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Federal prisons packed

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Federal prisons packed with almost 165,000
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON At a time when tight budgets have forced many states to consider the early release of hundreds of inmates to cut costs, the federal prison system is bursting at the seams and ranks as the largest in the nation.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported a population of nearly 165,000 this month, making the system larger than perennial prison giants California and Texas. (Related story: Drugs getting into federal prisons too easily)

At least part of the increase, officials say, is because of a growing pool of non-citizen offenders who represent nearly one-third of the federal inmate population.

The majority have been convicted of drug-related crimes, and their numbers jumped from 22% in 1998 to 28% in 2002.

The Bureau of Prisons is one of the fastest-growing arms of the federal government. In 1980, the bureau's budget was $330 million, and there were 24,000 inmates in 44 prisons. In 2002, the budget was $4.6 billion, and there were 102 prisons. Eleven more federal prisons are in various stages of construction.

"Our growth and population management has been one of the fundamental issues we've had to address," bureau spokesman Dan Dunne says.

More than a decade of new legislation expanding federal jurisdiction, strict sentencing guidelines, the abolishment of parole and the recent transfer of more than 8,000 inmates from the custody of the District of Columbia has ensured steady growth. The system's population is projected to reach nearly 190,000 in 2005.

The growth comes as several states look to dismantle vast departments built during the 1990s.

In California, more non-violent drug offenders are being diverted to treatment programs, legislators are floating plans for the early release of felons and prison construction has been slowed to accommodate deep cuts in prison budgets. Prisons spokesman Margot Bach says good-time credits were increased Jan. 1, allowing inmates two days credit for every good day served. And more low-level security prisoners are being approved to participate in community service projects.

Texas prisons spokesman Larry Fitzgerald says the state's inmate population has been level for the past three years. "We're not letting people walk out the door, but we are being asked to tighten our belts," Fitzgerald says.

Judith Greene, a New York-based corrections policy researcher, says state prison systems are considering drastic measures because they generally represent larger portions of state budgets.

In Iowa, Greene says, officials were discussing a massive prison lockdown plan and a furlough of prison guards to cut costs. "There are a lot of Draconian things being discussed in the states," she says, "but the federal system is on quite a consistent upward curve."


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