Articles Posted in Overcrowding

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Over at, Cristina Costantini and Jorge Rivas offer a scathing critique of the Bureau of Prisons’ housing and management of non-U.S. citizens, which has largely been handed over to private prison corporations headed by individuals with ties to the BOP and the Department of Justice.

A Fusion investigation found that without a single vote in Congress, officials across three administrations: created a new classification of federal prisons only for immigrants; decided that private companies would run the facilities; and filled them by changing immigration enforcement practices.[…]  Most of the roughly 23,000 immigrants held each night in CAR prisons have committed immigration infractions — crimes that a decade ago would have resulted in little more than a bus trip back home. And now, some of the very same officials who oversaw agencies that created and fueled the system have gone on to work for the private prison companies that benefited most.

The low-security facilities are often squalid, rife with abuse, and use solitary confinement excessively, according to advocates.

Built in remote towns across the country, these prisons hold nearly twice the number of inmates in solitary confinement as other federal facilities, an American Civil Liberties Union report found. Inmates are allegedly placed in solitary confinement for complaining about food, medical care or filing grievances.

Federal practitioners likely recall back around 2006, when non-U.S. citizen clients housed at standard federal correctional facilities were effectively rounded up and transferred en masse to BOP contract facilities. As Costantini and Rivas’s article highlights (and demonstrates through excellent graphs), that effort coincided with Operation Streamline, an escalation of federal illegal reentry prosecutions that coincided with private prison corporations making substantial financial expenditures “promoting their services.”

The ramp-up in enforcement prompted a spike in immigration beds across three federal agencies. Today, the Bureau of Prisons’ contracts provide more taxpayer dollars to private prison companies than facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In the last five years, the two largest prison companies have made nearly $2 billion in revenue from their CAR prison agreements.

In the years leading up to the crackdown, private prison companies spent more money than ever lobbying the federal government. The two largest companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group — have also long supported elected officials whose legislative efforts result in more business for them. Both companies insist their lobbying dollars focus on promoting their services and not shaping laws.

Costantini and Rivas also give attention to the number of former BOP and DOJ officials who have gone on to work for private prison corporations. For instance, Former Director Harley Lappin, who retired from the BOP on May 7, 2011 with at a reported salary of approximately $180,000, was named CCA’s Executive Vice President and Chief Corrections Officer on June 1, 2011, where he earned a reported $1.5 million in 2013.

Harley Lappin oversaw the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) when it awarded five immigrant prison contracts to GEO, three to CCA, and one to another private prison company.[…]

In Washington, moving from the public sector to the private sector is not uncommon for government officials. But in the prison industry “the revolving door” is worse than in other sectors, according to [Texas state Sen. John Whitmire].

“It poses a conflict of interest if they don’t have an arm’s-length relationship when they’re doing their official duties,” said Whitmire, who believes the issue needs more oversight.

“You certainly wouldn’t want people lining up their next job doing favors for the people they want to go work for,” he said.

CCA did not respond to a request for comment regarding Lappin’s current or former role in negotiating contracts. The company said in statement it is “committed to accountability and transparency in [their] government affairs practices.”

In addition to private prisons questionable costs savings and evidence of “pervasive patterns of neglect and abuse of the prisoners,” Costantini and Rivas separately offer a compelling visual review of how private prisons have transformed rural America.

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Last week, Inspector General Michael Horowitz sent a memorandum to the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General concerning “Top Management and Performance Challenges Facing the Department of Justice.” The first identified challenge? Addressing the Persisting Crisis in the Federal Prison System,” namely the system’s ever escalating cost, which consumes a significant percent of DOJ’s budget, and safety and security issues stemming from chronic overcrowding.

Containing the Cost of the Federal Prison System

The costs to operate and maintain the federal prison system continue to grow, resulting in less funding being available for the Department’s other critical law enforcement missions. Although the size of the federal prison population decreased for the first time since 1980, from 219,298 inmates at the end of FY 2013 to 214,149 inmates at the end of FY 2014, and the Department now projects that the number of inmates will decrease by 10,000 in FY 2016, the downward trend has yet to result in a decrease in federal prison system costs. For example, in FY 2000, the budget for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) totaled $3.8 billion and accounted for about 18 percent of the Department’s discretionary budget. In comparison, in FY 2014, the BOP’s enacted budget totaled $6.9 billion and accounted for about 25 percent of the Department’s discretionary budget. During this same period, the rate of growth in the BOP’s budget was almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department. The BOP currently has more employees than any other Department component, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and has the second largest budget of any Department component, trailing only the FBI.  The Department’s leadership has acknowledged the dangers the rising costs of the federal prison system present to the Department’s ability to fulfill its mission in other areas. Nevertheless, federal prison spending continues to impact the Department’s ability to make other public safety investments, as the Department’s FY 2015 budget request for the BOP is a 0.5 percent increase from the enacted FY 2014 level.

