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Understanding the problem of Oregon’s overcrowded prison system

Prisons in Oregon and around the country are overcrowded, which can result in unconstitutional practices that harm inmates.

In August of last year, Oregon Live released a report that found that the state's only federal prison was severely overcrowded. Sheridan's Federal Correctional Institution held 1,134 inmates that month, which is more than 47 percent over its intended population of 769 people.

While those numbers are alarming, an even bigger concern is that more than half of the inmates who are a part of the federal prison system are there based on nonviolent offenses such as immigration or drug crimes. An overcrowded prison is not only symptomatic of a failing system, but it may also result in unconstitutional practices.

What causes overcrowding?

Any number of factors could lead to an overcrowded prison system. For example, facilities may simply be too small to fit a growing population. Additional causes include the following:

  • High rates of criminal recidivism
  • Harsh penalties for certain criminal activities, such as drug offenses
  • Changes in laws that make certain activities illegal

A fluctuating crime rate in a given area can also take a toll on how many inmates are incarcerated.

What are the consequences?

According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, overcrowding has been linked to an increase in violence among inmates. As an article in Newsweek points out, an overrun system in California led to a possibly preventable or preventable death every five to six days. The system lacked the staff to provide proper health care for prisoners. In one case, a man was beaten to death and guards did not notice it for hours.

The Huffington Post points out that facilities often have to resort to questionable practices in order to accommodate inmates, such as placing two or three prisoners in a small cell. In some cases, a hundred or more inmates were forced to room together in a gymnasium-turned-dormitory.

Further, in order to keep control in such a setting, facility staff members resort to extremely strict regulations. Once inmates leave that environment and settle into life outside prison, they can have difficulty adapting, even having a hard time making seemingly simple decisions.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the overcrowded prisons in California were unconstitutional, as the health and well-being of the inmates was "severely compromised," according to a report in USA Today. Several inmates had filed a lawsuit claiming that the conditions in the facilities were in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which promises protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

What are officials doing about it?

The Oregon Department of Corrections reports that it has been providing extra beds to accommodate for the increase in inmates in the state's prisons. Over the long-term, officials expect to build new beds.

Experts suggest larger measures to alleviate the prison populations. The American Legislative Exchange Council reports that alternatives to incarceration, such as community supervision programs, enable low-level offenders to serve a sentence while still having the chance to earn an income and contribute to society.

Another solution is that non-violent drug crimes should not result in lengthy prison sentences, advocates say. The Huffington Post reports that incarcerating just 20 percent fewer people convicted of drug crimes would save the federal government $1.29 billion. The prison systems would save 125,000 years.

Anyone with questions regarding prison overcrowding should consult with an attorney.

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