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Prisons: Policy Options for Congress

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Publication Date: November 2000

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: IB92061

Topic: Justice (Prisons and correctional facilities and personnel)


About 1.8 million offenders are incarcerated in the nation's prisons and jails. As of July 2000, 143,468 offenders were incarcerated in approximately 100 federal facilities. There are 124,354 inmates housed in federal facilities rated to hold 89,696 inmates. At the end of 1999, state prison systems held 1,231,041 inmates. In December 1999, 605,943 offenders were held in local jails. Projections indicate that the inmate population will keep growing.

The Bureau of Prisons of the U.S. Department of Justice administers the federal prison system. The Bureau is expanding the capacity of the federal system in anticipation of accommodating an inmate population exceeding 178,000 by the year 2006.The FY2000 budget totals $3.1 billion and is estimated at $3.5 billion for FY2001. The Bureau has also converted certain federal facilities (such as closed or realigned military bases) into prisons.

Most state systems are under court orders to limit the number of inmates and to meet other conditions. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1999, 63,635 inmates were held in local jails to ease overcrowding in state facilities. The Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-134) amended the Crime Control Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-322), authorizing, from FY1996-2000, $10 billion for prison construction (including boot camps). The Department of Justice Appropriations Act, 1997 (P.L. 104-208) required states to have a drug testing, intervention, and sanctions program in order to receive funds, beginning in FY1999. Also beginning in FY1997, states were required to report deaths in correctional facilities.

The role of the private sector in prison administration and operations is an issue for many. Some states have contracted with private corporations for prison operations. In the FY1997 appropriations, the Federal Bureau of Prisons expanded the involvement of the private sector in federal corrections. Rather than spending more funds on expansion of the nation's prisons and jails, some argue that many offenders currently incarcerated should be sentenced to other sanctions such as probation, parole, community service, or house arrest. At present, however, federal and state probation and parole systems, like the prison systems, are overwhelmed. Whether other alternatives, considered by some to be less punitive than prisons, are appropriate sanctions for offenders remains a topic of debate. The focus on special group offenders in state and federal prisons is also a recurring issue. The growing population of special group offenders (e.g., elderly, disabled, female offenders) are managed differently in most correctional institutions. In addition to considering how or where offenders should be punished, Congress is debating how resources might be most effectively used to rehabilitate and to care for offenders. One issue concerns the activities of Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (UNICOR). Current law requires, under specified circumstances, that federal agencies purchase UNICOR products and services. Small businesses, however, argue that the statutory preferences given to UNICOR unfairly limit their access to the federal market. The issue of whether prison inmates should be paid minimum wages is also under debate.