Ethical Issues in Overcrowded Prisons and Jails

By: Briann Hildenbrand

Academic, 2019

This paper will focus on the severe levels of overcrowding of prisons in the United States, the ethical dilemmas involved, and possible solutions to fixing these problems. The history of imprisonment rates as well as legislation regarding harsh sentences will be explored such as The War on Drugs and The Three Strike Policy, which have accounted for a large percentage of incarceration for non-violent crimes. Another focus of the paper will be the physical and mental well-being of not only the prisoners themselves but also the employees who are forced to deal with these high stress situations.  The ethical issues including the violation of the eighth amendment will be mentioned along with possible solutions to prevent these issues going forward. Local legislation Act 1,006 regarding the overcrowding of prisons in Indiana will be discussed and we will look at the current trends and legislations regarding prison reform.

Ethical Issues in Overcrowded Prisons
It may be of no surprise that prisons around the world face immense overcrowding, but shockingly the United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate out of any country in the world. This is in addition to holding one quarter of the world’s prison population while only having less than five percent of the world’s population (Institute of Medicine, 2007).  This number amounts to 2.2 million Americans being held in jails and prisons (Cann, 2018). The first question that may come to mind is simply why. Why does such a powerful and influential nation feel the need to imprison such a vast majority of the population? Another shocking percentage regarding imprisonment in America is the racial gap amongst prisoners. In 2010 African Americans made up thirteen percent of the population but comprised forty percent of the correctional population (Prison Policy Initiative, 2010). How about the fact that about half of prisoners are serving time for non-violent drug offenses?  These are among the many ethical issues that will be addressed along with possible solutions going forward.

The year was 1971. President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” and labeled drug abuse as public enemy number one. Between the years 1980 and 2016 the number of people jailed for drug offenses climbed from 40,900 to 450,345 (The Sentencing Project, 2017). In 2016, 49% of all prisoners in Federal prisons were drug offenders with half of them serving at least ten years (US Sentencing Commission, 2017). In addition to The War on Drugs, the ‘Three Strikes’ law was initiated under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This act mandated life imprisonment without the possibility of parole if an offender had been convicted of a violent crime and has two or more felony convictions, one being a violent crime or drug trafficking crime(US Department of Justice, 1994). Several states have enacted this type of Bill but California is the largest imposer of it. This Act may seem like a good idea except for the fact that people are literally being sentenced to life terms for crimes such as stealing DVDs. Three Strikes is just taking an already clogged system and adding to the workload. Often these mandatory sentences are allowing violent criminals to be released early due to overcrowding.  These two pieces of legislation became the foundation on which the overcrowding in our prisons began. Between 1978 and 2004 the prison population grew from 454,000 to 2.1 million (Institute of Medicine, 2007).

With such a mass growth in the prison population, it became quickly evident that no one was prepared at any level. Gymnasiums in prisons were packed with double and triple bunks since they had run out of cells. The officer to prisoner ratio in 2005 was 5 to 1 (Stephan, 2008),  and at the end of 2014, 18 states were operating their prisons at more than 100 percent capacity (Liebelson, 2015). So what kind of problems does this create? To begin with, the close contact with countless numbers of individuals combined with a lack of access to proper medical treatment has caused the prison population to have higher rates of AIDS, HIV, Tuberculosis, and Hepatitis compared to the general population (Institute of Medicine, 2007). In fact, tens of thousands of these inmates were being released with untreated and/or undiagnosed communicable diseases. In 2006 the U.S. Supreme court concluded in Brown vs. Plata that a preventable or possibly preventable death occurred in California prisons once every five to six days. This forced governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency. California subsequently admitted that their prison conditions violated the eighth amendment regarding cruel and unusual punishment and were ordered to reduce their prison capacity to 137 percent over the next five years  (Mayeux, 2015).  Death and disease running rampant and an admission of cruel and unusual punishment is a clear violation of ethical standards. With over 400,000 people in custody awaiting trial, presumed innocent until found guilty, their eighth amendment rights are still clearly being violated.

