Crisis Builds over Americas Prison System

The current prison population in the United States is growing at an alarming rate resulting in an increase in inmate violence, higher crime rates and a huge financial debt. Policies like the three strike rule are only adding fuel to an already out of control fire. At the end of 2009 statistics provided by the United States Department of Justice showed that over one million six hundred people were behind bars; that is roughly around 33% of the population or one out of one hundred  adults. On top of increasing inmate violence and rising crime rates the cost to house these inmates is crippling our economy. (

The first step in fixing the problem is to find out what exactly is causing the over-crowding in the first place. The largest problem seems to be the increased rate of offenders who are released and then are returned because they violated a condition of their parole. In fact according to an online article written by Common Sense for Drug Policy, over 85% of inmates that are released on some type of probation or community action condition violates the terms of their parole and is returned. Why is the early release policy not working and what can be done to improve the policy? Well unfortunately not much; while this is a good idea in theory, it needs to be modified so that a judge can examine each individual and rather than applying the early release program to all offenders, administer it on a case by case basis.

Another problem is the three strike rule that federal government has implemented. The three strike rule requires state courts to hand down mandatory extended sentences to criminals who have been convicted of equal or greater offences more than three times. Adding to this confusion is the fact that laws are always changing and the type of crime may also change as well. Also any felony can be included in three strike rule ranging from shoplifting to fraud and sentencing can range from 25 years to life.

So let’s say that someone who is a chronic shoplifter is caught on three separate incidents falls under the three strike rule and is sentenced to 20 years. This sounds reasonable and fair right? At first glance it does seem like the correct course of action however lets reexamine the case and dig a little deeper.

This individual shoplifts not because they do not have money or they like to steal but because of an addiction that can be treated.  A closer investigation reveals that this individual is an average middle-class citizen with a good paying job. In fact the individual is an outstanding citizen and has not committed any other offences. The items that they stole only add up to about $50.00, however the three strike rule is mandatory and the judge sentences the individual to 20 years.  

The sentencing seems fair, after all they did the crime they should do the time right? So what if it cost on average taxpayer around $30,000.00 a year to keep this individual in prison and that’s not including the cost of medical care that can reach as high as 1 million dollars a year. This is why the three strike rule needs to be thrown out. This law is not only costing money but also putting individuals that could be rehabilitated and returned to society behind bars with no chance to turn their lives around.

It is sad to say but the average American citizen would rather wait until a problem affects them personally before they act. If we continue to turn a blind eye toward the subject of prison over-crowding than we are saying that we do not care. That it is ok to spend millions of dollars on inmates that should be re-educated and rehabilitated instead of sitting in a holding cell taking up space. Sitting back and hoping the situation will fix itself will not only cost lives but money as well; the time to act is now. A complete overhaul of the system is needed starting from the foundation to the infrastructure.

The state of American prisons affects all of us from the criminal sitting in a holding cell to the correctional officer who is charged with protecting the inmate’s rights and safety. As the population of prisons continue to increase so will inmate violence, neglect and abuse. Current statistics suggest that crimes such as rapes, murder and prison riots will occur more frequently. Privatizing prison along with decreasing funds is only adding to the problem.

Just last month prisoners that were housed at the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, Oklahoma rioted over food complaints and 46 people were injured before law enforcement forces were able to secure the 2,400 minimum security facility. The facility is owned by a private company named Corrections Corp. of America. It appears that this company has a long history of violating not only prisoner rights but their employees as well.

On the website Public Justice, several complaints as well as lawsuits are listed against the company Corrections Corp. of America. It seems that several years earlier another riot occurred at a similar facility near the town of Olney Springs in June of 2004. Over 200 prisoners were injured in the uprising and they are currently suing the company. The charges include mishandling a preventable riot, using excessive force during and after the riot, and torturing the prisoners a month after the riot occurred.

The most disturbing part of this incident is the fact the guards up and ran leaving a 56 year old librarian alone with 37 inmates while 600 rioting inmates went berserk setting fires surrounding buildings and attacking fellow inmates. The librarian Linda Lyons said that she attempted to call for help over her radio yet there was no answer. She said that she ordered the inmates in the library to their cells but they pleaded with her to remain there not wanting to venture into the mob. They barricaded the building and she said they played chess and were very calm; she showed no fear and they respected her authority.

In a statement to the press prison officials stated, “It’s not likely this was a one-time uprising. Those people (in Olney Springs) need to understand that this is going to occur over and over again; the population in that area is seriously lucky. At any point, (the inmates) could have just turned to that fence and mowed that fence down. Imagine five or six hundred crazed individuals running into Olney Springs.”

The cost to keep prisons running in America is staggering yet in 1994 instead of focusing on the cause of overcrowded prisons, the government’s response was to build new prisons. Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act later that year authorizing $7.9 billion for prison construction, then quickly added $2.3 billion more as costs and prison populations continued to increase. Large prisons called “mega prisons” were built for up to 20,000 prisoners. Yet instead of relieving the problem it just prolonged the issue.

It is important to understand that while building more prisons sounds good this is just a temporary fix. Imagine a trashcan that gets overfilled with trash and instead of emptying the trashcan you go out and buy another one. Pretty soon your driveway is filled with trashcans which stinks to high heaven and on top of that you lose your job. Funding for the trashcan is cut yet the trash keeps building; now you face a larger problem than just a cost of a trashcan. So what do you do with the over-filling cans and the continuing flow of new trash. At the beginning the situation could have easily been fixed, however now it is too late and the only thing that you can think of doing is to cut budget on your trash intake. Yet the flow of trash has not stopped and now your house looks like a landfill.

This example might sound silly but it is exactly what is happening right now and is the cause of the current over-crowding of American prisons. Just because more prisoners are behind bars does not mean crime is decreasing. Vincent Schraldi the executive director of Justice Policy Institute quoted, “Prisons are no longer a response to increasing crime, and crime does not respond to increasing prisons. The prison system just grows like a weed in the yard.”  It is important that we take a long look at what is causing the massive increase in prison population and come up with a solution and not just another quick fix.


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