Roommates for Life

How do prisons deal with overcrowding?

A prisoner

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm sent a letter to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Monday offering to take some prisoners from his overcrowded facilities. The California prison system is currently at twice its intended capacity. How do prisons deal with so much overcrowding?

They add more beds. Prisons are built to hold a certain number of inmates, with one bed per prisoner. When the population increases, single cells become doubles, doubles become triples, and so on, with new makeshift beds bolted into the walls. Dayrooms—the communal areas intended for recreation and relaxing—get filled with bunk beds, as do gymnasiums. When those spaces fill up, prisoners will often sleep in “boats,” or plastic canoe-shaped trays that can be laid on the floor at night and stacked during the day. (See a picture here.) A prison will sometimes open up a new temporary facility, like the famous “tent city” of Maricopa County jail in Arizona. Worst-case scenario, prisoners go to other states: California has already sent more than 7,000 inmates to Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

The problems with overcrowding go beyond sleeping arrangements. Tight quarters lead to higher levels of violence between prisoners. They also make security more difficult, since it’s harder for guards to see across large rooms when they’re filled with beds. Sanitation suffers as well—toilets break from overuse, showers get clogged, and diseases are more easily transferred. As a result, convicts overwhelm the prison health system—hence California’s prison health care debacle.

In the 1981 case Rhodes v. Chapman, the Supreme Court ruled that prison overcrowding is not unconstitutional, per se, and that the U.S. Constitution “does not mandate comfortable prisons.” The justices did note, however, that overcrowding can lead to other conditions that violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The court defined those conditions as “the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain,” “pain without any penological purpose,” “serious deprivation of basic human needs,” or deprivation of “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.”

The American Correctional Association, which accredits 1,500 prisons across the country, does issue guidelines for how much physical space prisoners need. In single cells, each prisoner should have at least 35 square feet of unencumbered space. If the inmate spends more than 10 hours a day in his cell—which is rare in most prisons—he needs 80 square feet. When the number of inmates in the room is between two and 50, each one gets 25 square feet. These standards, however, aren’t mandatory, even for prisons that get certified.

Explainer thanks David Fathi of Human Rights Watch, Jenni Gainsborough of Penal Reform International, and Eric Schultz of the American Correctional Association.

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