The federal prison system has been unable to keep pace with the stream of inmates flooding its facilities over the last five years despite adding space for thousands of new convicts, according to a government report.
The ballooning incarcerated population puts inmates and guards in danger and holds back efforts to rehabilitate convicts, experts told HuffPost.
The already-taxed Bureau of Prisons network swelled to 39 percent above capacity through last September, and is expected to surge to more than 45 percent above its limit in 2018, says the Government Accountability Office report, titled "Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure." The report was released on Wednesday.
Last year's overcrowding level was the highest since 2004, when federal prisons were 41 percent above maximum levels -- called the "rated capacity."
Wardens may see a spike in violence as more inmates are squeezed into tight living quarters, researchers warned. The overcrowding contributes "to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff," according to the report.
"If you start cramming more and more people into a confined space, you're going to create more tensions and problems," said the GAO's Director of Homeland Security and Justice David Maurer. "It creates the possibility that someone's going to snap and have a violent incident."
With more prisoners confined to limited spaces, prison officials are forced to cut back the time inmates have in the cafeteria, recreation yards and television rooms. Two and three inmates are bunked in rooms designed for one prisoner or in common areas that were never meant to be used as cells.
"Some of this sounds small and trivial," Maurer told The Huffington Post, "but it adds up."
Crowded cells and the loss of privacy increase the odds that inmates will lash out, threatening the guards keeping watch.
"Once they get frustrated enough, we're looking at another riot. And that's what scares me," said Dale Deshotel, president of the Council of Prison Locals, which represents about 32,000 federal prison employees.
So far this year, 14 federal prison workers have been assaulted with weapons and another 45 were assaulted by unarmed inmates, according to statistics compiled by the union.
As the prison population boomed, Deshotel said the government in 2005 reduced the average number of guards stationed in prison housing units. "There's no way that they can monitor that many prisoners," he said of the guard-to-inmate ratio.
The hazards of overcrowding could eventually ripple outside prison walls. Unless prison budgets grow, inmates will have less access to job training, education and drug treatment programs, which could increase the likelihood that they'll commit crimes again after their release.
"People will get out of prison, but they're not being helped to reenter society," said Inimai Chettiar, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, who has reviewed the report. "People are going to recidivate more when they get out of horrendous conditions without job training and development programs to get their lives back together."
To decrease the overcrowding problem, Department of Justice officials could push for options like constructing new prisons, lightening sentences or reintroducing parole for federal crimes.
"[The report] pointed out exactly what we assumed," said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a critic of mandatory minimum sentences, which add to overcrowding problems. "With more inmates, [prison officials] focus more on security and less on the programs that can rehabilitate the prisoners."
The Department of Justice, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, did not return calls for comment.
There are more than 218,000 inmates locked in the teeming network of federal and privately-run prisons. About 48% are there for drug offenses, according to the GAO's analysis.
The report examined fiscal years 2006 to 2011. During that time, five federal prisons opened and four minimum security camps shut. That increased space for almost seven percent more inmates, but the system took on over nine percent more prisoners.
The unrelenting growth in the overcrowded 117 federal prisons contrasts with the population in state prisons, which began decreasing modestly in 2009.
Budget crises have prompted states to explore early release options for prisoners. California is scrambling to comply with a Supreme Court order that said severe overcrowding was unconstitutional. By mid-2013, the state must reduce its inmate population by 30,000.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the GAO's Director of Homeland Security and Justice David Maurer. We regret the mistake.