Our work has identified several funding categories where rising prison costs will present particularly significant challenges in future years. For example, inmate healthcare costs constitute a rapidly growing portion of the federal prison system budget. According to BOP data, the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013. The BOP spent over $1 billion on inmate healthcare services in FY 2013, which nearly equaled the entire budget of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Continue reading

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Yesterday, the Urban Institute issued “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System,” an excellent, comprehensive report offering sensible solutions to the many problems that plague the Bureau of Prisons and the sentencing system that propels its unabated growth. From the report:

BOP facilities are currently operating at between 35 and 40 percent above their rated capacity; this overcrowding is greater in high-security facilities, which in FY 2012 were operating at 51 percent over capacity, with medium-security facilities 47 percent above capacity. The capacity of BOP facilities in 2012 was 128,359, but BOP-operated facilities housed 177,556 inmates in 2012. Since FY 2000, the inmate-to-staff ratio will have increased from about four to one to a projected five to one in FY 2014.

This untenable status quo will be the norm for the coming decade: BOP projects that, through 2020, federal prisons will be overcrowded by at least 33 percent, with the population exceeding system capacity by at least 50,000 people each year. The BOP anticipates adding over 25,000 beds by 2020, but most of these projects have not yet been approved, and would not substantially reduce overcrowding.[…]

The President’s FY 2014 budget request for BOP totals $6.9 billion, reflecting an increase of $310 million (4.7 percent) from the FY 2012 enacted budget. These additional funds will backfill currently open positions, enabling recently completed prisons to operate and, to a limited degree, expand inmate programming. However, these changes will not have any substantial or sustainable impact on the overcrowding or inmate-to-staff ratio trends.

The requested BOP budget for FY 2014 accounts for over 25 percent of the total DOJ budget request. As indicated in Figure 6, if present trends continue, the BOP will continue to consume more of the DOJ budget, approaching 30 percent in 2020. In these fiscally lean times, funding the expanding BOP population crowds out other priorities, including federal investigators, federal prosecutors, and support for state and local governments. This situation is projected to continue into the future, but it is unclear to what extent budget sequestration may exacerbate or decelerate these trends.

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FCI Danbury

FCI Danbury

As previously discussed, in July the Bureau of Prisons announced the re-missioning of the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution from a low-security female facility to a low-security male facility. The plan was to disburse the population from Danbury — the only female facility in the Northeast Region besides the small, minimum-security work cadre at FDC Philadelphia — across the country starting in August and finishing by year’s end. Faced with strong Congressional opposition, the transfer process was suspended.

FCI Aliceville

FCI Aliceville

On September 27, BOP Director Charles Samuels responded to the Congressional inquiry through a 14-page letter (here, bottom of page). Among other things, Director Samuels asserted that the opening of FCI Aliceville (AL), to which many of the Danbury prisoners are slated to be transferred, will help reduce overcrowding at female low security prisons from “48% to an estimated crowding rate of 23%.”* This is because “FCI Aliceville’s rated capacity is 1,536 inmates.”

Excluding Aliceville, the BOP operates five low-security prisons for women, which, accounting for their respective rated capacities, current populations and crowding rates, are:

                                   RC       Pop      CR

Danbury (CT)             554      901      63%

Dublin (CA)                702      1,181    68%

Hazelton (WV)           502      563      12%

Tallahassee (FL)        608      1,140   86%**

Waseca (MN)             612      968      58%

Inasmuch as Aliceville is less than 300 miles from Tallahassee, another Southeast Region female FCI, it is remains unclear why the Bureau did not choose to re-mission that Florida facility. Indeed, the transfer process would be easier (a single day’s bus trip) and consequently less expensive than the $847,000 Director Samuels estimates it will cost to transfer the Danbury population. Also, the proximity between the facilities suggests that the hardship on prisoners and their loved ones would be relatively less onerous. Continue reading

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Appearing to build off last fall’s report from the General Accounting Office, The Congressional Research Service(a.k.a., “Congress’s think tank”) has issued an excellent new report, “The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Overview, Policy Changes, Issues, and Options,” the Summary of which reads:

Since the early 1980s, there has been a historically unprecedented increase in the federal prison population. Some of the growth is attributable to changes in federal criminal justice policy during the previous three decades. An issue before Congress is whether policymakers consider the rate of growth in the federal prison population sustainable, and if not, what changes could be made to federal criminal justice policy to reduce the prison population while maintaining public safety.


