Funding shortage causes prison overcrowding
By Freddie Allen
WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice will spend $6.6 billion this year to stack drug dealers, addicts, shooters and illegal immigrants like Lego blocks in prisons that are overcrowded, understaffed and barely safe, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
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.
“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.
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.
“These factors, taken together, contribute to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff,” the report said.
“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.
When security breakdowns occur in prisons, correctional officers often find themselves on the receiving end of vicious attacks.
In a written statement submitted to the House Judiciary Committee last December, Dale Deshotel, president of the Council of Prison Locals, American Federation of Government Employees, said, “These serious correctional worker understaffing and prison inmate overcrowding are resulting in a significant increase in inmate assaults on correctional workers.”
Deshotel recounted the murder of Correctional Officer Jose Rivera in June 2008 and the stabbings of two other correctional officers.
According to a 2011 GAO report, in 2007 there were 70 inmate-on-staff attacks that resulted in injury to correction officers. By 2009, that number increased to 110 assaults. In 2010, there were 73 serious attacks.
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.
Although BOP can implement strategies to control inmate populations within their prisons, external factors have a much greater influence on overcrowding.
Draconian drug laws established in 1986 under President Ronald Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act ensured mandatory minimums for a range of drug offenses. These laws disproportionately affected minorities for nearly 25 years.
Blacks represent 50.5 percent of drug offenders in state prisons, compared to 30.4 percent for whites.
Drug offenses represent the majority of admissions to BOP and the average time an inmate served for drug offenses increased from 250 percent after 1987, GAO said.
The bureau can’t control who gets sent to prison and for how long, but often states do, and some of them, dealing with their own budget crises, are taking advantage of that flexibility.
In 2009 New York changed the draconian drug laws that relegated drug offenders to mandatory minimums.
“For example, in 2009, New York implemented changes to its drug statutes, which affected the sentencing of some drug felony offenders. These changes included revising the ranges of for state prison sentences by lowering the minimum sentence allowable for certain nonviolent drug felony offenders,” the report said.
The number of drug offenders in New York prisons decreased from 17.7 percent in 2009 to 13.6 percent in 2011.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 decreased the disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine drug violations, which will ultimately affect the length of prison terms drug offenders serve.
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 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.
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 their “plans are subject to change.”