But it’s not easy to define prison overcrowding. A prison built to warehouse 1,000 people that holds 1,200 is overcrowded. But the same prison could be overcrowded with just 800 people if it has only enough guards and support staff to handle 400.
Prison officials recognize three broad categories of prison crowding based on:
• rated capacity by an expert;
• Operational capacity based on staffing;
• design capacity based on architectural criteria.
Alabama’s prison system, for example, was designed to hold 12,412 people, but it is staffed to operate with 22,231 prisoners. So the roughly 19,100 prisoners it held in December 2020 represented 86 percent of its operational capacity but 153 percent of its design capacity.
Either way, though, the system was likely far too crowded to effectively combat the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants, for example, were limited at the time to seating no more than 25-50% of capacity. In December 2020, just one prison system—Maine’s—was operating below 50 percent of capacity under any of the three definitions of it.
By the Numbers
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) operates the country’s third-largest prison system, after the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and the federal Bureau of Prisons. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, CDCR’s population has dropped more than 20%, from over 126,000 prisoners to below 100,000—numbers not seen in over three decades in California’s 35-prison system.
By contrast, TDCJ’s prisoner population in December 2020 had fallen by just 12%, or 16,634 prisoners, during the nine-month period since the pandemic’s onset to a total of 121,866.
Back in March 2020, when TDCJ warehoused 138,500 prisoners, 79,552 (58.6%) of them were eligible for parole release (PLN, July 2020, p. 22). Texas Legislative Budget Board statistics for the last decade show an average yearly parole release of 68,000 to 72,000 prisoners, which equates to 5,667-6,000 monthly. During the pandemic, however, Texas has released fewer than 1,900 prisoners monthly.
Moreover, the vast majority of those who were released had attained parole eligibility since March 2020, leaving the overwhelming majority of TDCJ’s nearly 80,000 eligible prisoners who were waiting for release at the beginning of the pandemic still incarcerated.
TDCJ employs over 37,000 people in its prisons, 22,000 of whom are guards (PLN, Nov. 2018, p. 56). On December 8, 2020, Houston radio station KPFT-FM’s Prison Show reported that the Texas prison system is short-staffed by over 6,300 employees. One reason could be, as Austin radio station KUT-FM’s Texas Standard News reported, that Gov. Gregg Abbott (R) had ordered sweeping prison budget cuts to compensate for COVID-19 related revenue shortages.
At the same time, TDCJ dropped its prison count from 103 to 97, closing its Jester 1, Garza East, Hutchins, Wayne Scott, Gurney and Neal units. Prisoners, guards and administrative personnel from those now-shuttered prisons were distributed among prisons still operating, providing still more potential vectors of transmission for COVID-19, while also limiting prisoners’ ability to socially distance themselves from guards and each other.
Since the pandemic began, penology experts have been urging prison depopulation as the only feasible way to combat the spread of infection in overcrowded prisons. Fewer prisoners also would drain less money from state treasuries to operate the prisons, which would also suffer less overall COVID-19 contagion, along with its attendant medical costs and loss of life.
Sources: NBC News, The Marshall Project, KYTX-TV, Houston Chronicle, Prison Policy Initiative, Injustice Watch, The Prison Show (KPFT radio), Texas Standard News (KUT radio), Texas Legislative Budget Board, personal interviews with outgoing parolees.
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