Boston — Prison overcrowding will continue to cast its lengthening shadow over the American corrections scene. This is the consensus among would-be penal system reformers and others following the June 15 US Supreme Court decision that "double-celling" inmates is not of itself unconstitutional.
The verdict appears narrow in scope, at least on the surface, because it applies to an Ohio prison. But it is viewed in some quarters as a virtual endorsement of a practice that has become increasingly widespread in state and county correctional institutions.
Of particular concern to critics of the 8-to-1 decision is the majority conclusion that "to the extent that such conditions [overcrowding] are restrictive, or even harsh, they are part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society."
Taking exception to the inference that overcrowding might be an acceptable part of the penalty, Alvin Bronstein of the American Civil Liberties Union-affiliated National Prison Project maintains that removal from society is the punishment.
While differing somewhat in their assessment of the Supreme Court ruling's impact, penal experts generally agree that it is not the intention of the justices to turn their backs on prison overcrowding altogether, especially when it and other conditions, in their opinion, violate the human rights of prisoners.
It is noted that double-celling was the only issue in the Ohio case and while the space per prisoner was less than the 60 square feet -- now generally the minimum standard -- it is a modern, well-equipped institution.
In contrast, many other correctional facilities throughout the country, including many of those now under federal court orders to end overcrowding, have what the Supreme Court justices termed "deplorable" conditions.
William Brennan, assistant executive director of the more than century-old American Correctional Association, says that even though double-celling is a violation of the standards recommended by his organization, "on balance" the decision is not a setback.
"Had the court gone the other way and ruled overcrowding per se unconstitutional, many states might have been forced to release large numbers of prisoners almost overnight, before tehy are ready to return to society," he speculates.
Mr. Brennan, who is not related to Justice William J. Brennan Jr., one of the Supreme Court justices who rendered the ruling, anticipates that it "will have a positive effect in confronting the problem immediately."
He and other activists for corrections improvements are encouraged over what they view as "increased public awareness and support" for better prison conditions.
They hope that legislation to provide federal aid for construction of new and expanded correctional facilities will make it through Congress. The measure, filed by Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, calls for $500 million the first year to help cope with the problem of overcrowded and outmoded prisons.
The nation's prison population -- those in federal, state, and county institutions -- those in federal, state, and county institutions -- totaled 320, 583 as of Jan. 1, an increase of some 13,300 over that at the start of 1980. During the past decade the number of prisoners throughout the US has increased more than two- thirds, from 191,732 to the current level.
The rising crime rate and longer prison sentences including mandatory minimum terms for some felonies, coupled with funding restrictions on penal programs and facilities, have placed increasing pressures on correctional systems from coast to coast.
About two-thirds of all inmates are housed in cells that fail to meet the 60 -square-foot standard prescribed by the American Correctional Association and adopted by the federal government for its facilities.
All but a handful of states now have double-celling to at least a limited extent and most of the exceptions formerly so housed at least some of their prisoners but were forced to abandon the practice by court order.
Michigan, one of the latter, is in the process of slimming its more than 13, 000 prison population to 12,231, or 95 percent of total capacity. The early parole of nonviolent prisoners is provided for under a new law enacted earlier this year.
The state has been under court order since last fall to provide not less than 60 square feet per inmate in its correctional facilities, thus in effect banning double-celling.
That federal district court directive, which was not appealed, like those in nearly two dozen other states involving overcrowding, are not expected to be altered by the Supreme Court dictum in the Ohio case.
Some corrections officials are apprehensive over whether the court decision will lower inmate morale in some of the more crowded prisons.
It is noted, for example, that on the eve of the beginning of the Michigan release program, four insurrections within a matter of a few days inflicted heavy damage on the state's three maximum security prisons, amounting to $9 million.
"This could be a long hot summer in some of the more crowded prisons," warns Mary Mayhew of the Washington, D.C.-based National Moratorium on Prison Construction, a project of the Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee. The group decries the current trend toward longer prison sentences and the push to expand correctional facilities.
A study completed last year by ABT Associates of Cambridge, Mass., for the US Department of Justice showed that 16 states have at least half their prison inmates in cells of 60 square feet.
The report concluded that to bring all states in line with minimum space per inmate standards would cost $8 billion.
It seriously questioned the value of additional correctional capacity and warned that "construction of supplemental prisons or jail facilities may, at best, produce short-lived reduction in crowding and, at worst, may result in absolute increases in the number of prisoners held in substandard conditions."