Risk Of Prison Riots Increases With Overcrowding And Poor Conditions

Prison Overcrowding Statistics

America’s prisons are bursting at the seams.  Statistics produced by the United States Department of Justice indicate that over 2.2 million adult persons were in prison on a combined federal and state basis.  That is nearly 0.7% of they  population of the United States.  Expanding the figures to those of probation and parole, there are nearly 3% of people in America under the jurisdiction of the correctional authorities.   This gives the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

Reports into the conditions of experienced in American prisons also do not paint a favourable picture of the problem.  21% of prisoners report being forced into non consensual sexual activity, and 7 % report that they have been raped.  An article written in 2003 by Wil S. Hylton estimated an infection rate for Hepatitis C  in the prison population of over 35%.  Consistently complaints have arisen in relation to the provision of medical care, sanitation, food cleanliness and other elements of basic human subsistence.

Obviously this state of affairs has a negative impact on society and economy in general.  As a national average, it now costs the governments at state and federal level about $45,000.00 per year in order to incarcerate an inmate.  This cost does not take into account the cost of having the person removed from gainful employment or the social costs of having the person removed from their family where they might have other wise have played a constructive role as a parent, a sibling or a carer for another family member.

Link Between Overcrowding and Prison Riots

Some of the causes identified by researchers for prison overcrowding are harsher penalties for criminal activities and high recidivism rates which are factors that compound upon each other in a vicious cycle of criminalisation of the general population.  It also seems to be associated with the frequency of the occurrence of prison riots.   For instance, one of the worst prison riots in US history, the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot.  It took place during February in 1980 in New Mexico’s maximum security facility.  33 prisoners were killed and over 200 were  given medical treatment for their injuries.  At one stage the prison officers were taken hostage, beaten and raped.  A respected researcher in criminology, Roger Morris wrote of the riot that “the riot was a predictable incident based on an assessment of prison conditions”.  Another example is the Northpoint Training Centre Riot which occurred in 2009.  The conditions in the prison had become seriously overcrowded.  In this riot between 60 and 80 prisoners gained control of the facility, burning down five of buildings in the complex.  Rapes, murders and looting ensued until the prisoners were subdued by the specialised response unit of the department of corrections called the Correctional Emergency Response Team.

This link between the overcrowding and deterioration in conditions in prisons and riots should serve as a warning about the need for prison reform.  If the nation’s prisons become more crowded and there are less services available in prisons, events like the riots referred to above are only more likely to occur in the future.  For this reason prison reform should be a priority in the criminal justice system going forward.


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