18 Surprising Facts About the Department of Corrections
The prison population of the United States is over two million people, the highest of any country in the world, and larger than the gulag system at the height of the Soviet Union. Of these inmates, around 200,000 are held in federal prison, either before or after trial. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has a fascinating history, often quite different than the local and state facilities it augments, and some of it is quite shocking.
True to the nature of the United States, federal crimes were rare until the late 19th century. Most justice was dispensed at the town or county level, and US Marshals carried out arrests for crimes that went across states. Since it was formed in 1931, up until 1980, BOP inmates were a small group. But mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, handed down by "tough on crime" judges and prosecutors, made this number skyrocket. With it has come a host of problems and inequities.Here are some startling facts about the federal prison population and the Bureau of Prisons that house it.
The Bureau of Prisons Has More Responsibilities Than You ThoughtPhoto: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BYIts facilities house inmates who have either been convicted of violating federal law or are awaiting trial in federal courts. As a branch of the Department of Justice, it works with the US Marshals Service, federal prosecutors, and local community service organizations.
Federal Prison Is Expensive
On average, it costs about $29,000 a year to house, feed, clothe, and protect federal inmates. With a five year federal mandatory minimum sentence for drug offenses, this means one inmate busted for a federal drug crime costs the taxpayer at least $150,000 - and often much more. There are about 39,000 employees in the BOP, along with contractors and outside vendors.Between state, federal, and local facilities, incarceration costs a staggering $70 billion - per year.
Federal Prisons Are Only a Century OldPhoto: Metaweb / CC-BYBefore the late 1800s, federal prisoners were simply housed in state prisons. There were very few convictions for violating federal laws, and most of those were handled by the US Marshals, who had their own jails.
Three Federal Prisons Were Established in 1891Photo: Metaweb / CC-BYBy 1891, state prisons were becoming overcrowded and federal prisoners were being convicted in larger numbers. So Congress authorized the building of three new federal-only prisons - Leavenworth, Atlanta, and McNeil Island in Washington state. McNeil Island closed in 2011, the other two are still open.
The Bureau of Prisons Was Formally Established in 1930The passing of Prohibition in 1920, along with a host of other new federal laws, meant the existing federal prisons were becoming massively overcrowded. To abate this, Congress established the Bureau of Prisons on May 14, 1930. It led to a massive expansion of the federal prison system, as well as reform of the patronage system by which jobs were handed out.
For Decades, the BOP Population Remained the SameFrom the 1940s to about 1980, the population of BOP facilities held strong at about 24,000. After that, harsh Reagan-era laws against drug crimes imposed mandatory minimum sentences, as high as five years for certain types of possession. By December, 2012, the BOP facility population had grown by almost 10 times, to 218,000. As of January 2016, that number had dropped to about 196,000 in BOP prisons and private facilities for federal offenders.