Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part I

Over the course of my research, I have stumbled upon a topic that we hear about all the time: Prison overpopulation. There are a number of contributing factors to this growing problem and so I thought I’d address them in a four-part series. In today’s post, I’d like to share some staggering facts about current prison population and how the “war on drugs” campaign has packed our prisons with inmates.


The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Russia holds the number two spot. In 1980, there were less than 500,000 Americans in prison. Today, there are 1,404,503 people in state prisons, 208,118 in federal prison, and nearly 6 million on probation or parole. Today’s parole rate is a 59% increase since 1990.

Even with these numbers, crime is down 0.3%—the first drop since 1972. California has reported a 2.5% drop with 169,413 inmates. What’s behind the decrease? The state of California decided to cut the number of low-risk parolees who would return to prison because of technical parole violations. This move can be attributed to the state being ordered in 2009 to reduce its prison population by 30%. That’s 40,000 inmates. The state is struggling to meet such a demand.

Some facts:

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that approximately 1/3 of all black males will experience state prison in their lifetime.

Young black women is the fastest growing prison population.

National spending on corrections in 1980: $9 billion. Today: $60 billion

Much of the increase of prison population can be blamed the on good intentions of the “War on Drugs.”  Forty years ago on June 17th, Nixon was the first to use that term. In 1980, 6% of the prison population consisted of drug offenders—about 19,000. In 1998, there were 237,000—21%. In 2008, there were over half a million people incarcerated for drug offenses, the result of 1.5 million drug-related arrests.

When  a politician decides to get “tough on crime,” it too, contributes to the overcrowding of prisons. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about punishing those who commit crime, but those with no prior records are given mandatory sentences, or others who made a small infraction became victims of the “three strikes, you’re out,” law, thus, causing a swell in the already crowded prisons. This tough on crime has quickly become tough on prisons, as well as state and federal budgets. 

Other factors in the overcrowding of prisons consists of, “truth in sentencing” (abolishing parole—inmates serve their entire given sentence) and longer sentences for sex offenders.

In May 2011, The U.S. Supreme Court declared that the overcrowding in California state prisons is cruel and unusual punishment. As mentioned earlier, the state is struggling to figure out how to release 30,000 prisoners in the next 2 years. How will this happen? Governor Jerry Brown is suggesting moving non-violent and low-risk inmates to county jails, or even possibly out-of-state. Prison officials are practically on their hand and knees, asking for more funding to not only build more prisons, but to create educational programs that will reduce recidivism.

There are more factors involved in this ever-growing problem and in the coming days, I will talk about:

Women in prison—the fastest growing prison population

Conditions of prisons and its prisoners

Minorities in prison

Sources: National Policy Committee The Pew Center on the States The U.S. Dept of Justice