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GAO Report finds Federal Prison Overcrowding Accelerates

A General Accounting Office study of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that analyzed prisoner population from fiscal years 2006 through 2011, has shown that overcrowding in BOP prisons at all levels of security is increasing and has resulted in negative effects to prisoners, staff, and infrastructure. The eighty-five page report also shows that various states have experienced success in not only reducing prison populations, but also lowering crime rates and cutting high corrections budgets. The GAO does not blame the BOP for the problem as much as highlight: what many corrections experts now acknowledge as an unsustainable trend in the federal justice system.

The United States, according to Department of Justice statistics, now incarcerates almost 25% of the world's prisoners despite the fact that it has only 5% of the world's population.

According to the GAO study, the BOP "is responsible for approximately 218,000 (prisoners) with a fiscal 2012 operating budget of about $6.6 billion-the second largest budget within (the) DOJ. BOP's population has increased by more than 400 percent since the late 1980's, and by about 50 percent since 2000," of a nationwide total of "more than 1.6 million people (about 1 in 200 'U.S. residents" who are incarcerated.

The GAO study seems to show that at least some of the states are getting the message that such a level of incarceration is unnecessary, noting that "the overall growth of the state inmate population began to decline in 2009." Five selected states, Kansas, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin were all cited as states making good progress in reducing incarceration levels and overcrowding in their prisons.

The GAO also revisited the issue of the BOP's efforts in utilizing its statutory authority to help mitigate the effects of the growing prison population, including the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), utilization of sentence credits for GED participation, and greater amount of halfway house placement authorized by the Second Chance Act, more completely covered several months ago in another GAO report. This time, however, GAO focused on the "effects of a growing population...on the effects of population growth and prison crowding on BOP operation," including "available bed space, (prisoner) program participation and waiting lists, (prisoner) to staff ratios, and available infrastructure costs."

However, the conclusion that one draws from an examination of these facts and figures is that the BOP prison system is stretched nearly to the breaking point, with overcrowding approximating forty percent in excess of rated capacity. According to the .BOP, its "rated capacity," requires 25 percent double bunking and 75 percent single bunking in high security cells, 50 per­cent double bunking and 50 percent single bunking of cells in medium security facilities, and 100 percent double bunking of cells in low and minimum security facilities.

As of December 31, 2011, the BOP had 38,000 staff members to deal with its 218,000 prisoners, but has acknowledged that many staff members whose main duties are not those of correctional officers, but rather teachers, administrators, counselors, and drug treatment specialists are often called to perform the duties of correctional officers, resulting in loss of educational and rehabilitative activities provided to prisoners. In short, the BOP appears to be more concerned about maintaining order and security than in training its prisoner population for a successful reentry back into society. Is it any surprise that federal prisoner recidivism approaches 70%?

This overcrowding shows no sign of abating, despite the BOP's addition of five new facilities in the past six year period, which was slightly offset by the closing of four stand-alone camps for reasons of economy. According to the GAO, prisoner "population in BOP-run facilities grew at a faster rate than the growth in rated capacity, (and) crowding in BOP-run institutions increased from 36 to 39 percent system wide. 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 (prisoners) BOP will house."

Less easily measured is the effect this epidemic of overcrowding has on both prisoners and staff. Clearly, overcrowding adds to the stress of incarceration, wherein the lack of privacy and personal space becomes even more pronounced, and finite bathroom, laundry room, and television room facilities become even more difficult to access. There become fewer outlets for prisoners to keep occupied and entertained, which often leads to more tension, arguments, and violence.

Also frustrating to prisoners in overcrowded facilities is the reduction in educational, rehabilitative, and reentry services that become available, which can also lead to frustration and anxiety. Programs such as RDAP, which theoretically, can reduce a sentence by up to a year, are often backed up, reducing the amount of sentence credit to almost zero. Prisoners are denied entry into vocational programs and improvement to their employment skill sets that can reduce future crime and inmate re-arrest rates. Lines at chow halls and competition for seats in activity centers and sports venues can also cause tempers to flare. Some institutions have had to reduce visiting-center time because available facilities are overtaxed.

What of the effect on correctional officers and support staff of this epidemic of overcrowding? According to the GAO study, "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 study further 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 remained stable..." Nevertheless, overcrowding is generally highest at medium and high security institutions, which could lead to increased violence in the future. According to a union representative, medium security facilities were at risk of violent incidents because these facilities lacked the better lockdown procedures found in higher security facilities, and noted that high gang presence in even low security facilities could present a future problem. The GAO did not discount the fact that in the future, the "courts might require BOP to address conditions related to crowding of that the (American Correctional Association) might revoke the accreditation of BOP institutions."

The GAO study noted that the five selected states had taken action which had helped them to reduce their prison populations, and hence their overcrowding prob­lems. It noted that federal sentencing laws, mandatory minimums, and the absence of parole has reduced the BOP's flexibility to "significantly modify" a prisoners sentence of incarceration. These states have increased sentence credit of positive behaviors, completion of faith-based programs, vocational education, and completion of drug treatment programs, along with "other constructive program(s) with specific performance standards.

In conclusion, all parties, including prisoner rights organizations, Congress, correctional officer employee unions, and the BOP itself agree that overcrowding is a serious problem, and has negative impacts on prisoner rehabilitation and safety, employee safety, and by extension, society in general. However, until the root causes of the overcrowding, excessively long sentences and poor administration of programs that can reduce sentences for positive prisoner behavior, the problem will only accelerate.

See: "Bureau of Prisons: Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure." Government Accounting Office. September, 2012.

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