The growing prison population has resulted in significant overcrowding, which may be the most intractable problem in all jurisdictions. Difficulties in maintaining tolerable living conditions, delivering health care, and establishing security follow in the wake of overcrowding—problems that can undermine the efforts of even the most well-intentioned administrators. Nearly 40 states are operating prisons under court orders concerning overcrowding (Malcolm, 1991).
The incarcerated population in the United States comprises in large part impoverished individuals from urban areas. Almost one-half of all prisoners are African American (48 percent, compared with 11 percent in the population at large). In a report based on data from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Sentencing Project, a sentence reform organization based in Washington, D.C., noted that 23 percent of African American men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under the control of some component of the criminal justice system (Mauer, 1990). This compares with 6 percent for white males and 10.4 percent for Hispanic men, and 3 percent, 1 percent, and 2 percent, respectively for black, white, and Hispanic women in the same age group. The majority of prisoners are not only members of racial and ethnic minority groups, they are also overwhelmingly poor. It is difficult to find a simple indicator of inmates' socioeconomic level, but some estimates have put the proportion of inmates who are poor at as high as 90 percent (Montefiore Medical Center, 1990). They are also less educated than the general population. In New York City jails, where as many as 25 percent of the inmates are estimated to be HIV positive, about 50 percent of the inmates have completed high school, 30 percent are high school dropouts, and 16 percent have finished only elementary school or have no formal schooling (Montefiore Medical Center, 1990).
Women are also a growing proportion of the nation's prison population. Often overlooked because, historically, small number of women have been incarcerated, the situation is changing. In 1980 13,000 women were in federal and state prisons; by 1989 the number had grown to approximately 41,000. In 1989 alone the female prison population grew by 25 percent, nearly twice the rate of the male prison population. The traditional role of women in caring for children raises special concerns when they are incarcerated: 80 percent of female prisoners have children, and of those, 70 percent are single parents. Prior to their incarceration, 85 percent of female prisoners had custody of their children (compared with 47 percent of male prisoners). A significant proportion of women, moreover, give birth just prior to or during incarceration. In New York City jails, approximately 8 percent of female inmates are pregnant at the time of incarceration (National Commission on AIDS, 1991).