The argument over early release of prison inmates is a particularly interesting one in the United States. Because of budget shortages and deficits, many state legislatures are looking to save money by releasing some inmates early. How far legislatures get to take this idea is often a case of politics and societal fear versus reality.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, only 53 percent of federal and state inmates are in prison for violent crimes. The remaining figure is made up of mostly property, drug and public order criminals. The proposals for early release of inmates always exclude violent criminals, but the media usually focuses on the threat to public order should any inmates be released.
California is but one state struggling with a huge budget deficit brought on by a number of factors. It also faces the result of a federal lawsuit designed to deal with prisoners' rights to medical care. Prisoners in California have died due to long waits for treatment, and the prison system has been under pressure from a federal court to improve conditions or release inmates. This has resulted in pressure in the media to protect the public, much of that pressure instigated by prison guard and police unions.
The U.S. courts have documented in scathing rulings that the state of California has all but ignored growing problems in prisons such as overcrowding and health issues, and has ruled that this must change. The problem is that no politician wants to appear easy on criminals by releasing them or by spending the billions of dollars the state does not have to improve the lives and life expectancy of convicts.
Conditions Ripe for Violence
As reported in Time and the Nation magazines in 2009, the California prison system is a hotbed of violence, but not for the people of California---for the prisoners themselves. Because of severe overcrowding, some prisons have almost twice the number of inmates they were designed for. Prisoners have lost recreation space, such as gymnasiums, when that space has been turned into "temporary" dormitories. The mixing of various prisoners, some of whom retain gang affiliations, means a constant tension, often racial or gang related, and a danger of violence.
Three-Strikes Laws and Overcrowding
The overcrowding problem arose out of laws passed to get criminals off the streets during the relatively high crime years of a decade or so ago. The "war on drugs" and three-strikes laws were designed to put repeat offenders into prison for longer periods and in some cases threw away the key.
The Society of Friends, or Quakers, were behind the creation of penitentiaries in the 19th century. The purpose as envisioned was to offer a place for penance, reflection and training for a life away from crime. This has now been turned into simply punitive warehousing of criminals, according to some, and shutting away the problem rather than addressing its solution.
The end result has been to run out of money and the will to make prisons more endurable, if not comfortable, or even survivable. Some of the inmates who have perished while in prison were not convicted of violent crimes, yet paid the ultimate price for being in jail. Politicians have tough decisions to make in regard to this topic.