Factors contributing to overpopulation in prisons

Prison overcrowding is indeed a grave problem that many states face. It is a phenomenon that both the international and national parties have faced for decades (Howard,1996). Overcrowded correction facilities may lead to the failures of programs in the prisons, violations of civil rights and also violence between inmates. Prison overcrowding may develop as a result of steady, regular, continuous increase and enlargement of prisoners which then develops to what is known as chronic overcrowding.

Overcrowding does not have a universal definition and this is due to the absence of a consented formula that could be used to create a tool and a measuring device that can be applied in a uniform manner to measure overcrowding. In determining overcrowding the courts does not rely on one indicator but deals with the facts of each case and also considers the interests of prison administration, economics, and individual’s rights of the prisoners among others.

Definition of overcrowding therefore requires the establishment, creation and determination of a maximum number of prisoners to be accommodated in a particular facility. This therefore mans that the number to be accommodated must be established with references to the standards set bi international and national bodies and also be consistent with human rights and United Nations.

Overcrowding has also arisen as a result of the growth of prison population and also the excessive use of prison sentences. However, it is largely presumed that overcrowding is as a result of the heavy use of imprisonment.

Factors contributing to overpopulation in prisons

Factors that have led to over populations in prisons are many and may vary from one jurisdiction to another. The factors contributing to over population ranges from social, economic, political, the perceptions of crime by the society, the measures of crime prevention among others. They may also include corruption activities, the excessive use of imprisonment, the income inequity and also harsh social policies.

Inefficiency in the criminal justice system has led to the rapid growth of population in the prison sector as there are delayed or ineffective investigations, the lack of resources in the prosecution sector and also in the judiciary, lack of proper case management services. These will lead to backlog of cases, delays in the investigation, unnecessary court adjournments and delays in trial proceedings.

Issues relating to access to justice system which include the lack of an effective and proper legal representation system also contribute to the increase in population in the prisons. Lack of legal representations for the accused may lead to a higher percentage of being detained even in instances where it involves a minor offence. Delays in the criminal justice system may also be caused by the lack of legal representation. In many states the poor and the vulnerable have inadequate and proper access to justice thus faces a higher risk of detention which in turn results to overpopulation.

The underuse or the lack of release programs have also contributed to overpopulation in many prisons and correction facilities. In many states, there is lack of programs that may facilitate early release from prisons and in instances where such programs exists it is often underused due to limitation of resources and other relevant factors. Parole systems and rules that are inefficient, ineffective and rigid may contribute to large prison populations by limiting the number of cases that parole is granted.

Poor and inadequate infrastructure has also contributed to growing populations in prisons. Prison facilities of many states need renovations and replacements in order to cater for the ever growing population. The lack of investments in the construction and renovation of prisons and also the delays of developing building strategies have contributed to overpopulation and have also aggravated its effects.

The rise in crime rates have also led to the rapid increase in the size of population in prisons. This has a correlation with social marginalization, lack of adequate responses to poverty and also inequity.

The lack of adequate provisions for sanctions and non-custodian measures has also contributed to overpopulation. In states where alternatives to imprisonment are available the courts mainly prefer imprisonment over them hence leading to overcrowding in the prisons.

Effects of overcrowding in prisons

Overcrowding in prisons has a very negative impact on the conditions of imprisonment and envisioned and planned consequences of imprisonment.

Overcrowding may affect the prison staff with situations of non-compliance of the national and international standards of accommodating the prisoners and also with conditions that create stress and fatigueness. Overcrowding may therefore be linked to infringement and ciolations of statutory law and the normative standards that are in place. The principles of separations such as the separation of juvenile detainees, remand prisoners, adult prisoners and sentenced prisoners are at risk of being infringed and violated and even the risk of non-compliance.

Overcrowding may also be associated with the excessive use of prison sentence and consequently associated with imprisoning a higher and a larger percentage of young men from disadvantaged neighborhood and minority group. It is also presumed that serving a sentence in overcrowded conditions may increase the risk of breaking the law again upon release.

