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America's Prison Overcrowding Epidemic

The International Center of Prison Studies has found that the United States incarcerates more people than any other industrialized nation in the world. The factors contributing to this include sentencing laws, mandatory minimum sentences, habitual inmate or “three-strikes” laws and the “war on drugs.” 


The combination of all these things has resulted in prison facilities being forced to operate anywhere from 35 to 45 percent over their recommended capacity. 

Overcrowding has been linked to multiple physical and mental health issues for prison inmates, especially when it takes place over an extended period. More specifically, overcrowding is linked to increased stress and decreased psychological well-being. 


For instance, research shows that overcrowding tends to foster inmate suicide. One report by researchers at the University of Georgia found that overcrowding was a stronger predictor of suicide rates than other variables. 


Sickness is also exacerbated in overcrowded areas, as COVID-19 showed. Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Miami, Kathryn Nowonty, found that the ventilation systems of most correctional facilities exacerbated COVID-19 risks, especially in light of overcrowding. She further discovered that, in most instances, there are not enough health professionals in one prison to care for numerous sick inmates. 


Just because inmates are out of the public eye doesn’t mean we can ignore their welfare. We have to address overcrowding. And one of the most direct ways to do that is to reassess what we criminalize and the penalties involved.


So before you discount reducing sentences or decriminalization as useless, bleeding-heart liberalism, consider the all too real effects of prison overcrowding.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author. 


Samantha Blum is a M.S. graduate from the University of New Haven, where she studied National Security with a concentration in Information & Security. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Justice from SUNY Oswego, where she graduated Cum Laude. She has also worked as a research assistant for projects that focused on supporting the implementation of active shooter protocols in schools. 


Sources: 

Edgemon, Timothy G., and Jody Clay-Warner. “Inmate Mental Health and the pains of imprisonment.” Society and Mental Health, vol. 9, no. 1, 2018, pp. 33–50, https://doi.org/10.1177/2156869318785424

Huey, Meredith P., and Thomas L. Mcnulty. “Institutional conditions and prison suicide: Conditional effects of deprivation and overcrowding.” The Prison Journal, vol. 85, no. 4, 2005, pp. 490–514, https://doi.org/10.1177/0032885505282258

Nowotny, Kathryn, et al. “Covid-19 exposes need for Progressive Criminal Justice Reform.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 110, no. 7, 2020, pp. 967–968, https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2020.305707.

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