THE EFFECTS OF PRISON OVERCROWDING


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                                                          May 2002
Studies into the effects of overcrowding on inmates have also meant defining overcrowding and describing what the basic effects of crowding can be on humans. Crowding research has concentrated mainly on the spatial density and the social density of crowding. Spatial density is defined as the amount of space (number of square feet) available per person in a particular housing unit. Social density is defined as the number of individuals sharing a housing unit and is considered the factor, which contributes most to the adverse effects of crowding. However, it has been suggested that density alone does not explain the total effects of crowding. 

Researchers have found other factors that might lessen or heighten the impact of density, such as personal control and the physical environment itself. Crowding is only indirectly related to mere numbers or density of people. It is possible to feel crowded in the presence of few people, or not crowded in the presence of many. The significant element appears to be frustration in the achievement of some purposes because of the presence of others. 

The prison environment is characterized by factors, which can have adverse effects on individual inmates. In the prison setting crowded conditions are chronic, people prone to anti-social behavior are gathered, there is an absence of personal control and idleness and boredom can be prevalent. 

Research has indicated that overcrowding has three types of effects on the daily prison environment. First, there is less of everything to go around, so the same space and resources are made to stretch even further. The opportunities for inmates to participate in self-improvement and rehabilitative programs, such as academic, employment and vocational training are curtailed. The lack of work or work opportunities leads to inmate idleness, often reinforcing the maxim that idleness breeds discontent and disruptive behavior. 

In addition, lack of resources can apply to anything an inmate might need to use, such as washroom availability, library books, television lounge seating and recreational materials. The unavailability of resources can have twofold consequences. One is the frustration or unpleasantness of being limited or denied a resource, and the other is the fact that competition and conflict over limited resources often lead to aggression and violence. The second effect of overcrowding is on the individual inmateâ€Ts behavior. Crowding creates stress and this, in conjunction with other factors in a prison setting, can heighten the adverse effects of crowding. 

Idleness, fear, the inability to maintain personal identity, or to turn off unwanted interaction and stimulation, such as noise, all add to the stress of crowding. 

The adjustment process for inmates to cope with excess stress varies; it could be withdrawal, aggression or depression. 

Whatever way an inmate chooses to deal with crowding stress, generally they tend to be methods, which do not enhance the health of the inmate. The impact on social relations and interaction has been considered one of the most important effects of prison overcrowding.

Findings have indicated that in crowded situations there is more aggression and competition for resources, less cooperation and more social withdrawal. Other individuals in a crowded situation are perceived as less attractive or interesting, and the social milieu itself becomes unpleasant. 

Also, social withdrawal in response to crowding manifests itself in various ways. Adopting a defensive or guarded attitude is one method of withdrawing, which by its nature decreases the quality of social interaction. Similarly, topics that dominate conversation in crowded settings tend to be less personal or self-relevant, even among well-acquainted people. 

The third effect involves a combination of the correctional systemâ€Ts inability to meet the increased demand for more space and the resulting harm to individual inmates. In an attempt to cope with the limited space available and the resulting overcrowding, there has been a strong tendency to misclassify offenders. To a certain degree, overcrowding has resulted in offenders being classified on the basis of the space available rather than the security level and programs most suitable for the offenders. 

This problem exists despite the fact that the offender classification process for security purposes is standardized. It has not been uncommon to find inmates, classified as medium security, incarcerated in maximum security institutions, while other inmates were in medium security facilities who would previously have been considered candidates for maximum security. However, the effects of misclassifying offenders due to overcrowding extend beyond the immediate consideration of there being too little space and too few resources. It also leads to slow progress through the corrections system and consequently to slow exit, which in turn perpetuates or increases the overcrowding problem. 

If the assignment of inmates is carried out solely on the basis of available space, inmates are being manipulated to meet the requirements of the corrections system rather than the environment and programs being modified to meet the requirements and needs of the inmates. This results in poor programming for inmates, which hinders their progress. Also, misclassification errors can result in inmates being labeled in a manner, which carries strong negative connotations. 

Since infractions result in a â€ofailure to adjustâ€? label, and since adjustment is a major criterion for progress through the system, a slow-down in the advancement of inmates can easily be predicted. Essentially, the effects of overcrowding and misclassification create a vicious cycle for the inmate. It begins with overcrowding, then the assignment to an inappropriate facility and programs (misclassification), followed by inmate stress reactions to the lack of services, no movement or progress within the system, being labeled as â€ofailure to adjust,â€? no parole release, rule infractions to regressive transfer. 

At this point the cycle starts all over again demonstrate a link between the amount of space available or the number of inmates per room, and the various measures of personal and institutional strain, such as blood pressure, illness complaints, disciplinary infractions and recidivism rates. 

Most studies indicated that crowded conditions could be reasonably well tolerated for short periods, but in terms of a long term crowded environment, prisons contained unusually high concentrations of the stress-inducing features. 

Crowding affects more than a selected few inmates within the prison environment. Crowding has been described as an interactive variable, which can sometimes cause, sometimes result from or sometimes exacerbate the impact of other conditions. 

No matter how the variable is classified, it produces a range of outcomes. Overcrowding of inmates has been connected with higher rates of psychiatric commitment higher rates of illness complaints and with an increased likelihood of recidivism. Also, rates of suicide and other forms of violent death have been found to be higher during periods of overcrowding as have increased rates of violence and other disciplinary infractions. Although many negative effects of crowding have been identified, overcrowding does not affect all prisons uniformly. For instance, it has been reported that larger institutions with younger inmates tend to be more affected by crowding. Moreover, substantial individual differences in responses to crowding have been found among various racial, ethic and socio- economic groups.

Information gathered from these court cases: 

Cox, Paulus, & McCain, 1984, p. 1149
Toch, 1977, p. 30
Johnston, 1991, p. 19
Cox et al., 1984, p. 1150
Report of the Study Team, 1984, p. 44
Clements, 1982, p. 75
Megargee, 1977; Porporino & Dudley, 1984
Ruback & Carr, 1984
Porporino & Dudley, 1984


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