This year, the Department of Justice will spend $6.6 billion on prisons that are overcrowded, understaffed and barely safe, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GOA).
The GAO report found that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the agency that runs the federal penitentiary system, operated at 39 percent over recommended capacity nationwide and at 55 percent over capacity at high security facilities. From 2006 to 2011, prison population grew at 9.5 percent, outpacing the 7 percent growth in infrastructure and new beds. Prisons are staffed at 90 percent, the minimum safe standard for BOP, reported the Madison Times.
“According to BOP data, 81 percent of male inmates housed in low security facilities were triple bunked at the end of 2011,” the report stated.
Instead of moving low level inmates to contracted private-run facilities such as halfway houses for budget reasons, the BOP packed 4,500 low level inmates into medium security facilities. The population shift compounded problems in higher level prisoners.
According to the GAO, the Bureau of Prisons reserves beds in Special Housing Units and Special Management Units for the most dangerous prisoners who “threaten the safety, security, or orderly operation of the facility or potentially cause harm to the public.” Because of overcrowding, the worst of the worst often wait more than 100 days for a cell on the Special Management Units, according to the Times.
The rise in the prison population forced BOP officials to convert TV rooms and gyms to makeshift dorms, cut education programs, delay drug treatment programs, and curb much-needed job placements for the inmates.
“According to BOP, the increase in sentence length is the primary reason for the growth in federal inmate population from 42,000 in 1987 to over 218,000 today,” the GAO reported.
In an effort to address the negative impact of overcrowding, some federal prisons have started staggering meals and recreation time for inmates. Prison officials also reward inmates for good behavior with benefits such as greater access to phones, “honor dorms,” and e-mail.
By 2020, the Bureau of Prisons plans to decrease overcrowding in federal prisons from 71 percent to 58 percent at mid-level prisons and 55 percent to 12 percent at high security prisons. The agency said that it can accomplish this goal by increasing capacity by adding private contracted beds, infrastructure and new prisons to keep up with the expected growth in population. But without funds, the path forward is not certain, according to the Times.
The bureau has not included funding for the additional beds in current congressional budget requests.
If the BOP continues to experience budget shortfalls, GAO said that their “plans are subject to change.”
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