Declining prison populations may eventually help alleviate the effects of overcrowding.

By Christopher Zoukis

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported last month that during Fiscal Year 2016 — which closed at the end of September — the number of federal inmates in its facilities declined for the third consecutive year. The 192,170 inmates in BOP facilities as of Sept. 30, 2016, was 13,553 lower than the 205,723 in custody exactly a year earlier.

Two years ago, BOP had 214,149 federal inmates; that number was down more than 5,000 from the 219,298 in custody at the end of Fiscal Year 2013, a watershed year which — after 34 consecutive years of increases — marked the first time in recent history the inmate population fell. An agency press release also forecast that the BOP prison population would see a further small decline, estimated at 1,975 inmates, by the end of the current fiscal year, which runs through September 2017. The agency also noted the lower inmate population meant better staff-to-inmate levels, making for improved inmate care and supervision.

The lower numbers for the last three years reverse what a Congressional Research Service analysis completed this May called the “historically unprecedented increase” in federal prison populations that has occurred since the start of the 1980s. During that era of explosive growth, BOP inmate totals soared from around 25,000 in Fiscal Year 1980 to an all-time high time of 219,298 in Fiscal Year 2013. Over that period, inmates in BOP facilities climbed by an average of nearly 6,000 each year. The rapidly growing inmate population led Congress to boost BOP funding from slightly under $330 million in Fiscal Year 1980 to almost $7.5 billion in the recently completed Fiscal Year 2016.

Contributing to the growth were changes in federal criminal justice policy, including the elimination in 1987 of parole for federal inmates, and new offenses added to the federal criminal code, especially those creating new or expanding previous mandatory minimum sentences.

The lower headcount for the federal prison system BOP reported early in October was accompanied by a drop in federal prison overcrowding to 16 percent, a significant reduction from the level of 39 percent that was the case as recently as 2013. In its announcement BOP added that crowding at high-security facilities remains challenging, but said conditions there were getting better.

As recently as last year, overcrowding at federal high-security prisons was reported to be at 51 percent, compared with 35 percent at medium-security facilities and 25 percent at low-security ones. As a result BOP facilities, even high-security ones, sometimes resorted to double- or even triple-bunking. Access to drug treatment and education programs was reduced, as were productive work opportunities for inmates.

The growing inmate populations also made it difficult for BOP facility staffing to keep pace. Last year, BOP’s then-director testified in Congress that the inmate-to-staff ratio had climbed to 4.4-1; noting that level was notably higher than the inmate-staff levels maintained in the five largest state prison systems. Union officials representing BOP employees have also urged increased staffing to lower inmate-staff ratios to more traditional levels.

Concern over the mounting costs and sustainability issues tied to ever-rising numbers of inmates also contributed to the growing interest, inside and outside government, in examining alternatives to current federal criminal law and prison practices.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at  PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).