method of thought could be applied to each situation to help formulate better outcomes.
Another point which cannot be ignored is that the majority of people serving time in prison are doing so for non-violent crimes. In many states, felonies carry a mandatory minimum of one year in prison, for such things as writing bad checks and drug possession. If these “crimes” were switched to misdemeanors, many serving time in jails would be released immediately, and up to 10,000 state prisoners would be eligible to have their sentences retroactively reduced to jail or probation (Sledge). Another benefit of changing those to misdemeanors instead of felonies, is the people convicted will have a better chance at gaining employment, thus improving their lives and the community. There is no reason a person should be sent to prison for accidently writing too many bad checks because they are low on money, or because they are addicted to a substance. These are people who need help to improve their lives; they are not harming anyone. If a person is in their living room toking on some weed, who are they hurting other than themselves? No one. Why should society then charge that person for a crime? If someone were to think of the saying, “That’s a crime,” when used in a casual, lay fashion, it is applied when people feel they have been wronged by another. Yet, a person partaking of a substance is normally harming no one: Therefore that should not be considered a crime. Especially the simple act of possessing something; someone may ask a friend to hold onto their bag of cocaine for them, but that doesn’t mean that person possessing it has ever taken it, or intends to do anything with it. That individual therefore is also not committing a crime.
In 2001, after many years of waging a fierce war on drugs, the Portuguese government decriminalized all of those substances. If someone is in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of any drug, be it marijuana to heroin, they are sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, which is made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission recommends treatment; other than that, the person is sent off without penalty. When Portugal decriminalized all drugs fourteen years ago, some people feared the country would be over-ran with drug addicts. This, however, did not happen, and in fact drug use has decreased drastically. Before decriminalization, the percent of the population reported as regularly doing drugs was 13%, fourteen years later that number has fallen down to only 3% of the population. Portugal has also seen other benefits from this, the rate of new cases of HIV infections has dropped 20%, other diseases such as Hepatitis C have dropped as well due to both the decrease in drug use, as well as drug users not fearing going to doctors, and being able to get clean needles (Aleem). Portugal is just one of the countries putting into place policies which can solve prison overcrowding and other problems.
If the United States would stop locking up people for non-violent crimes, that alone would solve the prison overcrowding problem. Confining these people in a cell does not in any way help them or society, it does not inspire reduction in the use of substances nor does it help prevent bad book-keeping. Those suffering extreme substance abuse need to be ordered to attend drug rehabilitation treatment, which would actually make a positive change. Those writing bad checks need to be sent to banking and finance classes, as well as possibly helped vocationally, and those who suffer from mental illness need to receive proper medical and psychiatric treatment (Gilligan). If the system was converted to have these goals and implement these changes, society would be amazed at how few prisoners and problems it would have.
However, some would say that solving the problem of the numbers of prisoners in the USA would cause problems as well, like higher unemployment due to the pool of people seeking employment for the same jobs. This is true, however they fail to realize that these people would be buying homes, cars, and other things, thus creating jobs and stimulating the economy. That as well as the fact that they would no longer be living solely on tax dollars. People who say we must keep our prisons full due to employment concerns, as well as the people who make clear statements desiring blood thirsty vengeance, do not seem to realize the monstrous things they are envisioning and implying. To desire large numbers of non-violent people who have not hurt anyone to be locked up for the sake of another being able to find a job more easily; and desiring people to be raped, beaten to death, and tortured – these are horrible gruesome things to desire for another person, a person with their own family and friends. People deserve compassion and understanding. No one is born a soulless monster, each person is formed through the way the people around them treat them, and whether they receive support and love, or neglect and abuse. Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the majority in a Supreme Court ruling against the state of California in the 2011 case Brown v. Plata, said “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society,” (Weissmueller). Society can be and do better than it currently is.
Each and every person should give thought to who they are, and what they want themselves and this society to be. Do they want this to be a society of mass imprisonment and horrible inhumane conditions for people, or do they desire a better place, where the majority of the people are free and living in a healthy environment? I know which of those I would want. The country is currently in that former state, but it can reach the latter, it has examples in places like Portugal, it only needs to implement them.
Works Cited
“2009-2010 Madera County Grand Jury Final Report Valley State Prison for Women.” Madera County Board of Supervisors. Madera County, California. 2010. Web. 4 Feb 2011.
Aleem, Zeeshan. “14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here’s What Portugal Looks Like.” Policy Mic, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
Gilligan, James. “Punishment Fails. Rehabilitation Works.” The New York Times. New York Times Company, 19 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
“Institution Statistics.” Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW). CDCR, State of California. 2011. Web. 16 April 2012.
Kemplin, Karen. Personal interview. 21 Apr. 2015.
“Prison Overcrowding State of Emergency Proclamation.” Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.. State of California, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
Sledge, Matt. “California Proposition Would Reinvest Prison Money In Drug Treatment.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post Inc., 8 Oct. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
Sullivan, Cara. “Prison Overcrowding: California.” ALEC American Legislative Exchange Council. 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
Walmsley, Roy. World Prison Population List. Tenth ed. London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, 2013. Print.
Weissmueller, Zach. “Overcrowded: The Messy Politics of California’s Prison Crisis.”

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