Drug War

Four Horrifying Facts About Our Overcrowded Federal Prison System

Overcrowding is making the prison experience--bad enough under normal conditions--exponentially worse.


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 criticism

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 difficult

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 violations.

2.) Drug offenders make up almost half the federal prison population, but they aren't getting the help they need

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.

1.) Increased 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.

NEXT: Federalism and the 2012 Election

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  1. Quick, build more prisons, so we can make more consensual behavior illegal!

    1. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. Drug offenders don’t need “help” or “treatment”. They need to have their asses put back on the streets and out of prison. Just imagine cutting the federal prison population by 48%. They might actually be able to run prisons for actual criminals again.

  3. Couldn’t have said it better myself P Brooks.

  4. If they didn’t want to have all of these shitty problems, they shouldn’t have committed their horrible crimes against society!

    They knew weed was illegal, and smoked it anyway. That’s a choice they were free to make! So clearly all of this, and much worse, are justified because criminals chose to perform their heinous acts.

    1. Gojira, you can’t be serious about smoking weed being a “heinous act”! Yes, they knew it was illegal and did it anyway but that’s not the point. The point is, it shouldn’t be illegal in the first place. No one should be able to tell me what I can or cannot ingest!

      1. Your Gaydar Sarcasm Detector is on the fritz……

        1. Thanks fish.

      2. Unfortunately most liberals and conservatives disagree with you, Hneckone.

  5. This is all very troubling, and it mostly just seems to be getting worse. I’ve been waiting for fiscal austerity in the states to lead to a more sensible law-enforcement and prison policy, but luckily I haven’t been holding my breath. I wanted to make one observation about this article though. In the table posted listing all of the data about drug treatment programs, it does indeed list the depressing statistic of the average wait in days for enrollment in a drug treatment program. However, the author doesn’t say anything about what I would call the dramatic reduction in that wait time over the last 5 years. The maximum security program went from a wait time of more than a year (377 days) down to less than 6 months (131 days) in 5 years. I’d be interested to know why that wait time came down so dramatically, and why it hasn’t lead to a reduction in the number of inmates on waiting lists for those programs. Keep up the good work Riggs!

    1. Sorry, I didn’t mean ‘less than 6 months’, i meant ‘less than 4.5 months’. Math is hard.

  6. Its a money making machine dude, thats all the legal system is, a money making machine!


    1. tagtann is what Superman spammers think of libertarians.

  7. are prison programs like 4 and 2 libertarian? The only thing i can think of is that you bring them up as a way of convincing non-libertarians that we need to reduce prison population. the problem i see with that method is that you have right wingers who will say just cut the programs and maybe put snakes in the cells for good measure, and leftists who will just want to double down on the funding for the programs.

  8. “Due to criticism 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.”

    Undercut? UNICOR prices are outrageous. They use labor that is heavily subsidized, then their product are 75%-100% more than the private equivalent. The reason they are used more than Small Business is because they are first on the priority of supplies list (FAR 8). We can bypass competition and the entire contracting process by going to UNICOR. UNICOR also accepts MIPRS (government to government transfers of money). Most these Small Businesses, though, are just shell companies for big businesses, offering the same product at jacked up prices.

  9. Due to criticism of the company’s ability to undercut privately owned businesses that contract with the federal government

    What, no Shawshank Redemption link?

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