Four Horrifying Facts About Our Overcrowded Federal Prison System
The number of people
incarcerated by the federal government has increased roughly 500
percent since the 1980s, from 42,000 in 1987, to 218,000 in 2011.
But according to a recently released GAO report titled “Growing
Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and
Infrastructure,” the capacity of the federal incarceration system
has failed to keep pace. Facilities are now 39 percent overcrowded
and growing more so by the day.
Overcrowding is making the prison experience–bad enough under
normal conditions–exponentially worse for offenders of all
stripes: those with families on the outside; those who will one day
have to seek gainful employment and a new life outside the prison
industrial complex; and those who will spend the rest of their
lives behind bars.
Here are four awful consequences of prison overcrowding
highlighted by the GAO.
4.) Almost as many people are enrolled in education and
job-training programs as are waiting to get into them
Prisoners need marketable skills if they’re to have any hope of
starting a new life outside of prison. Yet federal prisoners with
subpar reading skills can’t even get into basic literacy classes.
According to the GAO’s report, waiting lists for federal prison
programs contain almost as many people as the programs themselves.
For instance: Between 13 and 14 percent of inmates participated in
literacy programs between 2008 and 2012; yet during that same
period, 12 percent of inmates were on waiting lists for literacy
programs. The increasing wait times for education and job training
programs is system-wide.
Likewise, inmate employment opportunities within prisons are decreasing even as
the number of prisoners rises. Paying between 23 cents and $1.15
per hour, jobs at UNICOR factories, a government-owned company that
uses prison labor to manufacture goods solely for purchase by
government agencies, are the highest paying ones available to
federal inmates. Yet the number of UNICOR factories has fallen from
a peak of 110 in 2007, to 88 in 2011; and the number of UNICOR jobs
has fallen from 23,000 in 2007, to 14,200 in 2011. Due to
of the company’s ability to undercut privately owned businesses
that contract with the federal government, UNICOR will likely offer
even fewer jobs in the future.
3.) Overcrowding makes visits from family
For many federal prisoners, visits from family members are their
only glimmers of hope. They’re also a logistical nightmare, as many
offenders are housed hundreds of miles from their hometowns and
their families. Overcrowding, according to the GAO, has created a
slew of new problems for prisoners with families.
“Limited visiting capacity and the larger numbers of inmates can
lead to frustrations for inmates and visitors, such as when visits
are shorter or visitors are turned away because there are too many
visitors on a particular day,” the GAO reports says. At one
facility GAO reviewed, visitors had to wait several hours after
arriving at the prison to see their incarcerated family members. At
another facility, there were three prison phones for every 156
inmates who wanted to call home.
The only prisons where overcrowding has not affected visitation
hours are facilities housing immigrant violators–likely because
their families are in another country; or, if they are in the U.S.,
do not want to risk being picked up themselves for immigration
2.) Drug offenders make up almost half the federal
prison population, but they aren’t getting the help they
The amount of time drug offenders serve in federal prison has
increased 250 percent since 1987, and as a result, drug offenders
now make up 48 percent of the federal prison population. Yet at
high, medium, low, and minimum security prisons, the number of
inmates waiting to enroll in drug treatment programs between
2006-2011 was much larger than the number of inmates enrolled in
those programs, and the average wait time for entrance into
in-prison rehab programs ranged from 131 days in high security
prisons, to 80.2 days in minimum security prisons.
“According to BOP officials,” the GAO report says, “if BOP
cannot meet the substance abuse treatment or education needs of
inmates because it does not have the staff needed to meet program
demand, some inmates will not receive programming benefits.” This
is especially troublesome considering that successfully completing
a drug treatment program is one of the few ways a drug offender can
reduce his sentence.
potential for riots and gang violence
To make room for more inmates, federal prisons have crammed
cells with beds and refurbished recreational areas as sleeping
quarters, which causes increased tension between prisoners,
especially in prisons with large gang presences. Additionally, BOP
has allowed the prisoner-to-staff ratio to increase from 3.5
prisoners for every staff member in 2006, to 5 prisoners for every
staff member in 2011.
As a result, says the GAO, BOP employees are more fearful than
ever about the likelihood of prison riots.