Overcrowding may also lead to strains in the prison budget and thus lead to smaller portins of food distributed to the inmates. It may also lead to the spread of diseases that are infectious especially from drug offenders. Overcrowding may also lead to a higher rate of suicide by inmates.

Remedies to Overcrowding in prisons

Since overcrowding has been an international and national problem for decades then it is no surprise that there are strategies that have been developed and put in place to curb this kind of problem. Therefore methods to deal with overcrowding will mainly focus on the reduction in the length of stay of the prisoners and also reduction in the detention and admission to prisons.

The methods and strategies in achieving the reduction in the length of stay and admissions of prisoners in prisons may include the use of traditional justice, the use of restorative justice approaches, the use of other means to penal prosecutions, decriminalization, speedy trials and efficient and effective case management by the prison service and the courts, access to better defense counsels and paralegals in the process, recognizing the last resort principle, setting targets and programs for the reduction of populations in prisons, consideration of the capacity in prisons before imposing a sentence on a prisoner and the length of the term, pushing for the political will to speed up prison reforms and change, the implementation of early and conditional schemes of release.

In the development of policies and programs to deal with overcrowding, cultural context and wishes have to be considered. Solutions and answers to overcrowding have to deal with the complex nature of the decision making process which has lead to overcrowding. The complex issues are essentially due to the complicated normative structure which determines the scope of power of state actors and criminal justice.

All places of liberty including prisons fall under standard framework of international and national laws where overcrowding and its impacts for prisoner human rights are examined. International instruments that deal with human rights such as the United Convention Against Torture, International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights contains provisions that prohibit degrading and inhuman treatment and punishment. Other regional treaties and conventions also have such provisions that prohibit the same. They include the European Convention on Human Rights in article 3, the American Convention on Human Rights in article 5, the European Convention against Torture in article 5, and also the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights in article 5.

The ECHR (European Court on Human Rights) recognized the problem of structures which were the reason and cause of long-term overcrowding that were intended by no state actor and party. This conclusion came when the court was dealing with the issue of overcrowding. It therefore encouraged the development of a functional and a well organized complaint system to the prison service and the detention facilities supervising authorities which were placed in a better position to take up speedy and appropriate remedies to the problem.

There was also the need to design and implement an inclusive structural reform which were aimed at reducing the number of prisoners and therefore increasing the capacity in prison and improving the prison facilities by modernizing the same and also to remove and eliminate non-violent prisoners from detention facilities and also to improve and increase the usage of non-custodian measures.

Access to justice and public defence mechanisms must be strengthened which will in turn improve the administration of justice and thus reduce thepopulation rate in prisons. Legal practitioners can help ensure and improve the rate at which cases are heard and the time frame in which a case may take before it is finalized. They play an important role by giving updated information to prisoners and also in reducing their stress and anxiety of the prisoners. The states should therefore encourage free legal aid to prisoners by giving free legal advice and also free representation to them.

Mechanisms for early release can help reduce overcrowding in prisons and also facilitate integration and social rehabilitation. Policies and legislations should be put in place to provide for possibilities of early release and parole and the conditions for the former. Early release should be structured in such a manner as to make it a part of the normal process of enforcement of the sentence. Prisoners who wish to apply for parole may be encouraged to do so by the necessary authorities.

There is available empirical data indicating that crowded prisons are stressful and create conditions contrary to any aim at rehabilitation. This has increased efforts of finding ways of reducing the overcrowding. A lot of effort has been directed towards making changes to the design and operation of the physical environment of these correctional facilities. Alternatively, ways of reducing the number of incarcerated offenders can be looked into.


Frustration and reduction of well-being can be caused by a poorly designed physical environment and this is equally applicable to correctional institutions. A major renovation of the medium security, William Head Institution in British Columbia, was undertaken based on the principle that a more “humane” design can set the stage for positive interaction and improved well-being. The project is scheduled for completion in 1992; the idea was to make William Head the first institution of its kind in Canada. The new design concept was influenced a lot by what has been learned from research into the effects of overcrowding in the prison settings. The hard surfaces such as tiled floors reflect rather than absorb noise and this makes the walking, talking, yelling, radios and televisions is incessant in correctional institutions. The William Head design incorporates the use of sound-proofing materials especially carpets and acoustic tiles. The reduction of noise and enhancement of social interaction is achieved by the use of rugs, wall decorations and cushioned chairs. It has been proven that people discuss private matters more openly in such “softly” furnished settings than in a “hard” one with bare floors and walls and hard chairs. Building housing units which holds five or six inmates can alleviate the problems usually associated with clanging cell doors and the general bustle of 40 or 50 inmates living in a cell unit (Johnston, 1991, p. 18).

