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The (Constitutional) Aches and Pains of Over-Incarceration

Erika Spaet,
National Prison Project
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September 17, 2008

Over the past eight years, there has been an explosion in the U.S. prison population. The number of incarcerated persons has swelled from 1.9 million to 2.3 million — a 20 percent increase and a surge that no one can afford. Today, the U.S. holds almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. Severe overcrowding plagues correctional facilities across the country, and as a result, safety and constitutional rights violations in these institutions are frequently an afterthought. In addition, state governments are facing enormous budget shortfalls, taxpayers are forced to spend their money locking up thousands of persons who are not public safety risks. Over-incarceration does not improve community safety. Indeed, just yesterday the Justice Policy Institute released a report (PDF) stating that in 2007 “areas with lower incarceration rates experienced greater crime reductions.”

Packed, heaving prisons that buckle under the weight of mass incarceration have made prisoners victims of significant and frequent Eighth Amendment violations. Many prisoners wait for dangerous periods of time before getting medical attention. At Ely State Prison in Nevada, a diabetic man died when his body rotted with gangrene after prison medical staff stopped giving him insulin. At the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix, Arizona, a prisoner experienced severe groin and stomach pain and was given fluids, Tylenol and a laxative rather than a medical examination. The next day he was found dead in his cell from an ulcer.

Mental health treatment is also a grave problem. Prisoners who are denied necessary medication, and act out as a result, are often placed in disciplinary segregation where they suffer from severe isolation and sensory deprivation for weeks, months, or even years at a time. Long term isolation exacerbates mental illness and has led numerous individuals to take their own lives. Domestic torture, such as this, should not be allowed to continue.

The coup de grace of prison injustice occurs when prisoners lose the right to file suit and hold states and prison officials responsible for these conditions. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), enacted in 1996, contains a set of restrictions that often prevent prisoners from bringing their cases to court and that make the legal system nearly impossible to for them to navigate. The NPP has been taking action to fix the PLRA in order to ensure that meritorious claims of constitutional violations are heard. For more info, visit the SAVE Coalition website.

The NPP asks that the next administration will abandon the failed policies of over-incarceration. We don’t need more non-violent drug offenders jammed into our overcrowded cells. It is time for a new vision that promotes public safety by using alternatives to prison that actually reform rather than destroy lives.

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