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Overcrowding in American Prisons

As residents of the United States of America, we take pride in the predisposition that America is the freest country in the entire universe. However, the recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that more than two million women and men are now in the United States prisons as indicated in the United States Prison Statistics (Smolowe et al.; par. 2-5). These are very alarming statistics compared to other places in the world. Despite the population of China being almost four times the size of America’s population, they have second placed in terms of the population rate in the prisons. China has a population rate of 1.6 million which stands at a value a little lower than that of the United States.

Prison overcrowding in the United States of America overheads are over 68 million dollars annually. While the United States is in the middle of a downfall in the economy, this issue is spiraling out of effective control. The population in prison has increased in about a period of forty years. The reason to this upsurge of prison population is not related to violent crimes but instead to the expansion of the way the nation defines criminals and the approaches of legislation to problems of social health that emphasize incarceration as the only solution to avert these problems. The population of prisoners in the United States of America is occasioned by the war of good intentions concerning drugs, the cruel compulsory minimum sentences as well as non-violent offenders’ “three strikes you’re out” laws.

In legendary Woodstock year, 1969, the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon was elected. With a culture of drugs on the increase, the statement “War on drugs” was included after a short period of time. Even though he was the first United States’ president to coin this war on drugs term, the policies that were implemented by the administration as at then was a progression of the policies that began at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly in 1914 when the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was established. However, the rates of arrest started to increase dramatically as a result of drug related crimes in the 1970s and at the beginning of the 1980s. The war on drugs led to the imprisonment of about one million Americans on average annual. The number of Americans in state prison with drug-related offenses has dramatically increased by over an alarming 550% over the last two decades according to Prisons and Drug Offenders reports.

About 64% of violators in the drug war are actually non-violent criminals with very little or with no criminal background (Roth 18-21). Compulsory minimum sentences have been upheld strongly through policies of drug war although it is not limited to them. Compulsory minimum sentencing was implemented in 1986 to make judges offer fixed sentences to people who were convicted of crime irrespective of their obligation level related to the offense or other extenuating issues like the absence of previous criminal record. Normally, this implies that a criminal should serve at least some complete minimum term in prison before becoming entitled to parole.

The requisition highlighted above is normally prompted when the criminal is convicted of a certain charge. For instance, a case seen in 1994 involving a woman, Tonya Drake was approached by her associate who asked her to do him a favor by posting a package on his behalf. The acquaintance told the woman that she could retain the one hundred dollar bill change as a token of appreciation for the favor done. The woman really needed the money because she was a struggling single woman with four children who were below 8 years old and living on welfare at the same time. Therefore, the woman posted the package but the police found out later that it had 232 crack cocaine grams. Although the woman did not have a previous criminal record or any drug-related offense, the judge in the case was forced to sentence the woman to a 10-year incarceration. This is just one of many cases that are taking place in the United States. Non-violent convictions of this nature have resulted in a compulsory minimum sentence in many occasions. Based on another research carried out by the United States Department of Justice, 67 per cent of low-level drug criminals, implying non-violent criminals with either a low criminal record or without any previous criminal record, presently in the Prisons Bureau from 1994 got compulsory-minimum sentences.

The overcrowding problem in the United States of America prisons is the “Three-Strikes You’re Out” law. California passed a comparable three strike law in 1994 that authorizes a sentence of twenty five years to life sentence for a third crime conviction. Unlike Washington, the convictions of California may include the non-violent criminals. The logic of the law is to maintain habitual criminals or what can be regarded as career offenders off the streets. Many have expressed a lot of concern about the justice and contribution to the prison overcrowding issues of this particular law together with the mandatory minimum sentencing.

The three strikes law was supposed to target the most violent criminal offenders in California. However, non-violent sentences ironically outnumber the violent sentences in a ration of 2 to 1. Almost sixty five per cent of the people convicted of second or third strikes were serving time behind the bars for crimes of non-violent nature. In excess of 600 third strikes comprise people serving 25 years’ imprisonment to life imprisonment in drug related cases. This number is much greater compared to the third-strikers behind bars for second-level murder, assault with a fatal weapon and rape put together. Due to the three strikes law, Leandro Andrade case of 1995 and the sentence was doubled for two cases of non-violent nature in shoplifting which was actually his third and fourth strikes. The first two strikes were for home theft that were committed twelve years ago in 1983 and were both non-violent crimes. This was almost 10 years prior to the implementation of the law. In this sentence, Andrade will be 87 years old before he can become eligible for parole (Kohn; par. 2-7). The same concerns the many cases of compulsory minimum sentencing, there are a lot of other examples of non-violent offenders who make mistakes of this kind also and as a result, given that the first two crimes are felonies, an individual could be sentenced between 25 years imprisonment and life imprisonment.

A number of measures have been put in place to address the issue of overcrowding in the American prison centers. For instance, the high chance of recidivism in the system of criminal justice is a cause for concern since the rehabilitation endeavors effect the American society in many ways. The rehabilitation foundation of convicted criminals is founded in concepts and ideas that are combined with personal focus for each individual convicted of an offense. Serving a sentence may not necessarily mean a real jail time. The intention carried out in probation is most importantly a conviction with the debt to the American society paid out of the prison walls. As a result of overcrowding in the United States’ prisons, this choice permits “punishment” of an offense without adding to the weight of the population in the prison.

The probation sentence is decided through the system of court and involves sentencing a defendant and therefore the court system acts as a moderator of the control and use of probation as a measure of correction; the probationary time foundations are indeed historical and span many centuries. As the courts are in charge of monitoring the effectiveness and use of the sentence, probation could be ended any time if there is a violation of the conditions and terms by the criminal. The Probation and Criminal Courts states that the probation history has existed there hundred of years. Therefore it has been applied through the discretion of the courts. There are many factors that are taken by the court regarding the crime and the accused individual and assign penalties for the criminal charges.

