Social Justice Matters: Overcrowded Prisons and Their Consequences

Here in California, prison overcrowding has been in the news rather a lot lately, ever since the decision to mandate the early release of thousands of prisoners to bring the prison population down. Even after this mandate, California’s prison population will still be at over 100% of capacity. But overcrowding isn’t just a problem in California’s prisons. It is an issue across the United States and has been since the 1970s, when prison populations started skyrocketing.

The treatment of prisoners is a human rights issue. Prison overcrowding directly contributes to inhumane conditions which no person should be kept in, no matter what crimes that person has committed. And overcrowding is the result of social attitudes, political policy, and direct actions on the part of people like voters. This means that we can all be involved in playing a role in changing the way we handle corrections in the United States and acting to reduce prison overcrowding.

There are a number of contributing factors involved in prison overcrowding. One problem is mandatory sentencing laws, especially for drug convictions, and laws like the three strikes law in California. These laws remove any leeway in sentencing, forcing judges to sentence people to prison terms even when the circumstances of the case might actually indicate that other measures would be more appropriate. Mandatory sentencing is an especially big problem when you consider the race and class disparities which are rife throughout the justice system in the United States.

To put it bluntly, people of colour and people of lower social classes are more likely to find themselves on trial for crimes they did not commit. They are less likely to have access to adequate legal representation. And when the trial is over and they are convicted, mandatory sentencing laws mean that they must go to jail, even if a judge thinks that rehabilitation, conditional release, and other measures would be more appropriate. Innocent people who lack privilege will end up in prison. They do every day.

At the same time that mandatory sentencing laws are being passed, laws criminalising an increasing number of behaviours are also being passed. The result is that not only are judges forced to send people to prison in cases where it might not be appropriate, but they are forced to do so more of the time because there are more activities which come with mandatory sentences than ever before. This country’s response to gang violence and drugs has been, thus far, to criminalise. Criminalisation fails to address these issues in any meaningful way, and it leads to overcrowding in our prisons.

Overcrowding puts prisoners at significant risk. People living in crowded conditions are more likely to get sick, stay sick, and pass diseases on to others. They are more likely to experience mental health problems, particularly stress-related mental illnesses. They are more likely to develop aggression and frustration. Being forced into crowded conditions with other prisoners results in riots, abuse, and assault. The prison system struggles to keep up with disciplinary problems when it has minimal staff and outdated facilities. This often results in brutal abuse at the hands of guards and other prison personnel.

People with disabilities, trans* folks, and people of colour are especially vulnerable in prisons. Hierarchies exist in prison just as they do in the outside world, and people living in marginalised bodies rapidly become targets for abuse. Rates of prison rape and assault are extremely high and they are especially high for minorities. Prisons fail to meet the needs of vulnerable members of the prison population; trans women are imprisoned with men, people with cognitive disabilities are housed with the general population, and people of colour are slotted wherever they fit, with no regard to racial tensions. It’s no coincidence that race riots have exploded in several California prisons and that the response is either total racial segregation or a ‘colour blind’ approach in which prisons completely ignore racial differences as though this will magically make them go away.

Overcrowding also limits access to resources. This includes health care for prisoners. Prisoners have died due to lack of health access because a nurse or doctor is not available and it’s considered ‘unsafe’ to transfer a prisoner for medical care. Considering that rates of hepatitis, HIV, and numerous other chronic conditions are high in prisons, lack of access to routine health care is a serious issue. Lack of access to medications or irregular access to medications puts prisoners with chronic illnesses at extreme risk.

But it’s not just about physical health care. Prisoners don’t have access to exercise facilities, which, if nothing else, would provide them with mechanisms for working off stress and aggression. They do not have access to education, to mental health care, to rehabilitation, to drug counseling, to vocational training. Prisoners are literally warehoused as though they are objects, not people. Upon release, they have no skills, no education, and no support network. This has direct consequences for society; it’s hard to address recidivism when prisoners aren’t provided with any tools which they might be able to use once they are released.

Prisoners are human beings. This is something which people sometimes seem to forget, even people with liberal politics who are often accused of being bleeding hearts or softies. Treating prisoners like objects, like inconveniences, like things which can be shuffled around, is a grave human rights violation. And it’s a horrific disservice.

As a society, we say that some people must be punished for their crimes with incarceration. As a society, we can’t even be bothered to confirm that we are incarcerating the right people, let alone providing people in prison with basic rights. The right to not be raped. The right to sufficient nutrition and health care. The right to not be abused. We, as a society, have the responsibility to care for the people we say we are imprisoning for our protection. The fact that we are not doing that reflects extremely poorly on us.