The major concerns in traditional institution designs are inmate surveillance and external control. The new design concepts emphasize on inmate responsibility and internal or social spheres of control. The new correctional environment affords the inmates a freer range of coping behaviors, a greater degree of control and privacy; this includes being able to “escape” to the privacy of the individual’s own space. Privacy which can be generally defined as the control of access to self has been lacking in most old style institutions. Research has showed that inmates housed singly tended to fare the best despite having the least space in square feet. This suggests that the need is not for more room for inmates, but rather for small or moderate amounts of room with a degree of privacy. A private bedroom for each inmate is the important feature of the William Head design. Inmates are allowed to decorate and arrange their rooms and have keys to their rooms, allowing control over access to their private space. Correctional staff have a master key, but this does not allow them to lock inmates in their rooms (Johnston, 1991, p. 20).

Territorial behavior is commonplace in correctional settings; for example, bikers or some ethnic or racial group will habitually occupy a certain area of a cafeteria, but this is not exclusive to them. Territorial behavior is universal and occurs on the street, in the neighborhood and generally anywhere that groups of people are found (Johnston, 1991, p. 21).

Reducing the Incarcerated Population it is not realistic to expect to solve overcrowding problems solely through the construction of more and newer facilities. One researcher puts it that the financial realities of trying to build our way out of the correctional crisis makes today’s fiscal conservatives sound like yesterday’s rehabilitationists (Rosenfeld & Kempf, 1991, p. 493).

Alternatives to incarceration, such as community supervision and intermediate sanctions, ranging from fines to parole release have been increasingly used in both Canada and the United States as an attempt to reduce the population of correctional facilities, whether current or future. This alternative has proved to be a far more complex and challenging route than that of redesigning the physical environments of correctional facilities. The Correctional Service of Canada has established five corporate objectives for 1996-97 to 1998-99.


Literature into the consequences of prison overcrowding has also meant describing what the basic effects of overcrowding can be on mankind.

Research on crowding has focussed majorly on the socetial density and the spatial density of crowding. Societal density can be defined as the number of inmates sharing a particular cell and is regarded as the factor which mainly contributes to the hostile results of crowding Spatial density can be defined as the area (in square feet) available per inmate in a particular cell.

(Toch, 1977, p. 31).

However, suggestions have it that density by itself does not account for the aftermath of overcrowding. Other factors that might lower or raise the result of density have been found out by researchers. These include personal control and the physical surrounding (Smith, 1982, p. 51).

Crowding is not merely related to numbers of people. There is a possibility of feeling crowded in areas of a few people, or feeling not crowded in areas of many. The considerable element seems to be frustration in the accomplishment of some purposes as a result of the presence of others. (Toch, 1977)

The prison surrounding is characterized by factors that can have hostile results on the inmates. In the prison environment crowded situations are persistent; inmates prone to anti-social habits are gathered, lack of self-control sets in, boredom and idleness prevail.Researchers have found out that crowding has three kinds of results on the prison environment.

First of all, there is a limitation in everything, therefore the same space and available resources are strained. The chances for inmates to take part in rehabilitative and self-development activities, such as educational, employment and professional training are held back. The shortage of job or job opportunities result to prisoner idleness, often supporting the saying that idleness breeds unwanted and disruptive mannerisms (Cox, Paulus, & McCain, 1984, p. 1149). Moreover, a deficiency in resources can exist in anything an inmate requires to use, such as lavatory, library books, television lounge seating and other entertainment facilities.

The lack of resources can have two foul results, one being the annoyance or disappointment of having limited being or denied a resource, and the other effect being the fact that rivalry and struggle over limited resources normally result to hostility and violence (Johnston, 1991, p. 19).