This report explores the issues related to the growing federal prison population. The number of inmates under the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) jurisdiction has increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to nearly 219,000 in FY2012. Since FY1980, the federal prison population has increased, on average, by approximately 6,100 inmates each year. 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. Data also show that approximately 7 in 10 inmates are sentenced for five years or less.


Changes in federal sentencing and correctional policy since the early 1980s have contributed to the rapid growth in the federal prison population. These changes include increasing the number of federal offenses subject to mandatory minimum sentences; changes to the federal criminal code that have made more crimes federal offenses; and eliminating parole. There are several issues related to the growing federal prison population that might be of interest to policymakers:


   The increasing number of federal inmates, combined with the rising per capita cost of incarceration, has made it increasingly more expensive to operate and maintain the federal prison system. The per capita cost of incarceration for all inmates increased from $19,571 in FY2000 to $26,094 in FY2011. During this same period of time, appropriations for the BOP increased from $3.668 billion to $6.381 billion.

   The federal prison system is increasingly overcrowded. Overall, the federal prison system was 39% over its rated capacity in FY2011, but high- and medium-security male facilities were operating at 51% and 55%, respectively, over rated capacity. At issue is whether overcrowding might lead to more inmate misconduct. The results of research on this topic have been mixed. One study found that overcrowding does not affect inmate misconduct; but the BOP, based on its own research, concluded that there is a significant positive relationship between the two.

   The inmate-to-staff ratio has increased from 4.1 inmates per staff member in FY2000 to 4.9 inmates per staff member in FY2011. Likewise, 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.

   The growing prison population is taking a toll on the infrastructure of the federal prison system. The BOP reports that it has a backlog of 154 modernization and repair projects with an approximate cost of $349 million for FY2012. Past appropriations left the BOP in a position where it could expand bedspace to manage overcrowding but not reduce it. However, reductions in funding since FY2010 mean that the BOP will lack the funding to begin new prison construction in the near future. At the same time, it has become more expensive to expand the BOP’s capacity.


Should Congress choose to consider policy options to address the issues resulting from the growth in the federal prison population, policymakers could choose options such as increasing the capacity of the federal prison system by building more prisons, investing in rehabilitative programming, or placing more inmates in private prisons.


Policymakers might also consider whether they want to revise 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. For example, Congress could consider options such as (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.


The report includes useful tables and charts, including this one showing the growing per capita cost of housing federal prisoners at various security levels:


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Earlier this week, The Urban Institute issued a new report, The Growth & Increasing Cost of the Federal Prison System: Drivers and Potential Solutions, which, in terms of the Bureau of Prisons’ unrelenting growth, provides:

BOP has experienced an almost tenfold increase in its population since 1980. In FY 2011, the BOP population increased by 7,541 inmates, and will increase by an estimated 11,500 by the end of FY 2013.


Overall, BOP is operating at 39 percent above its rated capacity, with 55 percent crowding at high-security facilities and 51 percent at medium-security facilities. Since FY 2000, the inmate-to-staff ratio has increased from about 4:1 to a projected 5:1 in FY 2013. This degree of crowding threatens the safety of both inmates and correctional officers, and it undermines the ability to provide effective programming.
In terms of cost, the report notes:
Annual costs per inmate are $21,006 for minimum security, $25,378 for low security, $26,247 for medium security, and $33,930 for high security. Average annual costs per inmate housed in community corrections (residential reentry centers and home confinement) for BOP are $25,838. By contrast, the annual cost of supervision by probation officers in the community is about $3,433 per offender.[…]

The President’s FY 2013 budget request for BOP totals $6.9 billion, reflecting an increase of $278 million (4.2 percent) from the FY 2012 enacted budget.[…] The BOP budget for FY 2013 accounts for over 25 percent of the DOJ budget.[…] [I]f present trends continue, the share of the DOJ budget consumed by BOP will grow even further, approaching 30 percent in 2020.


