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.