America’s federal prison system is broken as facilities are literally bursting at the seams. While overcrowding is endemic, some prisoners are often isolated, leading to severe mental health problems that go untreated. Staffing is inadequate and taxpayer dollars are flying out the window to maintain facilities, some of which are as structurally unsound as many of the nation’s bridges, highways, and sewer systems.
One of the major reasons for this massive breakdown is that over the past 30 years, the federal prison population in the United States has increased by 790 percent. A report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) “attributes [this] staggering growth…in part to failed sentencing and correctional policies, including mandatory minimum sentences and the elimination of federal parole,” an ACLU press release pointed out. The CRS report titled “The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Overview, Policy Changes, Issues, and Options,” found: “From 1980 to 2012, the federal prison population has ballooned from 25,000 to 219,000, a 790 percent increase. Population has increased by approximately 6,100 inmates each year since 1980. In the 50 years before that, the population increased by 12,000 total. From 2000 to 2011, appropriations for the Bureau of Prisons increased by more than $2.7 billion.”
According to the CRS report, “Data show that a growing proportion of inmates are being incarcerated for immigration and weapons-related offenses, but the largest portion of newly admitted inmates are being incarcerated for drug offenses.”
The federal prison system is run by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which was established in 1930 “to house federal inmates, professionalize the prison service, and ensure consistent and centralized administration of the federal prison system.” It is “the largest correctional agency in the country in terms of the number of prisoners under its jurisdiction,” operating 118 correctional facilities in 35 states and Puerto Rico.
Since 2000, there has been a huge jump in spending per inmate, going from $19,571 in 2000 to $26,094 in 2011. “During this same period of time,” the report notes, “appropriations for the BOP increased from $3.668 billion to $6.381 billion.”
Overcrowding, especially in high- and medium-security male prisons has become a huge problem. The report states: “Overall, the federal prison system was 39 percent over its rated capacity in FY2011, but high- and medium-security male facilities were operating at 51 percent and 55 percent, respectively, over rated capacity.” Although confirming data isn’t totally clear, overcrowding magnifies the potential for inmate misconduct and violence, as well as the potential for staff and officer malfeasance.
More inmates require more staff, but, over the past ten years, even with the hiring of more staff, “the inmate-to-staff ratio has increased from 4.1 per staff member…to 4.9 inmates per staff member.” In addition, “the inmate to correctional officer ratio increased from 9.8 inmates per correctional officer in FY2000 to 10.2 inmates per correctional officer in FY2011, but this is down from a high of 10.9 inmates per correctional officer in FY2005.”
As with other entities of our national landscape, the report notes that, “The growing prison population is taking a toll on the infrastructure of the federal prison system” and, according to the BOP, there is “a backlog of 154 modernization and repair projects with an approximate cost of $349 million for FY2012.” The CRS report makes several recommendations, including building more prisons to house the growing federal prison population, farming out prisoners to private prisons and “investing in rehabilitative programming.”
The report also suggests that legislators consider revising “some of the policy changes that have been made over the past three decades that have contributed to the steadily increasing number of offenders being incarcerated…[like] (1) modifying mandatory minimum penalties; (2) expanding the use of Residential Reentry Centers; (3) placing more offenders on probation, (4) reinstating parole for federal inmates; (5) expanding the amount of good time credit an inmate can earn; and (6) repealing federal criminal statutes for some offenses.”
In its mid-February press release, the ACLU acknowledged that it “supports some of the report’s recommendations, but not all” and singled out the notion of “transferring prisoners to private prisons, which are not subject to public scrutiny and accountability” as particularly wrongheaded.
Instead, the ACLU pointed to some states for examples of best practices: “States are truly leading the charge on this and leaving the federal government behind,” said Vanita Gupta, ACLU Deputy Legal Director. “While states are making smart reforms to their own ineffective and costly criminal justice systems, the federal criminal system is more bloated than ever. If we are going to safely end our addiction to incarceration, the feds should draw inspiration from the states and push for data-driven criminal justice policies that will focus on public safety and reduce the number of people behind bars.”
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.