Sociology Paper on The Problem of Overcrowding In the DC Jail

The Problem of Overcrowding In the DC Jail

Over the last two decades, the conditions in prisons have significantly improved in several ways, the major one being the increase in welfare programs within correctional facilities that help rehabilitate inmates. However, the current correctional system continues to struggle with the overcrowding issue. The mentioned problem plagues the U.S corrections facilities as pressures regarding the demand for lower corrections costs mount. There is a growing shortage of living space for inmates in jails in the country with most institutions operating at maximum or exceed capacity. In some cases, inmates are required to double-bunk in single cells while others are held in open dormitories. Overcrowding has proved to be an elusive problem within the U.S since the effort of both national and international actors to eliminate it have been largely unsuccessful. Essentially the issue is believed to be a consequence of particular political strategies that were used in the 19th century under the pretext of government actions agonist crime and drugs. Heavy policing of minority-populated urban areas, the increased emphasis of punishment and not rehabilitation when it comes to dealing with crime, as well as the lack of clarity in drug laws stand out as the biggest causes of prison overcrowding.

Causes of Prison Overcrowding

The United States has a tumultuous past when it comes to the roles played as well as efficiencies of its incarceration system. As indicated by Reinarman and Levine, (2017), social and legal technocrats have often stated that the ‘War on Drugs’ campaign in the U.S under President Nixon is a reason for the overcrowding issues seen in prisons today.  The aggressive “tough on crime” approach that was adopted by the legislature and criminal justice system back in the 1980s has set a somewhat illogical view on how people pay for their crimes in prisons. Incrustation has been viewed as a tool of deterrence, rather than rehabilitation, that is propagated by fear and not social justice. For years, the General Assembly has progressively supported more punitive response to crime making alternative, diversionary, as well as intermediate policies less appealing by labeling them as “soft on crime” options. The U.S has a high recidivism rate meaning a significant number of offenders are rearrested and sent back to prison for violating or unsuccessfully completing community supervision as expected. Additionally, countless new criminal offenses that are targeted at particular classes of people have been added to the penal code. The new laws have harsher penalties for certain types of offenses thus increasing the role of victimization in the court and parole process.

It should be noted particular parties vastly benefit from prison-overcrowding in America. These parties include those who provide services in the highly profitable correctional industry. A study by Reinarman and Levine, (2017) indicates that in 2016, about 52 billion U.S. dollars was used to service state correctional facilities. The large expenditure has driven critics to raise concern over the degree of privatization of U.S prison system. Additionally, it seems unlikely that those running the facilities or coordinating prisoner-related amenities will advocate for lower incarceration rates considering that their bottom line is reliant on the number of those donning an orange jumpsuit.

The DC jail is a four-decade-old facility located on reservation 13 and is known as a home of the most dangerous individuals in the locality since the 1800s. As indicated by Beck, (2000), the DC jail was first constructed to host inmates from other facilities, particularly runaway slaves. With such tradition, this facility was not built as a correctional unit but a home for the socially marginalized. Similar to other prisons in the U.S., the DC jail is overcrowded, which has lead to deprived living conditions for decades. Both the ‘War on Drugs’ and the ‘Tough on Crime’ campaigns by Presidents Reagan and Nixon are major reasons behind the overcrowding in the DC jail. As narrated by Reinarman andLevine, (2017), in the DC area, heroin and crack cocaine were the preferred drugs for most of the African American youth. Many of these youth ended up in the mentioned jails. The task forces mandated to curb crime and drug use operated under social order, therefore, a large number of the jailed individuals were low-income black communities, a situation that is highly reminiscent of the Jim Crow South.