Another large ethical debate that has been an obvious issue is the lack of medical attention especially for patients with mental health issues. With many mental health institutions closing around the nation prisons jails have ineffectively taken the role as mental health providers. Prisons have three times the amount of mentally ill patients than mental health facilities.  With more than 179,000 inmates in 1998 being identified as mentally ill this has become a huge problem. These inmates are more likely to have behavioral issues due to the lack of being properly medicated and simply not having access to psychiatrists. Six out of ten patients in Federal prisons and four out of ten in local jails is not a great statistic to hear when speaking on mental heath issues being treated. These patients tend to also serve longer sentences and have a combined substance abuse disorder (Institute of Medicine, 2007). Guards often do not know how to deal with patients whose illness becomes progressively worse left untreated. These patients are being unruly and are sometimes put in solitary confinement, only worsening their symptoms.

The safety of guards themselves has been an ongoing issue as well. With stress levels at an all time high due to the overcrowding, medical conditions, and overall the feeling of mistreatment, inmates lash out at the guards. With the 5 to 1 guard to inmate ratio this is often a recipe for disaster. For example, a penitentiary in Pennsylvania had two issues within two years of each other with one of those ending in a guard losing his life (Davidson, 2015). The low base salary for correction officers, at about 40,000 for median wage, doesn’t give much incentive for highly trained individuals to enter this workforce (Average Prison Guard Salary, n.d.). Adding to the problems with low supervision is a deficiency of inmate programs, again due to the high ratio. Prisoners themselves have a rate of 20 counts of serious assault per 5,000 inmates. Safety for employees and inmates should be a priority but it seems as if it has become accepted in prison life.

Currently the trend for incarceration seems to be very different from the previous decades. Incarceration rates are down and sentencing and prison reform is currently a hot topic amongst celebrities and politicians.  Presidents Obama and Trump have moved towards pardoning inmates who have been sentenced under the three strikes law. Most recently Donald Trump worked with celebrity Kim Kardashian to pardon Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old woman who had spent the past two decades in prison on nonviolent drug charges. She was facing a life sentence.  Even more recent is the legislation being introduced by President Trump with support from over 50 other celebrities and politicians named the First Step Act. This bipartisan bill that is going to be introduced in late November of this year would shorten the minimum sentences for nonviolent drug charges, allow judges to have an option in minimum sentencing of nonviolent drug charges, and eliminate stacking regulations. This would also extend the Fair Sentencing Act that was introduced in 2010  (Rolling Stone, 2018).

Solutions for most of these ethical issues are quite simple. To begin with, doing away with some of the outdated laws and war on drugs would be an excellent start. Instead of imprisoning these inmates, more programs and facilities should be set up to help combat addiction issues and to teach people trade skills that they can use to better themselves. People often turn to drugs as a way of making a living so more options would be extremely beneficial. For those who choose not to change their way of life, facilities geared towards drug users and abusers would be a better alternative than clogging the prison systems. No person should be imprisoned for life for nonviolent drug offenses, especially when that allows violent offenders to be released. It seems obvious that many of the ethical violations stem from the extreme overcrowding in prison and jails so relieving some of that would have an almost immediate effect. More money should be invested on facilities that take a very proactive role to rehabilitate these prisoners rather than ingesting these inmates into deplorable conditions where they will not receive any benefits. Rehabilitation should be more of the answer to the problem rather than just stripping away freedoms and rights, again, especially for non-violent offenders and those with mental illness. House Enrolled Act 1006 is one piece of local legislation in the state of Indiana that has worked towards jail reform. It allows more options for inmates such as treatment facilities and a program for mental health and addiction is highlighted (Rep. Gregory Steuerwald, 2018).

While the inmate population is slowly declining, there is still plenty of work left to be done. Thankfully the topic of prison reform is weighing heavy on the minds of people who can make a difference and action is currently being taken as we speak. None of this undo’s the clear violations that inmates have suffered in the past 40 years. For those who have been assaulted, those who have contracted a disease, and any inmate in general who has had to endure the despicable living conditions, change can’t come soon enough. For the young African American man who has a one in three chance of going to jail at some point in his life (The Sentencing Project, 2017). The person suffering from an illness that goes untreated and ignored. The shear number of people that the US imprisons on a regular basis, change cannot come soon enough. The eighth amendment cannot continue to be ignored.