By Wm. Daniel M. Ravenscroft, Attorney At Law
A major difficulty in describing the extent of prison overcrowding is that there is no general agreement as to the definition of the "capacity' of overcrowded institutions.
To merely count the number of prison beds and inmates assigned to them does not address the issue at all. In fact, it is more often than not, that no one takes into consideration the need for flexibility of assignments to needed hospital care, disciplinary areas and in many cases, work assignments.
More important, the 100 percent-occupancy concept does not truly reflect other conditions in the prison setting that contribute to dangerous overcrowding, such as staff ration, duration of confinement, access to showers, toilets, health and medical services, food service, work and recreation.
Many California institutions have adopted the "broom closet, classroom" approach for finding bedspace, and in some cases, using the recreational areas such as gymnasiums for purported short-term housing, which in most cases, equates long-term instead.
Today's courts have imposed, in some instances, limits that are substantially below numerical bed counts. Nevertheless, the institutional officials have paid little or no attention to these mandates.
Additionally, in California's prisons, "design construction" is usually blamed on lack of funds, or an excusable measure of permissible occupancy.
"Capacity" itself is an elusive term. Whatever the bed count or official-rated capacity, prison administrators will usually find a way to go beyond those limitations. Double celling has become status quo, while other programs are cut so that available space can be used for prison beds. This is the most pernicious overcrowding of all, but California consistently seems to believe that "building our way out of the rising crime rate" with new institutions is the solution.
However, more prisons equal more prisoners and soon after a new facility goes on line, its capacity is surpassed.
While it's easy to say if you don't like prison, don't commit criInes, one must examine what we have to work with. First, the Legislature is also responsible for the overcrowded conditions, even though they don't set out to increase the number of persons who were to be imprisoned. Systematically, the Legislature has adopted policies that allows certain funding for prison construction, while at the same time, limiting funds for the maintenance of the sharply increased numbers of prisoners.
Ironically, some Legislative action has called for increased penalties for some offenses. Moreover one of the "reforms" that had been designed to reduce sentence disparity, the determinate sentencing law (DSL), was commonly perverted to a device that would increase both the average sentence imposed...and...the actual time served. Thus...overcrowding.
The Collateral Consequences
The public, in general, is not much concerned with the issue of overcrowding. And, just what are the collateral consequences? It is one thing to incarcerate for punishInent, but yet another to impose conditions of confinement that are inhumane, or, in other words, " cruel and unusual" as defined and prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
With overcrowded facilities, basic needs such as sanitation, feeding, health services, and even recreation, become jeopardized. In fact, the most minor problem becomes magnified while in a hostile, volatile and overcrowded environment. Increased assaults, suicides, mental disorders, fatal medical conditions, idleness and riots become the yardsticks of prison overpopulation.
The End Results
As long as prisons and jails remain severely overcrowded in the United States, it will not be possible to deal sensibly with other reforms crucial to a necessary criminal justice system.
Finally it's easy for the economy-minded taxpayer to become apathetic and become quite content to allow society's wrongdoers to sit idly in substandard, overcrowded institutions. However, if we do not want more uprisings and violence such as that found in Attica and New Mexico, we best pay attention to these hideous conditions that have prevailed for so many years without redress.
[Editor's Note: Wm. Daniel M. Ravenscroft serves as Executive Director of Legal Associates West, PA. He carries memberships with California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, serves on the Board of the Prisoners' Rights Union, and has authored eight books pertaining to prisoner litigation.]
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