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Major Problems, Issues & Trends Facing Prisons Today

Major Problems, Issues & Trends Facing Prisons Today
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  • 0:04 Major Prison Issues
  • 0:40 Prison Overcrowding
  • 4:01 Mentally Ill Inmates
  • 6:56 Private Prisons
  • 9:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

There are several problems, issues, and trends facing prisons today. This lesson addresses three major prison matters: overcrowding, mental health care, and privatization.

Major Prison Issues

Overcrowding. Gang activity. Health care. Mental health care. Racism. Assaults. Privatization. These are just a few of the major problems, issues and trends facing prisons today.

Many Americans believe our prison system is broken, while others believe the system is moving in the right direction. Let's take a closer look at three of the most heavily debated prison matters: prison overcrowding, mentally ill inmates and private prisons.

Prison Overcrowding

The United States has the world's largest prison population, with nearly 2.3 million people currently living behind bars. We have half a million more prisoners than China, even though China has more than four times our overall population.

Why is this? The Great Depression led to an increase in crime and the start of our nation's prison overcrowding crisis. Many of these crimes were classified as crimes of survival, meaning they were crimes committed in order to meet a basic standard of living, such as stealing food or providing fraudulent information in order to get a job. Inmates were crowded into cells originally built for just one person.

By the 1970s, conditions worsened. This marked President Nixon's War on Drugs. He increased the size and presence of drug control agencies and authorized aggressive law enforcement actions, such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock search warrants.

The War on Drugs was followed by other 'get tough on crime' laws, like three strikes laws. These laws became popular in the 1990s and order mandatory life prison sentences for offenders convicted of three felonies.

As a result of these measures, the United States saw a 500% increase in inmate population between 1970 and 1999. Our prisons became dangerously overcrowded, and some inmates began to fight back.

For example, California inmates filed multiple lawsuits and staged a lengthy hunger strike to protest overcrowding. California's prison population had grown to nearly twice its designed capacity. In 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that California was violating prison inmates' constitutional rights by endangering their health and safety. California was ordered to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates within two years but was later given a two-year extension.

Much of California's overcrowding has been attributed to the harsh drug laws and their three strikes law. For example, 9,000 offenders are serving life sentences due to three strikes, including many whose third conviction wasn't a serious or violent crime. One person's third strike was attempting to steal a pair of work gloves from a Home Depot.

The citizens of California are doing their part to ease overcrowding. First, they passed Proposition 36, which restricted the use of the three strikes law for nonviolent crimes. Then, more recently, they passed Proposition 47. This measure downgrades many nonviolent felonies, like shoplifting and drug possession, to misdemeanors. Together, these propositions will result in the release of thousands of prisoners and tens of thousands fewer felony convictions each year.

Mentally Ill Inmates

Next, let's look at the rising issue of caring for mentally ill inmates. This includes a wide range of mental health conditions, such as disorders that affect mood, thinking or behavior. Some common conditions include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Recent research by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that more than half of all inmates have mental health issues. In fact, around 1.25 million prisoners suffer from mental illness. This is over four times the number in 1998.

Studies show that people with mental illness are two to four times more likely to end up in prison. Many experts agree that countless incarcerations can be avoided by proper mental health treatment.

For example, studies show that most mentally ill prisoners are incarcerated for preventable, minor crimes. Many of these crimes are related to homelessness or a lack of basic treatment and resources. Many are convicted of crimes of survival.

But, it's difficult to provide proper care for the mentally ill, when more than $4 billion in funding for mental health services has been cut from state budgets. Many treatment centers have had to turn away patients, and hospitals have had to reduce services. One study showed that there are more people with severe mental illnesses in prisons and jails than in hospitals.

One problem is that mentally ill people often spend more time in jail. These people often await trial and sentencing behind bars rather than being released on bond or being sent to hospitals or treatment centers. This practice sets a troubling cycle into motion.

Studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that most inmates with mental illness don't receive proper treatment while incarcerated. So, while they are originally there for minor crimes, they often experience behavioral difficulties while incarcerated and can't meet the criteria necessary for release.

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