In terms of what is driving the BOP’s unending growth, the report observes:


[D]rug offenders make up about half of the end-of-year population. The length of sentences – particularly for drug offenders – is an important determinant of the stock population and driver of population growth.


In short, this cogent report summarizes what is widely known about problems that continue to plague the federal criminal justice system and offers useful solutions to correct them. The question is whether and when those in Washington will act.

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Echoing the Heritage Foundation’s recent work concerning the over-federalization of crime (see here, hereand here), which follows on reports by the ABA’s Task Force on the Federalization of Criminal Law and The Federalist Society, USA Today features a column by Vikrant Reddy, an analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center of Effective Justice, that takes issue with the appropriateness and impact of perpetually growing federal prosecutions:

The Constitution originally included only three federal crimes: treason, piracy, and counterfeiting. Now, the number of federal crimes is approximately 4,500. From 2000-07, Congress created about 56 new crimes per year.
This is far from the vision of the Founders who wrote in the Federalist Papers that “[t]here is one transcendent advantage belonging to the province of the State governments…the ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice.”
Now, almost anything can be a federal crime.[…] This is to say nothing of the federal government’s role in prosecuting intrastate drug crimes. Justice Antonin Scalia — hardly a soft-on-drugs liberal — has said “[i]t was a great mistake to put routine drug offenses into the federal courts.”
The problems that arise from over-federalization are not just the theoretical preoccupations of law professors concerned with jurisdiction. The policy consequences are real.[…] Although falling crime rates and budget pressures have led states across the country to reduce their prison populations and to use cheaper (and more effective) alternative sanctions, the federal incarceration rate has continued to rise.


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As discussed hereand here, competing Congressional delegations, along with the House Appropriations Committee, have been engaged in a longstanding struggle over the use of prison-related funds. At the heart of the debate was the purchase of an Illinois state maximum-security prison, the Thomson Correctional Center, that was built in 2001 but never opened (i.e., was never activated or went online). As reported in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere (see hereand here), the Justice Department, at the White House’s direction, has bypassed Capitol Hill and purchased the Thomson facility, a move that has election undertones:

At President Obama’s direction, the Justice Department purchased a never-opened state prison on Tuesday, cutting a $165-million check to cash-strapped Illinois and bypassing the objections of a powerful Republican congressman who had blocked the sale.
“At this point, the president had to intervene and do this directly. I hope people understand he’s doing it for his state,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois’ senior senator and the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. Durbin acknowledged that it was “rare” to bypass a high-ranking House Appropriations Committee member to proceed with the purchase of Thomson Correctional Center in northwestern Illinois.[…]
Illinois is safely in Obama’s column in next month’s election. But the federal prison at Thomson is expected to draw workers and related business from neighboring Iowa — a swing state where Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are battling.
The prison purchase, Wolf said, “directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire.”
The political uproar surrounding the move has drawn interest from various blogs that one does not typically associate with prison issues (see hereand here), including Sunlen Miller’s at ABC News:
Citing 38 percent overcrowding rates in federal prisons, Holder says in the letter to Chairman Frank Wolf, R-Va., of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science that no Guantanamo Bay suspects would reside at the desperately needed Thomson facility.
Still, Republicans cast the decision as a unilateral move by the administration, one that Congress has opposed.
“The unilateral decision to purchase the Thomson Prison – even though Congress has repeatedly opposed the Obama administration’s effort to use taxpayer funds to do so – underscores the administration’s desire to move forward and bring these detainees to U.S. soil,” Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday.
The Justice Department will buy the prison from the state of Illinois for $165 million. Holder noted that building a new facility could cost as much as $400 million. The funds for the purchase will be obtained from DOJ seizures in asset-forfeiture cases. The Thomson prison could hold up to 2,800 inmates, according to Justice Department officials.
“The administration is acutely aware of BOP’s need for the facility and the department’s inability to reach a resolution of the matter with you. Under these circumstances, the administration has decided to proceed with the purchase,” AG Holder wrote Tuesday to Rep. Wolf.
“Thomson is still desperately needed to reduce our current high level of overcrowding. And Thomson is specifically needed to house inmates particularly those appropriate for “administrative maximum,” Holder wrote in his letter, making reference to the highest security level in the Bureau of Prisons, “administrative maximum.”
A Government Accountability Office report released in September noted that Bureau of Prisons facilities are severely overcrowded with double- and triple-stacked bunk beds.
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As noted, on Wednesday the GAO issued a report concerning federal prison overcrowding and its impact. Yesterday, Michael McLaughlin at The Huffington Post posted a story about the report that offers additional insight into the nature and extent of the problem:

