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May 19, 2008 -- New York Times (NY)

Crowding Forces Prisoners Into Makeshift Sleeping Areas

By Jennifer Lee

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

New York's federal prisons are letting inmates sleep in areas not originally designed for inmate beds -- such as television rooms -- because of overcrowding in excess of 50 percent, according to correspondence with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (pdf) that was released by Senator Charles E. Schumer today.

According to Harley G. Lappin, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, more than 5,700 inmates were in New York federal prisons on an average day in the 2007 fiscal year, far above the recommended population of 3,600.

Each of New York's four federal prisons is at least 50 percent over capacity, with the federal prison in Ray Brook at a high of 61.2 percent over capacity.

The prisons in Ray Brook, in Essex County, and Otisville, in Orange County, are the two federal prisons in New York State that are now housing inmates in areas not originally designed for sleeping, Mr. Lappin said. The information about federal prisons in New York came in response to a series of questions posed by Mr. Schumer's office.

A spokesman for Mr. Schumer, Josh Vlasto, said that a representative for Mr. Schumer had visited Otisville, met with the warden, and had seen the overcrowding and short staffing firsthand. That, Mr. Vlasto said, prompted Mr. Schumer to ask for the statewide report.

Below is the chart for the four federal prisons in New York State.


Average Population, 2007

Rated Capacity

Percent Over Capacity

Brooklyn 2,500 1,618 54.5%
New York 826 518 59.5%
Otisville 1,185 790 50.0%
Ray Brook 1,204 747 61.2%

Systemwide, the federal prisons are operating at 37 percent above capacity, according to the bureau. That average, however, disguises a large range: from a low of 10 percent over capacity in minimum-security prisons to a high of 49 percent in high-security institutions. The other two categories are low-security prisons, which are 33 percent over capacity, and medium-security prisons, which are at 47 percent over capacity.

But New York State prisons are strained in large part because federal prisons make an effort to keep prisoners close to their home communities.

Overcrowding in American prisons is not surprising given that the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, recently hitting a benchmark of one in 100 adults now being behind bars. The United States has about 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its inmates, with about 2.3 million criminals behind bars, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London.

China, which is four times as populous as the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison.

The prison population, both state and federal, has been steadily increasing since the early 1980s, partly because of the length of sentences, which for comparable low-level crimes are more severe than they are in European nations.

Federal prisons account for around 12 percent of the total prison population, with states accounting for the rest. New York ranks fourth among states in the size of the total prison population, behind California, Texas and Florida.

More than 60,000 people are incarcerated in New York State prisons, down from a high of more than 70,000 in 2000. However, some city blocks in New York State are producing such a concentration of inmates that it costs the state a million dollars a year to imprison a single block's residents, according to a recent mapping project on display at the Museum of Modern Art, "Million Dollar Blocks." The project was a partnership of Columbia University planners and two nonprofit advocacy groups, the Justice Mapping Center and the JFA Institute.

The country's high incarceration rates has even prompted states to rethink how they deal with parole, focusing more on rehabilitation and less on punishment, as more than one-third of all prison admissions are for parole violations.

Overcrowding does have some impact on federal prison safety, according to the Bureau of Prisons' own empirical studies. Every 1 percent increase in a center's inmate population over its official capacity corresponds with an increase in the prison's annual assault rate by 4.09 per 5,000 inmates, the bureau reported. Between 2003 and 2007, 3.97 percent of the assaults on inmates by inmates, 16 out of 403, were considered major, and none were fatal.

The prisons are also short-staffed, with 13 to 22 percent of guard positions in each prison vacant as of March 1, according to Mr. Lappin. The federal prison in Brooklyn had 78 positions vacant, Manhattan had 39 positions vacant, Otisville had 33, and Ray Brook had 27. An increase of one inmate in the inmate-to-custody staff ratio results in an assault rate increase of 4.5 per 5,000 inmates. However, the assault rates, both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff, were generally down in 2007 from the previous years.

The four federal prisons in New York make up for the staffing shortages with overtime shifts, rather than having non-correctional officers cover the duties, according to Mr. Lappin.

Mr. Schumer is pushing for an additional $180 million in financing directly for new hiring and training in federal prisons on a supplemental spending bill working its way through Congress.

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