Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Report: Increase in Federal Prison Population, Overcrowding

Report: Increase in Federal Prison Population, Overcrowding


by Derek Gilna


A government study revealed that overcrowding in the federal prison system worsened over the five-year period from 2006 through 2011, affecting facilities of all security levels.

The study, conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), warned that the growing population of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) threatens to result in increasingly negative effects for prisoners, staff and the prison system’s infrastructure. The 85-page report further indicated that the increase in the number of federal prisoners coincided with actions by various states to not only reduce their prison populations but also lower their crime rates and cut costly corrections budgets.

The GAO report found the increase in the federal prison population occurred despite the addition of thousands of beds due to the opening of five new federal facilities. At the same time, four federal minimum-security camps closed.

According to the study, federal prisons were 39% over capacity as of September 2011. Further, the report predicted that overcrowding would climb to more than 45% above the BOP’s maximum capacity by 2018.

The GAO warned that prisons may experience rising rates of violence among prisoners and growing levels of stress among prison staff because overcrowding contributes “to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff.”

“If you start cramming more and more people into a confined space, you’re going to create more tensions and problems,” noted David Maurer, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the GAO. “It creates the possibility that someone’s going to snap and have a violent incident.”

The BOP said its “rated capacity” – the term used to describe maximum population levels – requires 25% double bunking and 75% single bunking in high-security cells; 50% double bunking and 50% single bunking in medium-security prisons; and 100% double bunking in low- and minimum-security facilities.

Overcrowding also puts a strain on prison infrastructure such as dining halls, bathrooms, laundry rooms and even television rooms, which become more difficult to access. Some institutions have even had to reduce prisoners’ visitation time.

“Some of this sounds small and trivial,” Maurer said, “but it adds up.”

Additionally, “nearly all BOP facilities had fewer correctional staff on board than needed, with a BOP-wide staffing shortage in excess of 3,200 ... [and] there was also anecdotal evidence that understaffing was stressing the workforce.”

The GAO noted that “population pressures on both staffing levels and inmate living space have an upward impact on serious prison violence,” although system-wide violence rates had remained stable.

According to statistics compiled by the Council of Prison Locals, the union representing about 32,000 federal prison employees, nearly 60 guards were assaulted by prisoners from January to September 2012, and 14 of those attacks involved weapons.

The GAO also reviewed the BOP’s efforts to use its statutory authority to help mitigate the effects of the growing federal prison population, including the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), utilization of sentence credits for GED participation and increased halfway house placement pursuant to the Second Chance Act. While such efforts were covered more extensively in a separate report, the GAO study focused on the “effects of population growth and prison crowding on BOP operations,” including “available bed space, inmate program participation and waiting lists, inmate-to-staff ratios, and available infrastructure costs.”

The reduction in rehabilitative and reentry services is another source of frustration for prisoners. Programs such as RDAP – which in theory can shave up to a year off a prisoner’s sentence – and vocational training courses often have lengthy waiting lists.

“People will get out of prison, but they’re not being helped to reenter society,” stated Inimai Chettiar with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “People are going to recidivate more when they get out of horrendous [prison] conditions without job training and development programs to get their lives back together.”

The GAO warned that federal prison overcrowding shows no sign of abating. The “BOP’s 2010 long-range capacity plan assumes continued growth in the federal prison population from fiscal years 2011 through 2020, with about 15 percent growth in the number of inmates BOP will house,” the report stated.

The GAO study did not discount the fact that in the future, “courts might require BOP to address conditions related to crowding, or that the [American Correctional Association] might revoke the accreditation of BOP institutions.”

In contrast, the GAO noted that some states had reduced their prison populations to ease overcrowding, stating “the overall growth of the state inmate population began to decline in 2009.” Kansas, Mississippi, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin were cited as examples of states making good progress in reducing incarceration levels and overcrowding in their prison systems; as a result of state prison population reductions, there have been a number of prison closures nationwide. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.1].

The GAO found that in comparison to the five selected states, federal sentencing laws, mandatory minimums and the absence of parole in the federal prison system have limited the BOP’s flexibility to “significantly modify” a prisoner’s sentence. In contrast, the selected states have increased sentence reduction credits for positive behavior and completion of faith-based, vocational, drug treatment and “other constructive program[s] with specific performance standards.”

“[The report] pointed out exactly what we assumed,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, who has been critical of mandatory minimum sentences. “With more inmates, [prison officials] focus more on security and less on the programs that can rehabilitate the prisoners.”

Overall, the GAO report did not so much blame the BOP for an increasing number of prisoners, overcrowding and associated problems as highlight what many corrections experts acknowledge is a continuing and unsustainable trend. It is also an expensive trend.

According to a report released by the Congressional Research Service on March 4, 2014, “The burgeoning federal prison population has led Congress to increase appropriations for the BOP’s operations and infrastructure. In FY1980, Congress appropriated $330.0 million for the BOP. By FY2014, the total appropriation for the BOP reached $6.859 billion.”

The Congressional Research Service noted that “Congress could choose to mitigate some of the issues related to federal prison population growth by appropriating more funding so the BOP could expand prison capacity to alleviate overcrowding, but this would only continue the upward climb in the BOP’s appropriations.” Alternatively, “Congress could also consider ways to reduce the number of inmates held in federal prison through methods such as increasing good time credit for inmates who participate in certain rehabilitative programs, placing more low-level offenders on community supervision in lieu of incarceration, or reducing mandatory minimum penalties for some offenses.”

The federal prison population reached 216,265 in mid-April 2014, inclusive of offenders in community-based facilities.

Sources: “Bureau of Prisons: Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure,” GAO (Sept. 2012); “The Bureau of Prisons (BOP): Operations and Budget,” Congressional Research Service (March 4, 2014);;


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login