Please, Congress, Build Us More Prisons

This post reflects my own personal views and not the views of DOJ or any other federal agency. 

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Our prisons have serious problems: they’re overcrowded; they confine far too many non-violent offenders for far too long, and our methods of incarceration probably cause long-term and, in many cases, irreversible psychological damage. Attempting to address some of these problems, in August, Attorney General Eric Holder enacted his “Smart on Crime” initiative, directing Assistant United States Attorneys to prioritize prosecutions by focusing on the most serious cases. The “Smart on Crime” initiative also directed ASUAs to work towards eliminating unfair sentencing policies; to pursue alternatives to incarceration; to improve offender reentry programs (in the interest of improving recidivism); and to increase funding for violence prevention in the most vulnerable populations. These initiatives are important and will help overhaul the entire criminal justice system. But they are not enough. While these initiatives might help to halt the increase in the current inmate population, they will do little to bring the population down in the immediate future. In the meantime, we can’t afford to sit around and wait for the initiatives to take effect while ignoring the most pressing problems within our prisons.

Right now, there are 219,000 federal inmates; in prisons built to hold 130,000 inmates, there are 177,000 inmates (the remaining federal prisoners are housed in privately contracted prison facilities). For individuals who want to improve prisons, this statistic is probably the most important one. Consider that the rate of serious inmate assaults drastically increases as the inmate population increases, accordingly causing the staff-to-inmate ratio to  worsen. Translated, this means that due to the federal government hiring freeze and Congress’ reluctance to provide the BOP with realistic operating funds, each prison can only staff a set number of psychologists, no matter the inmate population.*

The BOP handles this overcrowding by triple bunking, housing inmates in television rooms, open bays, and spaces designed for education programs and addiction counseling. Housing inmates so closely together increases violence—and as violence increases, predictably, so too does gang affiliation, for gangs provide inmates with protection from the most violent inmates. At BOP high security institutions, for example, one out of every four inmates is in a gang. Problematically, however, as gang affiliation increases, so does violence between gangs and between gangs and non-gang members. One of the most effective methods of reducing this violence is putting inmates in special management units (a.k.a. solitary confinement): “isolating known gang members in a special management unit reduced the rates of serious assault, rioting, drug violations and threats to staff by 50 percent.” (Criminal Justice Studies, Gang Members, Career Criminals and Prison Violence).

There is no question that the overuse (or use at all) of solitary confinement rightly angers critics. But after a violent inmate has killed several other inmates, sometimes solitary confinement is the only effective and immediate solution (the majority of the prisoners suing the BOP for lack of mental health care while in solitary confinement are in solitary confinement because they’ve murdered other inmates, attempted to murder staff, successfully assaulted staff members, or engaged in other behavior that made their living in the general prison population impossible). Building more prisons would mean that inmates would not be double and triple bunked and the violence would decrease, thereby hopefully reducing the number of inmates in solitary confinement because of violent behavior.

Moreover, more prisons would mean an increase in staff members without a corresponding increase in the inmate population, resulting in a smaller inmate to staff member ratio (each new prison would have to have a psychological staff, a medical staff, a teaching staff, and so on). Shrinking the inmate to staff ratio means that the medical and psychological staff can spend more time with each inmate, getting them the help they need. Close to 65% of inmates in solitary confinement are mentally ill. Many of those inmates arrived in solitary confinement because they stopped taking their medications or stopped receiving appropriate mental health treatment.

Additionally, the smaller the inmate to staff ratio, the more rehabilitative programs and educational courses available to the inmates. Research demonstrates that the more rehabilitative programs and educational courses inmates participate in during their incarceration, the lower their rate of recidivism after they return to the community. From a practical standpoint, it makes sense. Students in crowded schools succeed at much lower rates than students in uncrowded schools; why would prisons be any different?

Lastly, the media frequently and vocally condemn the BOP for not following judges’ sentencing recommendations. A judge will, for example, include in his or her sentencing order that the inmate should be sent to one of the BOP’s medical institutions (prison hospitals, for lack of a better term). The problem is that while there are 119 federal prisons, only six of those are full hospitals, equipped to deal with the severely mentally ill. Yet more than half of federal prisoners suffer from mental illnesses. It is impossible to hospitalize more than 109,500 prisoners in six medical facilities, especially when you consider that many other prisoners are physically ill, suffering from cancer, AIDS, tuberculosis, and the like and must also be housed in the medical facilities. The BOP simply cannot accommodate every mentally ill prisoner ordered by a judge into a medical facility with only six medical facilities available.

Many fear that building more prisons will lead to more people being incarcerated—the “if you build it, they will fill it” mentality. This complaint doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Federal judges sentence federal convicts to prison following mandatory sentencing guidelines; the availability of beds in federal prisons has no part to play in the sentencing process (as evidenced by the fact that the prisons are now overflowing with prisoners and not enough beds). Additionally, there is no evidence that federal prosecutors’ decisions to prosecute are influenced by the availability of prison facilities. If they were, perhaps we’d have fewer prisoners, more prisons, and adequate medical facilities.

In order to address the harshest criticisms of prisons by reducing the BOP’s reliance on solitary confinement and better housing mentally ill prisoners—in order to reduce recidivism, and help the inmates more effectively rehabilitate in prison—Congress should appropriate more money to build prisons and correctional medical centers and to equip all of those centers with a full staff. Unfortunately, what with sequestration, budget cuts, the government hiring freeze, and a Congress that can’t pass any legislation, that seems unlikely to happen anytime in the near future. Meanwhile, our prisoners continue to suffer.

*It’s worth noting that the BOP is laboring under a severe budget problems. The BOP takes up 1/3 of DOJ’s overall budget, but it’s not enough. Every time Congress cuts the BOP’s operating budget, it means teachers, counselors, and and doctors can’t get hired, contributing greatly to the problems within prisons.

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