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Federal Prison System

The federal inmate population has grown by more than 50 percent in the last fifteen years, and the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reports an approximately 30 percent crowding rate overall and a 52 percent crowding rate at its highest security level institutions.

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In fiscal year 2014, BOP’s obligations totaled nearly $7.3 billion—and increase of about $2.3 billion from fiscal year 2004. Further, BOP’s obligations have increased over time and in fiscal year 2014 accounted for about 19 percent of DOJ’s total obligations.  As of March 2015, BOP was responsible for the care and custody of approximately 209,000 federal inmates  convicted of charges involving drugs, weapons and explosives, and immigration violations . Despite a recent decline in the federal prison population , BOP’s facilities remain overcrowded and BOP is challenged to address related safety concerns, contain its costs, and more effectively manage the activation, maintenance, and repair of its facilities.

  • Crowding and safety. The size of the prison population and its related cost is a function of many factors, including the nation’s crime levels, as well as federal sentencing laws and related policies—and many of these factors are beyond BOP’s control .  However, BOP acknowledges that its largest internal challenge is providing adequate levels of bed space and staffing to safely manage the prison population .  Prison crowding in particular has been identified as a Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act (FMFIA) material weakness, and as such, DOJ has referenced it since fiscal year 2006 in yearly Performance and Accountability Report s.  Although BOP recently experienced a decline in the federal prison population, BOP is 30 percent crowded overall and more than 50 percent crowded across its highest security institutions .  Additionally, BOP’s inmate to staff ratio has increased since 2000  and officer safety is continuously at risk . BOP has recently begun to better assess how well certain safety equipment it provides to protect its officers is working. Continually capitalizing on data collection and analysis of this kind could help BOP better assess the impact of the equipment it provides or could provide to its officers on their safety.  
  • Cost containment. Despite BOP’s limited authorities to affect the size of its population, BOP officials recognize the need for cost containment and have undertaken a number of initiatives in recent years to achieve cost savings. Additionally, BOP has designed internal processes, such as routine  program reviews, to identify opportunities for additional cost efficiencies; however, BOP could improve the monitoring of corrective actions it takes to achieve them. For example, when program reviews repeatedly cited frequent deficiencies or significant findings that could increase costs—such as insufficient contract monitoring—responsible BOP divisions lacked a mechanism to prevent the same deficiency or issue from reoccurring. Establishing such a mechanism to consistently monitor the progress of bureau-wide corrective actions in the presence of repeated, frequent deficiencies or significant findings could help BOP better ensure that it is resolving such issues promptly and, ultimately operating more efficiently.
  • Facility activation, maintenance, and repair. The federal prison system accounts for more than 90 percent of DOJ’s capital assets . However, BOP has faced challenges with respect to preparing new facilities to take in inmates, which is known as activation, and maintaining and repairing an existing, aging infrastructure .  BOP recently completed construction on five new prisons and acquired an existing state facility, but it is behind schedule in activating these institutions because of challenges like staffing, that the locations of these institutions pose . As a result, none of the six institutions is at capacity, which affects how quickly BOP can reduce prison crowding .  In addition, BOP lacks a comprehensive activation policy to guide activations, as well as an activation schedule—and instead has relied largely on staff's past experience to complete ongoing activations. Developing and implementing a comprehensive policy and a schedule that reflects best practices, could better position BOP to meet its estimated timeframes and activation costs . Further, about a third of BOP’s 121 facilities are more than 50 years old  and BOP faces a current backlog of more than 220 major repair and replacement projects, including fences, fire alarms, and roofs , for a total approximate cost of $430 million .BOP has requested funding to begin addressing these maintenance and repair projects in its fiscal year 2016 budget request. It also acknowledges that delays in completing needed repairs have increased the number and cost of unfunded projects and contributed to the continued deterioration of an aging infrastructure . Further, BOP recognizes that maintaining and repairing its existing infrastructure is essential to institution security.  Deteriorated facilities add to increased risk of escape, inability to lock down cells, and violence over inadequate living conditions .  Addressing the current backlog will help BOP attain its goal of maintaining a safe and productive environment for inmates and staff.
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  • portrait of David C. Maurer
    • David C. Maurer
    • Director, Homeland Security and Justice
    • maurerd@gao.gov
    • 202-512-9627