Key Issues > Federal Prison System
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Federal Prison System

The federal inmate population has grown by 50 percent since 2000, and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reports an approximately 40 percent crowding rate. This is more than double the rate (15 percent) that BOP has determined to be its long-term target for reducing overcrowding.

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BOP spends about $6.6 billion a year for the care and custody of approximately 218,000 federal inmates convictedof charges including drug, weapons and explosives, and immigration violations. BOP projects continued growth in the federal prison population—estimating a net increase of about 3,000 inmates annually for the next 3 years. As BOP’s current population continues to expand, BOP is challenged to maintain the safety and security of its inmates, staff, and aging infrastructure.

  • BOP has faced financial shortfalls in funding levels to cover annual cost growth for maintaining existing services, including inmate medical care and utilities. As a result, BOP has faced funding gaps in its operations account that has left it with limited management flexibility. BOP has relatively sound cost estimation practices, but it needs to improve the transparency and documentation of its budget development process.
  • BOP has been experiencing challenges in effectively supervising inmates, as its inmate to staff ratio has increased by nearly 18 percent since 2000. With a growing inmate population, officer safety is continuously at risk. By capitalizing on the data it already collects, BOP could better assess how well the safety equipment BOP currently provides protects its officers and better inform decisions about the necessity and utility of future equipment purchases.
  • BOP faces significant maintenance and repair costs, as about a third of its facilities are more than 50 years old. In part to relieve crowding pressures, and as an alternative to building new prison space, BOP has moved thousands of low security inmates into private prisons and privatized the management of home detention and halfway houses. As BOP expands its contracting efforts, it could improve its identification of cost savings opportunities by collecting information on prices for the different services contractors perform.
Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

Bureau of Prisons:

Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure
GAO-12-743:
Published: Sep 12, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2012.

Bureau of Prisons:

Eligibility and Capacity Impact Use of Flexibilities to Reduce Inmates' Time in Prison
GAO-12-320:
Published: Feb 7, 2012. Publicly Released: Feb 7, 2012.

Bureau of Prisons:

Evaluating the Impact of Protective Equipment Could Help Enhance Officer Safety
GAO-11-410:
Published: Apr 8, 2011. Publicly Released: Apr 8, 2011.

Federal Bureau of Prisons:

Bureau of Prisons:

More Reports

Bureau of Prisons:

Information on Efforts and Potential Options to Save Costs
GAO-14-821:
Published: Sep 30, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2014.

Bureau of Prisons:

Management of New Prison Activations Can Be Improved
GAO-14-709:
Published: Aug 22, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 2014.

Bureau of Prisons:

Opportunities Exist to Enhance the Transparency of Annual Budget Justifications
GAO-14-121:
Published: Dec 6, 2013. Publicly Released: Dec 6, 2013.

Bureau of Prisons:

Bureau of Prisons:

Improvements Needed in Bureau of Prisons' Monitoring and Evaluation of Impact of Segregated Housing
GAO-13-429:
Published: May 1, 2013. Publicly Released: May 31, 2013.

Inmate Reentry Programs:

Enhanced Information Sharing Could Further Strengthen Coordination and Grant Management
GAO-13-93:
Published: Dec 14, 2012. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2012.

Federal Bureau of Prisons:

Bureau of Prisons:

Improved Evaluations and Increased Coordination Could Improve Cell Phone Detection
GAO-11-893:
Published: Sep 6, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 6, 2011.

Bureau of Prisons:

Written Policies on Lateral Transfers and Assessment of Temporary Assignments Needed
GAO-09-141:
Published: Feb 25, 2009. Publicly Released: Feb 25, 2009.

Cost of Prisons:

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  • portrait of David C. Maurer
    • David C. Maurer
    • Director, Homeland Security and Justice
    • maurerd@gao.gov
    • 202-512-9627