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Bureau of Justice Statistics Releases Latest First Step Act Data

by Casey J. Bastian

The First Step Act of 2018 (FSA) was signed into law in December 2018. Among other hoped-for benefits was that the legislation would help reduce recidivism and decrease the overall prison population. However, data compiled by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) for the calendar year 2021 reflected that the prisoner population of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) actually increased more than three percent year over year.

FSA mandated that BJS collect and collate data from 26 points through its National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) program. The 2021 data was compiled by the Office of Research and Evaluation and provided to the BJS, which supplemented this data from the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates (SPI) and NPS’s Summary of Sentenced Population Movement. The counts in the 2021 BJS report encompass BOP prisoner populations in all 122 federal prisons. However, the number excluded all privately operated federal detention centers.

The data is revealing, and several of the demographic statistics are particularly noteworthy. First there is the increase in BOP’s prisoner population, which swelled by three percent, up from 151,283 in 2020 to 156,542 in 2021. Citizenship statistics reveal that 15% of all federal prisoners are not U.S citizens, closely reflecting the 14% share of all U.S. residents who are not citizens.

But the statistics also revealed that prisoners were more likely to have dependent children than the average American and nearly four times as likely to lack basic educational attainment. Some 49.4% of all prisoners, or 77,404, have a child that is 20 years old or younger. For the total U.S. population, just over 40% of households have a child 18 or younger at home. In 2021, there were 2,005 prisoners who received a GED or equivalent certificate while incarcerated, an increase from 1,368 in 2020. But this still left 49,982 federal prisoners – nearly one-third of the total – without a high school diploma or equivalent. For the U.S. population as a whole, less than 9% had such low educational attainment in 2021, according to the Census Bureau.

Drilling deeper into family statistics found that there were 74 prisoner pregnancies in 2021, down from 171 in 2018. Of these, 49 resulted in live births. Another 20 had unknown results due to release of the prisoner mother. The remaining five pregnancies ended with either miscarriage (2), abortion (1), ectopic pregnancy (1) or still birth (1). Leg and hand restraints on incarcerated new mothers were used in two circumstances during post-partum recovery.

Information pertaining to healthcare access and treatment was quite limited. However, all of BOP’s 122 prisons were operating with at least one clinical nurse, certified paramedic, or licensed physician on-site. BOP has implemented a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat substance abuse disorders. Prior to admission to BOP, 378 prisoners were using MAT. The number was 1,127 while in-custody. The three approved MAT medications, used in conjunction with counseling and behavioral therapies, are methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. There were 17,252 federal prisoners participating in a non-residential drug abuse program and another 10,919 in a residential drug treatment program

One concerning observation: BOP refuses to acknowledge the existence of “solitary confinement,” preferring instead the more benign-sounding “segregated housing.” Yet no matter what it’s called, solitary confinement continued to be used at levels only slightly below the previous year, with 9,261 prisoners placed in a Special Housing Unit, another 824 in a Special Management Unit and 348 others in Administrative Maximum (ADX).

There were 1,118 reported prisoner-on-staff assaults, but no record of staff-on-prisoner assaults. However, the numbers from fiscal year 2020 provided by the Justice Department’s Office of Internal Affairs (OIA) tell a different tale. According to OIA, 3,732 matters became a “complaint for disposition” arising from prisoner-initiated complaints against staff. This reflects a disturbing ratio of prisoner complaints about staff abuse to staff complaints about prisoner assaults – more than 3 to 1 – yet the FSA report does not mention it.

BOP has agreements with 1,038 external groups to provide recidivism reduction programming at 101 of its prisons. A total of 8,605 volunteers were counted. Of these, 1,954 were Level I volunteers on-site less than four days per year, who receive no badge and little training. Another 6,651 were Level II volunteers on-site more than five days per year, who receive a badge and also mentor/volunteer training.

FSA was intended to increase participation in evidenced-based recidivism reduction (EBRR) programs and Productive Activities (PA) programs, of which BOP offers more than 80. These programs are designed to meet various prisoner needs, including anti-social behavior, anger management, substance abuse, parenting skills and dyslexia. There were 87,341 prisoners enrolled in EBRR/PA programming. A total of 108,301 fully completed some programming during the year 2021. See: Federal Prisoner Statistics Collected under the First Step Act, 2022, BJS (Dec. 2022).

Using its Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risks and Needs (PATTERN), BOP says it can calculate “the risk of a person currently in prison of recidivating in the future,” defining recidivism as a “return to BOP custody or rearrest within 3 years.” Statistics indicate varying percentages of prisoners classified with either non-violent or violent assessments at minimum (15.2%), low (31.2%), medium (19.3%) and high (34.3)% risk levels. For those who wish to ensure that BOP is correctly calculating their risk scores, the current PATTERN scoring sheets are available at:

Additional source: U.S. Census Bureau