Problem of Overcrowding in Prisons

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Between 1983 and 1989, US prisons have markedly increased in size in order to house the 77 percent increase in prison inmate populations (Welch, 1994).  This phenomenon is occurring at a global scale with the mean daily population approaching 410,000 inmates as of 1989. This figure represents a 6 percent annual increase from the previous year, which is steadily growing (Welch, 1994). Because of the issue of overcrowding in prisons, these confinement centers are lacking the resources to feed and house the increasing rate of population. This increase in prison population over time is an effect of societal flaw, where risk factors that may send certain demographics of people may be reduced via implementation of communications and organizations between the individuals and social systems. The individuals who are most at risk for confinement tend to be of a lower social class, have less money, younger in age, have a history of drug abuse problems, uneducated and or unemployed (Welch, 1994). Overcapacity in confinement centers creates chaos in the entire network of prison systems, including the staff numbers, which in turn  causes an increase in institutional problems. To begin to resolve the issue at hand, social problem awareness must be established especially in population dense areas of the world, accompanied by educational and employment programs for the uneducated and unemployed as well as jail system reforms (Welch, 1994).

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Since  jail policies and social forces are interconnected, it is easy to see that law enforcement and punishment together make up  a social system. Specifically , one case study that concerns prison  overcrowding shows how complex systems have flaws and can be improved. The analysis of this subsystem will reveal the structure of law enforcement and prisons as systems as well as what changes can be made in a separate subsystem such that population in prisons can stabilize or even decrease.


Based off of Luhmann’s theory of social systems, the world was born from chaos and had no inherent order. To establish a set order, individuals and groups created the society, groups and organizations we are so familiar with today. These social systems revolve around communication and tend to be autopoietic, meaning that they maintain and reproduce themselves constantly (Luhmann, 2012).  The smaller subsystems behave like small specialized territories in which  society operates. These systems being self-reproducing, Luhmann has also actually been criticized for underestimating the role of the individual, despite the fact these larger groups are made of the collective individual. One of the branches of subsystems of society being discussed here is law enforcement, which naturally lends itself to punishment in some fashion. The subsystem of law enforcement has reproduced and grown itself to produce its own prison system, as a deterrent for individuals to obey the rules of the law. In the context of  Luhmann, a social system includes all functional systems in a modern society  which are equally important and irreplaceable. Prison systems are much like society in the way that there exist differentiable subsystems having unique function, where each subsystem is equally important to the overall system function. Punishment systems seem to represent more of an organizational social system because of the marked hierarchy between the correctional officers and the inmates. Luhmann treated organizations as social systems which reproduce themselves on the basis of decisions. Based on this fact, we can say that prison systems reproduce based on the decisions of the government, which are representative of  organizational social systems. 

Society as a social system is a communicative, interconnected system differentiated into various smaller and specialized functional systems such as family, law enforcement, economy, arts, and science. These systems have been structured and codified over time. Luhmann recognized social systems as organic systems capable of  self-organization. In this case, the prison system has risen from society communicating its need to reduce crime and maintain order.

It is clear from Luhmann that systems generate their own systemic boundaries and internal structures for self-referencing, since each component refers to the system itself and its closed system. The components of the prison as a system are distinct and closed. Physically, the prison has guards and correctional officers as well as inmates that lie within a closed building with concrete walls and most likely a tall barbed wire fence. This example is a good example of a closed system because the design of a functional prison relies heavily  on its ability to retain prisoners.  Luhmann’s concept of autopoiesis is applied to not just this system, but  all systems including non-biological systems. Luhmann’s transdisciplinary concept of autopoiesis is very much applicable when the components of a system are reproduced by other components of the system. In this case, prisons are kept inmates alive by providing food and shelter, while receiving inmate work in return. This cycle is self-perpetuating , self-sustaining  and therefore autopoietic.

Luhmann detailed the main elements of social systems as having communication (an asymmetrical process of transferring meaning or information from a sender to a receiver) interpretation,  and action within itself. In the context of the prison overcrowding situation, all three exist. However, they are not done at the most efficient levels possible. Improved communication would reduce the overpopulation in prisons by creating understanding and information synthesis between individuals, society and staff. Improved interpretation  would clear up any ambiguities concerning the prison system. Lastly, improvements in action within the imprisonment system could help decrease inmate population by giving incentives to pursue education and employment opportunities. This being said, action is a necessary step required for the system to reproduce itself. Communication on the other hand, is comprised  of utterance, information and understanding, which is necessary for correct action to take place. Although important for reproduction in the system,  action by itself cannot account for every decision made, which is a reason why Luhmann advocates against  treating communication as action, since it would mean the death of communication itself.

One of  Luhmann’s ideas was of  society being  the primary system that creates and recreates all communication. In order to remedy the problem of the overcrowding prison systems, this problem would first need to be recognized, communicated, interpreted correctly and follow the correct course of action.  All communication efforts are produced by the self -communication within the society,  where the borders of society are the borders of communication (Luhmann, 2012). It is the society that encompasses interaction and organization, in which communication can lead to correct action. Therefore, in order to incite change in the prison system, the society social system would need to be involved.


Overcrowding is currently the biggest problem facing confinement centers today.  Over the last two decades,  the overpopulation of Colombian prisons has risen as an unintended consequence of  policy makers producing arbitrary laws. This action inadvertently increased the number of conceivable illegal behaviors. Societal responses and information on the idea of criminal behaviors are sustained by society, which policymakers abuse when looking for societal approval.  This mode of thinking leads to greater repercussions of any illegal acts no matter how slight, resulting in extended prison sentences. Because of this systemic cycle set forth by the society, we see that the overcrowding of prisons is a result of the extended sentences and newly administered policies that could put anyone in jail. With more people going to prison for longer periods of time, it’s no wonder why this issue is on the top of the list for prisons.

Within the system, each component plays a role which affects another component. It is clear that government policy and prison administration are vastly different subsystems. However, the two functionally different systems are interconnected under a much broader, systemic view. In order to create better policies that meet the necessities and limitations of prisons, there must exist appropriate communication, interpretation and action in the overall system.


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Problem Of Overcrowding In Prisons. (2019, Aug 02). Retrieved December 1, 2022 , from

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