Prison Overcrowding: A Cause Which has Terrible Effects

Overcrowded prisons represent a serious social and penological problem in the United States.  They’re a safety issue — putting a strain on prison employees, making it more difficult to monitor inmate behavior and control the wanton violence inside our nation’s prisons.  They’re a sanitary issue — potentially shoving inmates into even more dangerous, less desirable, and less humane conditions.  They also pose a rehabilitation issue, as less money can be spent on trying to help inmates resolve what ails them and further exasperating the damaging internal prison culture.

Even with all of these obvious problems, some states actually see prison overcrowding as a fiscal advantage.  A report released by the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission claims that overcrowded prisons may actually save the states’ money, even if at the expense of reduced inmate misconduct, crime, and victimization.

Assuming the Same Prisoners, Costs Decrease

The average cost per inmate in Ohio is about $60 per day.  This cost includes staffing, maintenance, and other expenses that occur when operating a prison.  Sixty dollars per day adds up very quickly and costs the state millions of dollars every year, many millions.

For every open bunk in prison, the state of Ohio saves roughly $60 (slightly less, but the number varies depending on the prison’s population versus operational capacity).  This would indicate that it is in the state’s best interest to avoid overcrowding.  After all, every open bunk is a revolving expense that fulfills no purpose.

But, according to prison officials, for the same number of prisoners, the state actually saves money if it lets the prison stay overcrowded.  That’s because there are no additional expenses for prison guards, employees, etc. — those have already been calculated into the $60 cost per prisoner.  For the same general operational costs, two prisoners can be supervised at roughly the same expense of supervising one.  The same is true when talking about a prison packing in 2,000 prisoners into a prison built for 1,500.

According to the report, for every inmate added to the prison population beyond the rated capacity, they cost the state only $16 per day, not the full $60 per day.  If the state opened a new prison and housed the extra inmates there, the costs would go back up to $60 per inmate per day, in addition to the additional expenditure of building and activating a prison.  Thus, the state of Ohio sees this as a fiscal plus.  The experts at http://www.prisoneducation.com/ strenuously disagree with this type of thinking, asserting that while prison overcrowding might save funds now, it will cost the American people several times over as crime rates increase post-release and additional terms of incarceration are imposed as a result of it.

Conflict of Interest and Overcrowded Prisons

It’s for these reasons that local governments are unlikely to be in a hurry to fix overcrowded and overextended prisons.  Despite all of the risks, prison overcrowding saves states more money on a per-inmate basis than the government would save if it allowed them to be housed elsewhere.  Because of the current political climate, few lawmakers would choose to change the way prisons house inmates or enact legislation that would allow inmates to be released earlier, thus reducing prison overcrowding.  This is a sad state of affairs that the team at https://www.prisonerresource.com/ strenuously objects to.

For these reasons, lawmakers working within existing budgets are unlikely to be in a hurry to make prisoners more comfortable by reducing overcrowding, knowing that the cost is greater to change the status quo than to proactively reduce prison overcrowding.  Even though prison overcrowding can have negative economic consequences — such as the cost to the state if illegal activity occurs in a prison, enhanced recidivism, and increased victimization — on paper, it appears that lawmakers have little reason to feel that overcrowding is a problem that they need to strive to solve.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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