Prison overcrowding and how this issue relates to the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Prison overcrowding and how this issue relates to the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

9 Answers

lynnebh's profile pic

lynnebh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

The Eighth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution reads:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

It is the last phrase - "cruel and unusual punishments" that is usually cited when discussing the issue of prison overcrowding. Overcrowding in prisons has been construed by some to constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" because prisoners in overcroweded prisons are subject to sometimes horrific conditions. Also, this amendment has been interpreted to apply to states as well as the federal government and the prison conditions in some states are worse than others. In some prisons, for example, several prisoners are forced to share the same cell, resulting in some violent prisoners being bunked with less violent ones. This leads to beatings, torture and rapes. The conditions in some prisons are filthy due to inadequate facilities and overcrowding, and this can lead to disease. Some prisons do not have enough room to separate violent criminals, so they are a danger to the other, less-violent prisoners. I could go on and on...........if you think about some of the fallout from prison overcrowding, you can see why many believe it constitutes "cruel and unusual" punishment.

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The argument that inadequate security exists in an overcrowded prison, leading to more prisoner on prisoner violence and a culture of abuse by staff, seems valid to me.  The 8th amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and while a person can be sentenced to incarceration for a crime, doesn't that criminal have a reasonable expectation of safety when given this sentence?  If not, aren't we also sentencing that prisoner to beatings, torture or rape?  And wouldn't this be a clear violation of the 8th amendment?

The state certainly has the right to protect society by incarcerating convicted criminals, but in doing so, it has an obligation to provide reasonable security and safety of those criminals, at the same time as it must provide them with reasonable food, medical care and opportunity to exercise.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

As you know, the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits any "cruel and unusual" punishments to be inflicted on people as a consequence of their crimes.  To some, prison overcrowding (living in a crowded prison) is a cruel punishment.

The idea here is that a person who has committed a crime must still be treated with some dignity.  Their punishment is to be locked up for some period of time.  It should not extend to being jammed into an overcrowded prison.

So the relationship here is simply this -- does life in an overcrowded prison reach the level of cruel and unusual punishment?

accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

You have raised a very interesting and topical issue for debate in contemporary American politics. Given the many negatives of the American prison system at the moment, and its stunning lack of success in the rehabilitation of criminals, does it constitute as a "cruel and unusual" punishment to place criminals in jail? #5 has alluded to some of the case studies that have explored this issue, but it is well worth asking the wider question of whether prisons as a system are the best ways of punishing crime and deviance in today's world.

drmonica's profile pic

drmonica | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted on

I am not of the opinion that residing in an overcrowded prison constitutes "cruel and unusual" punishment. Prisoners should be grateful to have a roof over their heads, food to eat, and health care services, all furnished courtesy of the U.S. taxpayers. If "overcrowding" means that some people sleep in mattresses on the floor, then so be it.

Having said that, I am not convinced that our current penal system is enough of a deterrent to prevent first-time offenders from committing crimes, much less recidivists.

martinjmurphy's profile pic

martinjmurphy | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

The Suprteme Court decides what "cruel and unusual" punishment means.  The Court has said that the Constitution does not make comfortable prisons mandatory (Rhodes v. Chapman) and that poor prison conditions could be considered cruel and unusual only if it could be established that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference (Wilson v. Seiter).

auntlori's profile pic

Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Prisoners should have a reasonable expectation of safety. As long as they have that, I see no infringement of the Eighth Amendment. No one outside prison is guaranteed a certain amount of space or freedom from encroachment in that space. Punishment isnt supposed to be particularly pleasant.

lrwilliams's profile pic

lrwilliams | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

The overcrowding of prisons is not a violation of the eighth amendment. As someone above stated prisoners should feel fortunate to have a roof over their heads. I am a fan of the sheriff in Arizona that tried to place his prisoners in tent.

User Comments

epollock's profile pic

epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

Posted on

It always depends on the circumstances of the individual I think a  judge might rule one way for one prisoner and another way for another. Cruel and inhuman treatment might be viewed differently by different court systems. Overcrowding in one system might not be considered overcrowding in another.