Prison Overcrowding

November 25, 1983

Report Outline
Law and Order Legacy
Figuring Crime Statistics
New Ways to Fight Crime
Special Focus

Law and Order Legacy

Responses to Prison Overcrowding Problem

The U.S. Prison population hit a record high of 431,829 at midyear, more than double the number held behind bars just a decade ago. The figure was a grim reminder of what was widely thought to be a nationwide crime wave that spanned the 1970s. Lawmakers from Maine to California responded to public jitters over crime with tough new sentencing laws. Today, only two other industrial countries have more persons behind bars per 100,000 population: South Africa and the Soviet Union. Reformers question the need to imprison so many people. “Our prisons are overused and abused,” said Carol Bergman, director of the National Moratorium on Prison Construction. “Most of the people incarcerated don't need to be there.” She and other reformers argue that imprisonment should be used as a last resort for violent criminals and that other criminals should be required to perform community service or repay their victims for personal or property damage.

Overcrowding was a problem even before the recent explosion in prison population. The nation became painfully aware of the cost of packing too many inmates in too little space when 43 people died during the September 1971 uprising at Attica State Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The prison at the time held 2,250 men in facilities built for 1,600.

Since then, overcrowding has worsened, and sporadic outbreaks of prison violence continue. The most recent was the Aug. 29 riot at the Conner Correctional Center in Hominy, Okla., in which one inmate died, 34 were injured and damage was estimated at $3.5 million. Overcrowding, however, has not been ignored. The Attica riot gave rise to a reform movement led by the National Prison Project, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A decade of litigation has led to court-ordered improvements in the operation of most of the nation's prison systems. Prisons in 28 states and the District of Columbia were operating under court order at the beginning of 1983. In 21 states, the orders limit the number of inmates who may be held. Others dictate improvements in medical facilities, recreation, rehabilitation and food service.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Apr. 12, 2019  Bail Reform
Oct. 19, 2018  For-Profit Prisons
Mar. 03, 2017  Women in Prison
Jan. 10, 2014  Sentencing Reform
Sep. 14, 2012  Solitary Confinement
Mar. 11, 2011  Downsizing Prisons
Dec. 04, 2009  Prisoner Reentry
Apr. 06, 2007  Prison Reform
Jan. 05, 2007  Prison Health Care
Sep. 17, 1999  Prison-Building Boom
Feb. 04, 1994  Prison Overcrowding
Oct. 20, 1989  Crime and Punishment: a Tenuous Link
Aug. 04, 1989  Can Prisons Rehabilitate Criminals?
Aug. 07, 1987  Prison Crowding
Nov. 25, 1983  Prison Overcrowding
Feb. 26, 1982  Religious Groups and Prison Reform
Jun. 18, 1976  Criminal Release System
Mar. 12, 1976  Reappraisal of Prison Policy
Oct. 20, 1971  Racial Tensions in Prisons
Oct. 13, 1965  Rehabilitation of Prisoners
Oct. 09, 1957  Prisons and Parole
May 02, 1952  Penal Reform
Jan. 30, 1937  The Future of Prison Industry
May 08, 1930  Prison Conditions and Penal Reform
Crime and Law Enforcement
Sentencing and Corrections