While probationary measures have had some good input, it has some drawbacks altogether. By giving an individual a chance to be a productive and healthy member of society, the criminal convicted could avoid making a similar mistake twice. For other people, the opportunity to regroup with family members and friends merely ignites the flames of non-cooperation. For such individuals, there is not much hope of non-compelled compliance being of any benefit.

One of the main advantages of using the system of probation is the effort realized in avoiding more overcrowding in the prisons. Therefore, a major reason of applying probation as a fall back strategy is to avoid overcrowding at all cost. Using probationary tactics has also introduced some other disadvantages in finding the balance between environment and age. To put it in a simple way, physical punishment sometimes does not actually carry the burden of imprisonment. The criminal offenders are most of the times free to go into society while this has two elements. For one, an individual that is permitted to move all through the city is most certainly going to engage in crime than the people who have been left in the “big house”. If the criminal re-offends while still on probation, the freedom thus becomes a waste and unwarranted on that specific individual.

There are a number of positives that come with the overcrowding like creating jobs for prison attendants and administrators and the negatives like more violence among other issues that have been earlier aforementioned. Well, the positives may not really sound ethical and a representation of the American values based on the constitution. We could say that overcrowding in prisons cuts down the resources used in prison facilities. This could be against the rights of such individuals who find themselves in prison. All the same, the United States government apparently is making a lot of savings unlike in a case whereby the prisoners were given spacious facilities. Putting prisoners into one confinement also ensures good monitoring of those behind bars. Generally, overcrowding in prison centers deals with the issue of security in the American society. Therefore, the more the number of people in the prisons is, the more we tend to think that the community is safe and that there is enough security in the society. These are some of the few merits that could be realized with the concept of overcrowding in prisons.

On a different note, overcrowding in prisons could lead to more violence. The physical coercion that comes with overcrowding in prisons does not actually address the issues affecting the criminal offenders. Such a crowded place induces more stress and depression. In an effort to contain these bad feelings, a criminal offender may end up in engaging other violent actions as a way of steeling themselves away from the reality of the prison conditions. This makes the individuals immune to the correction system and may really not reform so easily. It becomes very difficult to conduct a rehabilitation process in a crowded prison facility. Therefore, the prisoners will only be subjected to a punitive process that makes them more and more resilient to hardships and would easily re-offend after serving their sentence. Thus, overcrowding may not suffice the role of prisons in correcting the criminal behavior with the individuals (Smolowe et al.; par. 2-5).

Studies that have focused on overcrowding on prisoners have focused on social density and spatial density. Basically, spatial density concerns itself with the space per square feet that is allocated for a single person in a specific housing unit. Social density on the other hand is the number of people sharing a housing unit and is regarded as a contributive factor to the adverse effects of crowding. All the same, density alone cannot be used entirely to define the absolute effects of crowding. Researchers have established that there are other factors that could heighten or lessen the density impact like individual control and the physical environment in particular. Crowding is only related indirectly to just density or numbers of persons. It is very possible to feel crowded while in the midst of just a few people or not crowded when in actual sense there are very many people around.

The most important and determinant factor apparently is frustration in the attainment of some intentions due to the presence of other people. The environment of the prison is defined through factors which have indeed very adverse effects on inmates at individual level. In the setting of the prison, crowded situations are chronic and people who are prone to anti-social behavior are put there. This results in the lack of personal control and boredom and idleness. Research has shown that overcrowding affects individuals on three dimensions through the everyday environment in the prison. For one, there is less of everything for the inmates. The resources and the space are forced to stretch even further. The opportunities for the prisoners to take part in personal-development and programs of rehabilitation like employment, vocational training and academic learning are all curtailed. The absence of work and opportunities to work amounts to idleness by the inmates, usually reinforcing maxim that idleness leads to discontent and troublesome behavior.

While in prison, inmates still have their rights and should be provided with what they are qualified for as provided by the constitution of the land. Overcrowding in prisons seems to infringe some of these rights. The absence of enough resources like the availability of washroom, books in the library, access to the television lounge seating as well as other materials of recreation is an indication of the denial of their rights. The conflict and competition of the little resources could amount to violence and more aggression which is a negative effect occasioned by prison overcrowding. The inmates’ rights are infringed in a number of ways. Crowding induces some kind of stress. In responding to such kind of stress, the prisoners will tend to apply methods which do not promote their heath. The social interactions and relations are greatly affected. Crowded situations are characteristic of more competition for resources and aggression, social withdrawal and little cooperation as well. Thus, crowded conditions in prisons should only be tolerated logically for short time periods. Long term cases will definitely produce detrimental effects.

In conclusion, the War on Drugs backing mandatory minimum sentencing together with the three strikes laws, we can see that they make up a profound amount of the problem of overcrowding in the prisons around the United States of America. Based on these, drastic reduction in social service programs like welfare rolls and the de-institutionalization of the mental health hospitals of the state can also be taken into account. All these make living difficult for the people who on the other hand are connected to individuals committing petty offenses for the foundational needs of warmth and food. Poor representations from the attorneys appointed to the courts to the people who cannot afford a better representation are also to blame. Moreover, the many low income earners and the poor individuals in the United States are not in a position to acquire a bail and therefore have not been actually tried. Many defendants as seen in quite a number of research studies above 90% of pretrial detainees are ideally indigent and cannot really afford bail. While these offenders sit in jail waiting a trail that may possibly never be realized, the taxpayers in the United States of America are footing the bill to feed, shelter and clothe them. As seen in this, the problem of overcrowded prisons is a dramatic and complex issue as a result of the harsh compulsory minimum sentencing and the three strikes laws, other such issues that should be rectified in order for the problem of overcrowding to dissipate.

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