Prison overcrowding is a rampant problem in all 50 states. The demand for space in jails far exceeds the availability.

More people are send to jail than are released (or die), and the blame for this is not an increased crime rate but private companies backing lobbyists, a focus on punishment over rehabilitation, and harsh minimum-sentence laws.

Despite less money in general, tax dollars continue to pour into prisons. In December 2007, an 8 billion dollar housing bubble burst, leading to the largest loss of employment in America since the Great Depression. Nationally, 8.4 million jobs, over 6.1% of the country’s employment, vanished in two short years. Sweeping cuts crippled much of the Nation’s public sector, bringing jobs down by over half a million since 2008, leading to fewer teachers, firefighters, police officers, air traffic controllers, EMTs and paramedics. The government cuts are glaring in all areas but one.


Prison OvercrowdingIn Arizona, one of the hardest-hit states in the Great Recession, there has been a 40% increase in prison spending during the past seven years.Through its powerful prison lobby, Arizona is one of several states that has privatized much of its prison system, leading to even more overcrowding in prisons and big bucks for the companies playing the system.

These private companies are making billions of dollars on inmates, much of which comes from taxpayers’ pockets.The two largest for-profit prison companies had a revenue of over three billion in 2012. Trading on contracts and incentives to keep the prisons full and cheap labor for huge corporations, these companies are making a killing from prison overcrowding. Instead of lobbying for change in the laws, they lobby for more and more prisoners. The more inmates, the more money. In some places, inmates are sleeping in double and triple bunks in gymnasiums, and on the floor, and yet the lobbyists demand stricter penalties, leading to more inmates. 


The system becomes a vicious cycle. Though the departments are called “Corrections”, very little money goes into rehabilitation. Instead, the tax money goes to build more prisons, get more beds, and funnel more people through a system that is very flawed. Prosecutors are encouraged and even forced to seek prison sentences to fill these beds and comply with laws such as Mandatory Minimum Sentences to keep the prisons full and the money flowing. The mandatory minimums keep rising, and so does the number of inmates in overcrowded prisons.


Prison Overcrowding 2And even when they leave, a growing number of prisoners come back. The U.S. Department of Justice released a report studying more than 400,000 inmates in 30 states. Upon release, more than a third were arrested again...within only six months. By the time that same group hit the five year mark, more than three quarters had spent more time behind bars. The younger the inmate at the time of release, the more likely he or she was to end up returning.

A lack of ‘corrections’ and a society that shuns them forces inmates to have difficulty readjusting to life on the outside, especially when it is time to find a job. Laws that make it nearly impossible for felons to find work include the requirement that prison time must be disclosed on a job application. Many state do not allow prisoners to vote upon release, preventing them from having a say in the laws that incarcerated them. Without a way to earn a living, many of the former inmates turn back to crime, and end up back in the overcrowded prisons. Jail churn is a relatively new term that refers to the constant flow of inmates in and out of prison, but it fits perfectly with what is happening.

If our society continues to focus on punishment and not rehabilitation, and if the demand for more and more inmates is coming from powerful lobbyists backed by billions of taxpayer dollars, it looks like the problem of prison overcrowding will just continue to get worse.