Spotlight: Federal Bureau of Prisons

BOP SealA highly-efficient HVAC system, locally sourced stone and recycled construction waste are just a few of the sustainable features at a new federal building complex in Hazelton, West Virginia. An innovative laundry water recycling system is also expected to save over 2 million gallons of water per year. But design elements that bring daylight into the facility, without compromising security, may be the most appreciated by building inhabitants: 1,100 inmates of a medium security Federal Correctional Institution. The 540,000 SF complex is the first LEED Gold project of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the federal law enforcement agency tasked with administering the federal prison system. A subdivision of the Department of Justice (DOJ), BOP has headquarters on First Street in N.W., D.C., 6 regional offices, 26 residential re-entry offices, 2 staff training centers and 119 correctional institutions. A BOP staff of 38,948 is responsible for 215,000 federal inmates.

The first three federal penitentiaries were authorized by the Three Prisons Act of 1891, under the DOJ. Congress established the Bureau of Prisons in 1930 (through Public Law No. 71-218), charging it with “management and regulation of all Federal penal and correctional institutions.” Only 11 federal prisons with about 13,000 inmates existed when the bureau was established but within 10 years the system had roughly doubled to include 24 institutions with 24,360 inmates. The prison population remained relatively stable for the next four decades, but BOP nearly doubled the number of facilities again, from 24 to 44, as it shifted from running large institutions with multiple security levels to small facilities housing inmates with particular security requirements.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 dramatically increased the challenges faced by the BOP. The act, and additional reforms in the 1980s, established mandatory minimum sentences and abolished parole, resulting in a rapid increase in prison population. Prison population reached 136,000 by 1999, fueled particularly by convictions related to illegal drugs. The BOP managed the growth by constructing new facilities, expanding existing prisons and, increasingly, contracting with state, local and private facilities to house inmates.

Film buffs might imagine that federal prisons resemble the austere and brutal conditions in Bird Man of Alcatraz. But facilities are surprisingly diverse, classified by BOP largely based on security needs:

  • United States Penitentiaries (USP) are high-security facilities with highly secured perimeters and high staff-to-inmate ratios, including film-favorite USP Leavenworth and Administrative Maximum Security Florence, the “supermax” facility currently housing terrorists such as Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.
  • Federal Correctional Institutions are medium and low security facilities with strengthened perimeters such as double fences and electronic detection systems, including Butner in North Carolina, which is home to Bernie Madoff.
  • Federal Prison Camps are minimum security facilities with little or no perimeter fencing and dormitory-style housing, such as Alderson in West Virginia, where domestic guru Martha Stewart served five months for insider trading.
  • Administrative Facilities have special missions such as pretrial detention, medical treatment, or confinement of extremely high-risk prisoners. The Medical Center for Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, has housed Mafia bosses such as John Gotti, assassin Jared Lee Loughner, and the Birdman of Alcatraz himself, Robert Stroud.
  • Federal Correctional Complexes (FCC) include various facilities with different levels of security, such as FCC Terre Huate, which includes a Special Confinement Unit for male prisoners sentenced to death and where Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed.

The BOP accounts for about 25% of the DOJ budget, yet federal prisons remain overcrowded and understaffed. Members of the committee from both parties have called for BOP reform, recognizing the high costs and other challenges posed by swelling prison populations. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee last year, BOP Director Charles Samuels, Jr. endorsed the DOJ’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which promotes alternatives to incarceration for some non-violent offenders. Samuels also pressed the Senators to support programs that aim to reduce recidivism, such as vocational training, substance abuse counseling and job opportunities within Federal Prison Industries (FPI). According to Samuels, inmates need “job skills, vocational training, education, counseling and other assistance. . . if they are to successfully re-enter society.” But the number of federal inmates employed by FPI had declined by 2012 to 12,394, the lowest level since 1986 and far below the BOP goal of 25% of the inmate population. Some at the hearing resisted recommendations for shorter sentences or fewer incarcerations. According to Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), “It’s hard to think of a more successful domestic policy accomplished over the last 30 years than the reduction of crime that we have.” Senator Leahy (D-VT), however, asserted in a press release, “The dramatic increase in the prison population threatens public safety and critical funding for victim services.” No matter how much money is saved through energy and water efficiencies at new LEED prisons, it is hard to imagine how the current rate of inmate population growth can be sustainable.