Health-based Approach vs. Crime-based Approach

The war on drugs approach seems to be counterproductive when it comes to dealing with the infestation of drugs in the society majorly because sending an individual to prison does not mean that he or she stops his or her drug problem. Over 1000 individuals die of drug-related causes each year in the U.S, most of whom have been arrested of the offense of procession at some point in their life. A study from Columbia University showed that about 65% of the inmates in U.S correctional facilities are addicted to street drugs such as crack cocaine. However, only 10% of this population is offered treatment for their substance abuse patterns (Solomon, Danyelle, and Conor Maxwell, 2017). With such information in mind, it is clear that a majority of released inmates are left to relapse soon after they are released, which is a clear indication of the lack of efficient management of drug-related crime. As indicated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, if the United States Criminal Justice System classified drug offenses, particularly those offenses committed under substance influence, as public health issues and invest in their treatment then the success rate would shift from 10% to 60% within the first half a decade. Additionally, freed prisoners would have an easier time re-establishing themselves into the community as rehabilitated characters. Lastly, such action would reduce the significant amount of taxpayers’ money that is used to host inmates who end up being rearrested.

Creation of a New Facility

Throughout history, jails such as the one in the District of Colombia have been regarded as facilities with the capacity to hold a large number of convicted criminals at once. The present the Criminal Justice Department ought to shift from such a belief. There is a need for facilities such as the DC Jail to close down and more socially sustainable correctional facility be established.  As aforementioned, when issues facing prisons are mentioned, deprived infrastructure such as the infirmary, baths, and toilets, as well as recreational areas are usually at the top of the list. It is imperative to have the DC jail conform to the “modern correctional facility standards, with the flexibility to handle the District’s prisoner’s populations, and which will be easier to maintain” (Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 2013). A well-stocked and equipped infirmary leads to healthier inmates and well-facilitated recreational areas led to reduced gang wars. Therefore, it can be argued that newer facilities lead to better management thus reducing the consequences of overcrowding.

Change in Policy

One of the most heated debates when it comes to prison overcrowding is that the criminal justice system is biased against racial communities. Since the Jim Crow Era to the 80s and 90s, the laws seems to be crafted in a manner that stifles particular communities such as African Americans. Over the years, research has shown the existence of tendencies of selected criminalization. Indeed, there is a need to change how the criminal justice department works. The current processes of the justice department, from arrest to conviction, are those crafted during the Nixon and Regan eras, and they need to be changed because they have a lot of flaws. In the DC area, the Cash Bail System was introduced to reduce such issues. However, the law allowed an individual to be released back to the streets through a financial loophole. As indicated by Block (2018), the bail system needs to be changed to interviews and judgment process, which has a 2% rearrests rate. Finally, there is a need for increased advocating for “humane treatment and dignity” policy (Rabuy, Bernadette and Daniel Kopf, 2016). The main aim for these processes is to improve the mental health of each criminal inmate within the DC jail in addition to the improvement of safety in the facility.

Overcrowding has stretched the U.S. criminal Justice system to its seams with the lack of beds or living space forcing administrators to take up actions such as transferred to out-of-state prisons. The solutions adopted before, including open dormitories, have led to new obvious security and management concerns to department. Additionally, high security inmates cannot be held in lower security prisons despite a clear lack of space. Currently the national Department of Correction needs an additional 1,600 high security beds. DC’s immediate response to the increasing issue of overcrowding is to change policies that promote the mentioned problem. For instance, the state is focused on rehabilitation and reintegration helping inmates cope with past and new social challenges such as stigma to reduce rearrests. Nevertheless, it should be noted that these efforts become less efficient when they are not applied across the board. For example, the DC area continues to operate under biased drug laws, which do not address the illegal drugs issue. A review of the state’s prison expansion model that would offer the DJ jail new prison beds whenever inmate population exceeds existing capacity is necessary.



Beck, A. J. (2000). Prison and jail inmates at midyear 1999. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Block, Melissa. 2018. ‘What changed after DC ended cash bail’. Retrieved March 19, 2019  (

Rabuy, Bernadette and Daniel Kopf. 2016. “Detaining the Poor: How money perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time.” Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved March 7, 2019 (

Reinarman, C., & Levine, H. G. (2017). The crack attack: America’s latest drug scare, 1986-1992. In Images of issues(pp. 147-186). Routledge.

Solomon, Danyelle and Connor Maxwell. 2017. “Substance Use Disorder Is A Public Health Issue, Not A Criminal Justice Issue.” Center for American Progress. Retrieved March 7, 2019 (

Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. 2013. “Racial Disparities in Arrests in the District of Columbia, 2009-2011.” Washington, DC: Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Retrieved March 5, 2019 (