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Prison Overcrowding in America
ONC Editorial

Sep 23, 2023

Explaining how and why our prisons are exceeding their capacity.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, politicians and American citizens all seemed to agree that reform and treatment programs had failed. Thus, they began the passing of stricter laws — imprisoning people for longer terms, and building more and more prison facilities. 

Around two million people are incarcerated across the United States today, which has led to overcrowding, poor living conditions and severe financial issues.

An article by The Journal of Economic Perspectives states that the rate of imprisonment in the United States increased from 93 per 100,000 people in 1972 to its peak of 506 in 2007. In 2018, the U.S. imprisonment rate was four times higher than its average level during the twentieth century. Currently, the U.S. incarceration rate is about six times higher than it commonly is in any of the nations in Western Europe.

In the early 2000s, prisons in California were so overcrowded that gymnasiums were converted into housing units. Also, triple-bunking (housing more than two inmates in a cell intended only for two people) had to be implemented in some facilities. Statistically, having too many individuals in one space increases the risk of violence. 

The aforementioned article from The Journal of Economic Perspectives also found that victimization during incarceration is also associated with later drug use, emotional distress, depression and reoffending. All these issues connect back to one overarching problem — overcrowding in the United States’ prison systems.

Samantha Blum is a M.S. graduate from the University of New Haven, where she studied National Security with a concentration in Information & Security. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Justice from SUNY Oswego, where she graduated Cum Laude. She has also worked as a research assistant for projects that focused on supporting the implementation of active shooter protocols in schools.


Smith, Roger, Prison conditions: Overcrowding, disease, violence, and abuse. Mason Crest Publishers, 2007. 

Western, Bruce. Inside the Box: Safety, Health, and Isolation in Prison. American Economic Association, Accessed 23 September 2023.

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