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The Myth of Prison Double-Bunking



What is prison double-bunking? I checked several dictionaries for a definition and there was no dictionary result. Any inmate can define double-bunking. Double-bunking is the prison practice of placing two inmates in each cell. Prisons practice double-bunking because they lack sufficient cells for the number of inmates. Most cells were built for one occupant. Most prison cells are approximately 6 by 8 feet in size with steel and/or brick walls. The standard cell has a ledge or a steel bedstead that holds a mattress which is similar to a gymnasium floor mat. Many prison cells were built with one bunk. The one bunk cells were not designed for an epanding prison population. Starting in the 1980s, our American prison population exploded.

There are many reasons for our overcrowded prisons. The war against drugs implemented in the 1980’s and 1990’s  was a major factor in increasing the number of incarcerated Americans. The closing of numerous state hospitals also multiplied the number of homeless individuals with mental health issues. Many of the homeless who are imprisoned for minor crimes are really in need of mental health care.  During that period, many states curtailed the power of their parole boards, and a number of states adopted the “Three-strikes-You’re-Out” provision. The discretionary sentencing power of judges was reduced, and “Zero Tolerance” became a mantra. Many of these policies were applied to nonviolent crimes. At least one-half of the prison population is incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.

Many of our state resolved the problem of this incoming tide of  inmates by placing another ledge or steel bunk over the top of the original bunk. Almost all studies have indicated that in crowded situations, there is more aggression, competition for resources, less cooperation and more social withdrawal. To maximize this disaster, many prisons did not consider the status of the inmate before cell placement. In other words, a nonviolent inmate is imprisoned in a cell made for one person with a violent inmate. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to predict the result of such cell allocation.

On a personal note, I knew a Mexican inmate while I was incarcerated in western Maryland. He was easy going and followed the rules. Without consideration, he was placed in a cell with a much larger inmate from Puerto Rico. The larger inmate was extremely violent. Within days, the smaller Mexican inmate went to the tier officer and requested a cell change because he said, “Something bad is going to happen.” He made this request several times over the next four days. On the fifth night, we could hear the five foot Mexican inmate screaming for help while he was being attacked and shanked (knifed) by his cellmate. Fortunately, the injuries were minor and both inmates were sent to different prisons. Several months later, both were back at our prison, but at least not in the same tiny cell.

Look at the picture of the cell above and imagine two men living most of their time in that tiny space without conflict. In our next posting, we will discuss the major differences between double-bunking and solitary confinement.

By Bradley Schwartz
Founder of