More creativity is needed to tackle US prisons’ overpopulation crisis

By Madeleine Hyde

Just a few years back, the United States had over 1% of its 320 million residents imprisoned. This huge prison population is now slowly decreasing: by the end of 2015, US prisons had taken in 100,000 fewer inmates over the year than in 2014. Nonetheless, there are still around 2 million people incarcerated across America’s 52 state and federal district prison systems today.

Overcrowding led to an increasingly desperate situation during the 1990s and 2000s. This situation was often one of emergency, especially in larger states like California, with many prisons at well over 100% of their operational capacity. Overcrowding leads to obvious health and safety risks, as well as putting great strain on staff abilities to manage the behaviour of inmates.

How did US prison systems get to this point? The crisis followed a period of mass-incarceration: during the so-called ‘war on drugs’ in the 1980s and 1990s, laws on drug use, drug possession and drug-related crimes in general were tightened such that drug-related offenders were more likely to be imprisoned. It is one thing to point the finger or blame, however, and another to address the issue. How, then, has the US addressed its overcrowding crisis?

90% of inmates are in State prisons, so their incarceration is managed by local authorities: usually the Department of Corrections, a division of the State Governor’s Office. Managing overcrowding, then, is normally a State-level issue. At the start of this decade, many State Departments of Corrections responded to overpopulation by subcontracting facilities to private companies. The key companies involved include Management and Training Corp (MTC), CoreCivic (formerly CCA) and the GEO Group. The GEO Group in particular still runs many State prisons and reentry centers across the US today.

However, many of these private facilities have since closed down or returned to State management, for at least two different reasons. Firstly, inmate populations across the States have generally started decreasing over the past few years. Secondly, there were several scandalous court cases in which inmates brought forward claims of poor standards and insufficient care in privatised centers, due to staffing and under-funding issues.

Otherwise, some states like California have dealt with an overcrowding crisis by exporting inmates to other states which have recently had their prisons depopulated, or even emptied out, e.g. in Arizona. The number of exported inmates, however, is normally few.

Exporting prisoners out-of-state or to privately-managed facilities, however, is not the real reason why prison populations are now on the decline. For a better explanation, we can look at the changes in law a few years back which allowed for lower or alternative sentences to be given out, especially for non-violent, drugs-related offences (which often make up at least half of a State’s inmate population). Reduced or alternative sentencing has apparently curtailed an era of mass-incarceration. Yet even so, the current number of prisoners in the US remains staggering. In particular, recidivism rates (the number of ex-inmates who re-offend following their release) are alarming, at way above 50% in many states.

Efforts to reduce prison populations and prevent reoffending within the US will have to focus on ensuring that an inmate’s release back into the community is successful. All State Departments of Corrections have some kind of dedicated Reentry team or unit that create in-house programs to prepare inmates for their release. The problem is that what they offer is usually basic and generic. The bases normally covered include adult education, healthcare and work-based education. Mental healthcare and things like family counselling are often treated as bonuses. Moreover, the work offered to inmates is usually for State-managed, for-profit, Correctional Industries companies, for which they are normally paid below the national minimum wage.

There are, however, some more innovative reentry programs have been trialed. For example, in Puppies in Prisons programs, inmates take care of and train abandoned dogs to prepare them for adoption. Meanwhile in Minnesota, privileged inmates were given the chance to design logo art for the dressing rooms at Superbowl stadiums in 2016. Also in Minnesota, inmates get the chance to write for, and help to publish The Prison Mirror newspaper.

These more creative kind of programs have had proven success, and yet they are often proposed and led by volunteers. This should not have to be the case. There are plenty of resources, both financial and intellectual, within the US to further these more innovative and creative reentry programs. Pushing in such directions, I suggest, will continue bringing down recidivism rates, and ultimately inmate populations with them. To tackle overpopulation and revolving door offender cycles, US State prison systems need more funding, more innovation and more creativity to revitalise and rethink prisoner reentry.



Madeleine Hyde works for Ideaborn, a Human Rights Consultancy NGO with a new Washington branch, that aims to promote rights within the US justice and penitentiary system.

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