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Emptier prisons: Inmate population drops for first time in 40 years

The number of inmates in state prisons declined in 2009 after a long upswing. Efforts to control skyrocketing corrections budgets are a key reason.

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / July 9, 2010

Empty cells at the Anthony P. Travisono Intake Service Center in Cranston, R.I., are a more common sight now. At this maximum-security facility, inmates once slept on mattresses in short-term holding cells.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

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Cranston, R.I.

Three years ago, Rhode Island's prisons were straining to house the state's booming inmate population. With cells overflowing and bed space maxed out, dozens of inmates were being housed in holding cells, Spartan quarters designed to hold prisoners for a few days.

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Some inmates lived in these holding cells for days on end, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, awaiting trips to other modules for showering and using the toilet. This, even after the state launched a massive and expensive construction campaign designed to solve prior overcrowding problems.

Today, most of those holding cells are empty, and entire blocks of cells have been closed off for months at a time in the Intake Service Center, the state's jail.

After peaking at about 4,000 inmates in late 2007, Rhode Island's prison population is now around 3,300. It's an improbable position for the state, whose prison population was projected to grow another 25 percent in the coming decade.

"The change has been dramatic," says A.T. Wall, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. "The staff is less harried … there's a sense that we're in charge, a general feeling that things are calmer, more orderly."

After surging for decades, the number of state prisoners in the United States has declined for the first time in nearly 40 years, according to the Pew Center on the States in Washington. As of Jan. 1, state prisons across the country held 1,404,053 people – 4,777 fewer than a year ago.

Driven by budget crises, many states have pursued alternative strategies to reduce their prison populations. Among them are moves to divert low-level offenders and probation and parole violators from prison and to accelerate the release of inmates who complete risk-reduction programs.

"More and more policymakers are realizing that new technologies and strategies are more effective and less expensive than warehousing somebody in a $30,000-a-year taxpayer-funded prison cell," says Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance project of the Pew Center on the States.

Of the 26 states whose prison populations fell, Rhode Island had the largest drop – 9.2 percent between 2008 and 2009.

Rhode Island policymakers worked with the Pew Center and the US Justice Department to outline three policies to reduce prison spending. The state spends an average of $40,000 per inmate, per year.

The first policy cuts an inmate's sentence – by as much as 10 days per month – for following institution rules.