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Obama’s Prison Crisis

Crowded cells, aging inmates, soaring costs.

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General, is nothing if not consistent. Last December, in his annual State-of-the-Department message, he warned of “growing” federal prison crisis. And now he is back, 50 weeks later in his same year-ender message, warning of a “persistent” crisis at the Bureau of Prisons consisting of two main parts. From his memorandum, released Monday morning:

First, despite a slight decrease in the total number of federal inmates in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the Department projects that the costs of the federal prison system will continue to increase in the years ahead, consuming a large share of the Department’s budget.

Second, federal prisons remain significantly overcrowded and therefore face a number of important safety and security issues.

These two sentences, I suspect, will drive a great deal of the coming political debate over criminal justice reform at the federal level. First, they represent a continuing failure on the part of the Justice Department (and Obama Administration) to reign in the Bureau of Prisons, a vast bureaucracy whose officials have been repeatedly warned by Congress (and the federal courts, for that matter) that they need to change the way they do business. Eric Holder has been an outspoken critic of the federal prison policies at issue here — and yet they, to use Horowitz’s word, “persist.” That’s on Holder — and also on BOP Director Charles Samuels.

Second, Horowitz’s warning ought to give cover to any politician (like Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky) who already is inclined to endorse sentencing reform and give pause to any politician (like Sen. Charles Grassley, the Republican from Iowa) who is not. There is very little room to spin the figures the Justice Department is tossing out here — and very little reason to accuse Horowitz of doing so. It is not a mystery, or a Washington parlor game, that the Justice Department budget is zero sum; that funds used to house a growing number of inmates are funds that cannot be used on other law enforcement priorities.

So let’s take the first Horowitz sentence first. The Bureau of Prison’s budget now ($6.9 billion) is nearly twice what it was ($3.8 billion) in 2000, Horowitz tells us, an increase at “almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department.” Worse, he writes, even though federal prison officials have been warned that their part of the budget is draining funding away from other Justice Department programs (like those that support victims groups) they asked for more money this past budget cycle.

(Here is a handy online guide to inmates statistics in the federal system. As of last Thursday, the last updated figures, there are 213,461 federal inmates, or roughly 10 percent of the nation’s total number of prisoners, which most observers place at 2.2 million. Here is an interactive guide to incarceration at the state level. Many states have many of the same problems — costs, overcrowding, poor health care for inmates — we see in the federal system).

Horowitz didn’t mince words, either, about what is costing so much. The federal prison population is aging at a fast pace. “From FY 2009 to FY 2013, the population of sentenced inmates age 50 and over in BOP-managed facilities increased 25 percent, while the population of sentenced inmates under the age of 30 decreased by 16 percent,” he notes. As a result, “the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013.” And here is his kicker:

The BOP spent over $1 billion on inmate healthcare services in FY 2013, which nearly equaled the entire budget of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

And if it is not elderly prisoners it’s those who are sick. “New prescription drug treatments, particularly for chronic hepatitis C (HCV), could exponentially increase costs in the coming years,” Horowitz warns. “The BOP currently spends $6,600 per patient for a standard HCV treatment regimen. However, the treatment regimen newly approved by the Food and Drug Administration could cost an additional $20,000 to $40,000 per patient… meaning that the BOP could face additional costs for these patients of approximately $220 million to $440 million.”

What to do about all this? Horowitz says the Bureau of Prisons has to do more to release ill or elderly prisoners through the use of its Compassionate Release Program, which the Office of Inspector General determined in April 2013 was “poorly managed and implemented inconsistently.” Horowitz also says the Bureau of Prisons now must do more to release inmates back to their native countries through the International Prisoner Transfer Program, which the Inspector General determined in December 2011 was not being efficiently administered by federal prison officials.

Combine a renewed commitment to these existing programs with legislative and administrative sentencing reforms, Horowitz asserts, and the costs of federal prisons will begin to ease. What he is saying, year after year it seems, is that we need to make sure that fewer Americans are being sent to federal prison while sending home more quickly those who no longer need to be there. This is what Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, meant when he told me Monday afternoon that the policies that created these costs have been “disproven” and are “simply unjust.”

If you think the facts and figures above are disconcerting, the numbers Horowitz offers about conditions within our federal prisons are even more dire. Prison overcrowding, he asserts, is “the most significant threat to the safety and security of Bureau of Prisons staff and inmates” and you can almost hear the frustration in his voice as he shares with the world statistics like these:

[T]he federal prisons remain almost as crowded today as they were in FY 2006. As of June 2014, federal prisons operated at 33 percent over capacity, with 42 percent overcrowding at higher security facilities and 40 percent at medium security facilities.**

or these

The Department’s FY 2014-2018 strategic plan includes an outcome goal to reduce system-wide crowding in federal prisons to 15 percent by FY 2018. However, as of June 2014, the BOP’s Long Range Capacity Plan projects prison overcrowding to be 38 percent by FY 2018, higher than it is today.

When it comes to easing overcrowding it’s clear that Horowitz believes we are headed in the wrong direction, which is another reason why he keeps calling current conditions at the Bureau of Prisons “a crisis.” To bring the ratio of inmate to space available to appropriate levels, to eliminate the overcrowding “without expending additional funds to build more federal prison space or to contract for additional non-federal bed space,” Horowitz says that the Justice Department “would have to achieve a net reduction of about 23,400 federal prisoners from the June 2014 prison population...” That’s more than ten percent of the current population. Can you imagine? I can’t.

And in the meantime, conditions in those prisons are grim. There is a concern about “private contract prisons” that house federal inmates. Horowitz writes:

Riots in two privately managed BOP contract facilities, one in Texas in 2009 and the other in Mississippi in 2012, resulted in the death of a correctional officer, severe injuries to prisoners and employees, and over $60 million in property damage. The causes of both incidents have been at least partially attributed to prisoners’ reactions to their perceptions of inadequate medical conditions and mistreatment at the facilities.

Horowitz also is concerned about the lax implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which more than a decade after its passage still is not shielding inmates from sexual assault by fellow inmates or staff members. He is concerned about the effectiveness of 65 x-ray machines designed to ferret out contraband entering federal prisons. He is concerned about “the unauthorized use of cellphones” within federal facilities. But “first and foremost,” he is concerned about overcrowding. Which is pretty much what he said he was concerned about last December.

A final point to make. Horowitz confirms here that the Justice Department is investigating conditions in those “private contract prisons,” the results of which surely will be news when released.