Secondly, overcrowding affects the individual inmate’s mannerisms. Crowding results to stress. This, together with other factors in a prison environment, can raise the undesirable consequences of overcrowding. Idleness, lack of self-control, being unable to sustain personal identity, or inability to ignore undesired interaction and stimuli, such as noise, all define the hassle of overcrowding. The change process for inmates to handle extreme levels of stress varies; it could be withdrawal, offensive or dejection. Whichever method an inmate selects to handle stress due to crowding, generally tends to have negative results on their health (Cox et al., 1984). One of the most important effects of prison crowding has been found to be the result on social relations and interaction has greatly been considered. Research shows that in overcrowded environments there is increased aggression and rivalry for shared resources, limited co-operation and a high level of social withdrawal.

In addition, social withdrawal as a result of crowding manifests itself in several ways.

Developing a defensive attitude is one withdrawal technique, which naturally decreases the social interaction quality.Even among well-conversant individuals topics that dominate conversation in overcrowded environments normally seem to be less personal (Johnston, 1991).


It is important for the government to review the existing correctional facilities policies in order to effectively address the issue of overcrowding in prisons. This is important because prisoners too demand to be taken care of decently as they also have their rights to good health and treatment.


Applegate, B.K., Surette, R., & McCarthy, B.J. (1999). Detention and desistance from crime: Evaluating the influence of a new generation jail on recidivism. Journal of Criminal Justice, 27, 539 — “548.

The Pew Center on the States (2008). One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008. Retrieved on May 23, 2011 at http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/8015PCTS_Prison08_FINAL_2-1-1_FORWEB.pdf.

Austin, J. (2004). The proper and improper use of risk assessment in corrections. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 16, 3, 194 — “199.

Cox, V., Paulus, P., & McCain, G. (1984). Prison crowding research: The relevance of prison housing standards and a general approach regarding crowding phenomena. American Psychologist, 39, 1148-1160.

Bureau of Justice Statistics (2002). Correctional populations in the United States, 1998 (NCJ

192929). Retrieved from the official BJS website at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cpus98.pdf.

Chaiken, J. (2000). Crunching numbers: Crime and incarceration at the end of the millennium.

National Institute of Justice Journal, January, 10 — “17. Retrieved from N.I.J. website at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/jr000242c.pdf.

Davis, R.K., Applegate, B., Otto, C.W., Surette, R., and McCarthy, B.J. (2004). Roles and responsibilities: Analyzing local leaders’ views on jail crowding from a systems perspective.

Crime and Delinquency, 50, 458 — “482.

Huff, R.C. (2002). Wrongful convictions and public policy: The American Society of Criminology

2001 Presidential Address. Criminology, 40, 1, 1 — “18.

Johnston, J.C. (1991). A Psychological perspective on the new design concepts for William Head

Institution (British Columbia). Forum on Corrections Research, 3, 14-21.

Karberg, J.C. And Beck, A.J. (2004). New Incarceration Figures: Thirty-Three Consecutive Years of Growth, The Sentencing Project, pp. 15.

Lab, S.P. (2004). Presidential address: Crime prevention, politics, and the art of going nowhere fast. Justice Quarterly, 21, 4, 681,692.

Lynch, J.P. And Sabol, W.J. (2004). Assessing the effects of mass incarceration on informal social control in communities. Criminology and Public Policy, 3, 267 — “294.

Lynch, M. (1999). Beating a dead horse: Is there any basic empirical evidence for the deterrent effect of imprisonment? Crime, Law, and Social Change, 31:347,362.

Mauer, M. (2005). Thinking about prison and its impact in the 21st century. Ohio State Journal ofCriminal Law, 2, 607 — “618.

Moore, M.H. (2002). The limits of social science in guiding policy. Criminology and Public Policy, 2, 1, 33-42.

Rosenfeld, R., & Kempf, K. (1991) . The scope and purposes of corrections: Exploring alternative responses to crowding. Crime and Delinquency, 37, 481-505.

Toch, H. (1977). Living in prison: The ecology of survival. The Free Press.

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