Wardens may see a spike in violence as more inmates are squeezed into tight living quarters, researchers warned. The overcrowding contributes “to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff,” according to the report.
“If you start cramming more and more people into a confined space, you’re going to create more tensions and problems,” said the GAO’s Director of Homeland Security and Justice David Mauer (sic). “It creates the possibility that someone’s going to snap and have a violent incident.”[…]
“Some of this sounds small and trivial,” Mauer (sic) told The Huffington Post, “but it adds up.”
Crowded cells and the loss of privacy increase the odds that inmates will lash out, threatening the guards keeping watch.
“Once they get frustrated enough, we’re looking at another riot. And that’s what scares me,” said Dale Deshotel, president of the Council of Prison Locals, which represents about 32,000 federal prison employees.
So far this year, 14 federal prison workers have been assaulted with weapons and another 45 were assaulted by unarmed inmates, according to statistics compiled by the union.
As the prison population boomed, Deshotel said the government in 2005 reduced the average number of guards stationed in prison housing units. “There’s no way that they can monitor that many prisoners,” he said of the guard-to-inmate ratio.
The hazards of overcrowding could eventually ripple outside prison walls. Unless prison budgets grow, inmates will have less access to job training, education and drug treatment programs, which could increase the likelihood that they’ll commit crimes again after their release.
“People will get out of prison, but they’re not being helped to reenter society,” said Inimai Chettiar, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, who has reviewed the report. “People are going to recidivate more when they get out of horrendous conditions without job training and development programs to get their lives back together.”
The rise in the population is attributed to a rise in national crime, tougher sentences for convicted felons, and a lack of parole in the federal system. With more criminals staying in the system for longer periods of time, available space in prisons has dried up, according to David Maurer, a GAO spokesman.
“The problem is going to be that these guys are going to be there for a long time and they’re not building any new prisons for anymore. That’s why crowding continues to become a problem,” Maurer said.

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After a day of meetings with incarcerated clients, I returned to my computer to find news of a just issued report from the General Accounting Office, Bureau of Prisons: Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure. As set forth in the Highlights:

What GAO Found
The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) 9.5 percent population growth from fiscal years 2006 through 2011 exceeded the 7 percent increase in its rated capacity, and BOP projects continued population growth. Growth was most concentrated among male inmates, and in 2011, 48 percent of the inmates BOP housed were sentenced for drugs. From fiscal years 2006 through 2011, BOP increased its rated capacity by about 8,300 beds as a result of opening 5 new facilities and closing 4 minimum security camps, but because of the population expansion, crowding (or population in excess of rated capacity) increased from 36 to 39 percent. In 2011 crowding was most severe (55 percent) in highest security facilities. BOP’s 2020 long-range capacity plan projects continued growth in the federal prison population from fiscal years 2012 through 2020, with system-wide crowding exceeding 45 percent through 2018.
A Triple-Bunked Cell in a BOP Facility
According to BOP, the growth in the federal inmate population has negatively affected inmates, staff, and infrastructure, but BOP has acted within its authority to help mitigate the effects of this growth. BOP officials reported increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited meaningful work opportunities, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios. These factors, taken together, contribute to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff. BOP officials and union representatives voiced concerns about a serious incident occurring. To manage its growing population, BOP staggers meal times and segregates inmates involved in disciplinary infractions, among other things.
The five states in GAO’s review have taken more actions than BOP to reduce their prison populations, because these states have legislative authority that BOP does not have. These states have modified criminal statutes and sentencing, relocated inmates to local facilities, and provided inmates with additional opportunities for early release. BOP generally does not have similar authority. For example, BOP cannot shorten an inmate’s sentence or transfer inmates to local prisons. Efforts to address the crowding issue could include (1) reducing the inmate population by actions such as reforming sentencing laws, (2) increasing capacity by actions such as constructing new prisons, or (3) some combination of both.