Articles Posted in Overcrowding

In 2002, the Bureau of Prisons, in response to an opinion by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, changed its halfway house policy, limiting placements to the final 10% of a prisoner’s sentence. As discussed here, this was a dramatic shift from the agency’s historic practices, which placed certain nonviolent offenders serving short sentences directly into halfway houses and made use of these prison facilities on the back-end of sentences to effectuate successful community re-integration. Following years of litigation, the Second Chance Act served to end the Bureau’s unlawful policy change, and, during the Obama administration, the Bureau began to make broader use of pre-release options, that is, both halfway houses and home confinement. (See here p. 38).

Over the last two years, there has been a growing body of anecdotal evidence that the Bureau has renewed efforts to restrict pre-release placements. Today, Justin George at The Marshal Project has published an excellent piece detailing the tensions between the President’s claimed interest in prison reform and the Attorney General’s interest in more severe penalties for criminal offenders:

Under the Obama administration, the number of federal prisoners in halfway houses and other transitional programs boomed. The federal government required the privately-run residences to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment, and the Department of Justice also increased access to ankle monitors so more prisoners could finish sentences in their own homes.

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.

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 ›

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.[…]

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.

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 ›

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.


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.

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.”

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.[…]

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.”[…]
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