Hastings Law Journal
Constitutional Challenges to Prison Overcrowding: The Scientific Evidence of Harmful Effects
In the past two decades American courts have decided numerous cases involving the constitutionality of prison and jail conditions. A number of prison cases have turned on the court's assessment of the constitutionality of narrow conditions, such as sanitation, fire safety, medical and mental health care, diet, exercise, or protection of inmates from assaults. This Article examines the harmful consequences of the more fundamental problem of prison overcrowding, working from the premise that consideration of the harmful effects of prison overcrowding and the constitutional implications of these effects is critical not just to inmates and courts, but also to prison administrators and legislatures. The Article first discusses the significance of the Supreme Court's two recent overcrowding cases and the potential legal role of evidence of harmful effects. It next examines subsequent lower court decisions and the extent to which they consider harmful effects on inmates a decisive factor. The Article then reviews the scientific studies of the effects of prison overcrowding on prison rule infractions and violence, illness, mental health, stress and hypertension, and mortality. The Article concludes that there is substantial empirical evidence that prison overcrowding is harmful to inmates, that plaintiffs should present tangible evidence of harmful effects to support their constitutional claims, and that courts should carefully consider such evidence.
Terence P. Thornberry and Jack E. Call,
Constitutional Challenges to Prison Overcrowding: The Scientific Evidence of Harmful Effects,
35 Hastings L.J. 313
Available at: https://repository.uchastings.edu/hastings_law_journal/vol35/iss2/2