In order to call attention to the urgency of the criminal justice problem a “corrections crisis” has been declared. It states that our nation’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded and enormously expensive. They pose a hazard to the lives of inmates and staff as well as to the fiscal stability of states.
The problem with this scenario is that it's misleading at best and fictitious at worst. The problem with prison overcrowding has less to do with increasing inmate populations than with various definitions of overcrowding based on the following designations:
Design capacity: The number of inmates that planners or architects intended for the facility.
Operational capacity: The number of inmates that can be accommodated based on a facility's staff, existing programs, and services.
Rated capacity: The number of beds or inmates assigned by a rating official to institutions within the jurisdiction.
Based on these three different standards, no one actually knows the level of prison overcrowding. Prison overcrowding is a fluid concept that’s been used as a political football by all sides of the corrections debate in order to push a certain agenda. Most importantly, prison crowding ignores the real issues of inmate and staff safety and security as well as institutional manageability—which have all greatly improved in the past 20 years.
Experts have long predicted that our overcrowded prisons would soon erupt into violence in a rash of disturbances. In fact, just the opposite has happened. Prisons have become much more peaceful in the past 30 years. Better staff training and inmate classification systems have dramatically decreased prison homicides.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics manages the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program (DCRP). Records show that between 1980 and 2002 the state prison homicide rate dropped from 54.0 per 100,000 inmates to an astounding 5.7 per 100,000. Better architectural design of facilities has also made Attica type uprisings virtually a thing of the past.
Between 1983 and 2002 jail suicide rates dropped 64 percent. State prison suicide rates, historically much lower than the rate in jails, dropped from 34 per 100,000 inmates to 14 per 100,000 during the same period.
Deaths from all causes including homicide, suicide, illness, intoxication, and accidental injury declined from 3,414 in 2009 to 3,232 in 2010, for a total decrease of 5%, which is the largest decline in the number of prison deaths since the DCRP began collecting prisoner mortality data in 2001.
Courts and legislatures call for no-violent inmates or defendants to be released or not incarcerated because of prison overcrowding; yet no one bothers to ask the critical questions that must be asked. What exactly is a non-violent offender? What constitutes prison overcrowding? What is our primary and ultimate goal—to reduce the prison population or to create and maintain safer communities?
That’s the reason why every instance of sentencing or court imposed reform results in calls for more reform. Prison populations continue expanding or aren’t greatly reduced. Imagine the confusion if hospitals were ordered to reduce their percentages of people who were not “seriously ill” or had an illness that was “not potentially life threatening” and could be treated by other means. In the first place Doctors don’t refer the vast majority of their patients to the hospitals. More specifically, the terms “not seriously ill” and illnesses that are “not potentially life threatening” are open to interpretation. Influenza can be potentially life threatening to an 80 year old but not necessarily to a 20 year old.
Attempts to send fewer people to hospitals wouldn't change the fact that as a matter of course the vast majority of people don’t end up as hospital patients after getting sick. It’s just as important to know that the vast majority of people don’t end up as prison inmates after a criminal conviction.
As for prisons being nothing but human warehouses and schools of crime, in the BOP and in state prisons an inmate can enter as a functional illiterate and leave with a college degree. He/she can receive job training in various vocational trades such as computers. He/she has access to counselors, caseworkers, psychologists and other professionals. Some inmates choose not to take advantage of any opportunities for self-improvement. These tend to be the ones who are released, commit another crime and when arrested declare that “they didn’t rehabilitate me.”
During the first 6 years of my career with the Bureau of Prisons, each maximum-security penitentiary averaged around five inmate homicides a year. This was at time when the federal inmate population was about seven times smaller than its present size. Today, the entire Bureau doesn’t average that many inmate homicides in a year. During the period that I worked with the BOP (1973-2000), twelve federal correctional personnel were killed on duty, making it the deadliest era for staff in Bureau history.
In May1979, the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary experienced its twelfth inmate murder in 30 months. Primarily because of the high number of inmate homicides, congress had initiated hearings to investigate problems. Consequently a new management system pioneered by the BOP was recommended for immediate implementation in Atlanta. Known as the Unit Management System, it divides the institution up into several semi-autonomous units. Each unit consists of a unit manager, two case managers, two correctional counselors, and a unit secretary. The unit offices are located in the inmate living units. The biggest problem with the big fortress-like penitentiaries was that their shear size made them very hard to manage and control.
In 1978, I was transferred to the Atlanta Penitentiary as a case manager as part of unit management implementation. My office was a vacated inmate cell in one of the cellblocks. Instead of the inmates making an appointment to see their case manager or counselor in a more secure part of the institution, the inmates had ready access to us in their living quarters.
Better architectural design of facilities has also made Attica type uprisings virtually a thing of the past. The old institutions were built with cube shaped cell blocks enclose within a boundary wall. This design contained dozens of blind spots where officers couldn’t see any activities unless they walked up to the particular spot.
In the 1970’s the Federal Bureau of Prisons pioneered a new design for jails called “Direct Supervision”. The direct supervision concept was designed for jails but it was based on principles that the BOP considered vital for all correctional facilities, such as unit management.
The important distinction between prisons and jails is that jails are primarily temporary holding facilities for those awaiting trial or sentencing or otherwise serving short (less than one year) sentences. Length of stays in a jail can be measured in terms of hours and days, instead of years, as people are constantly released on bail or “time served”. A jail’s population is in constant flux and this presents some unique problems.
Jail inmates aren’t there long enough for much effective “treatment” or other activities. The relative idleness creates more opportunities for negative behaviors to surface. This in turn effects the entire institutional environment.
In 1978 the Bureau of Prisons had fewer than 30,000 inmates in custody. By 2014 that number had swelled to more than 200,000. The important thing to note is that in 1978 many federal prisons were setting up bunks in prison gymnasiums because of overcrowding. This means that even if incarceration rates were to shrink to 1978 levels, prisons would still be decried as overcrowded and in desperate need of reform.
It seems nothing prisons do can redeem them in the eyes of their critics.