In the company of killers, bank robbers and corrupt politicians, federal prisons might be a more interesting site than your average government workplace.

Less safe, too.

A recent Government Accountability Office report on the Bureau of Prisons says inmate overcrowding undermines the safety of the agency’s staff, as well as that of the inmates.

BOP officials reported increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited meaningful work opportunities, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios,” the September report says. “These factors, taken together, contribute to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff.”

The prison facilities are crowded because the inmate population is growing faster than the bureau’s capacity. As the prison population grew 9.5 percent from 2006 through 2011, the agency’s capacity, increasing at 7 percent, didn’t keep up. Even with new facilities, the prison population grew from 136 percent of capacity to 139 percent, according to the GAO.

“Nearly all BOP facilities had fewer correctional staff on board than needed, with a BOP-wide staffing shortage in excess of 3,200,” the GAO said, citing a 2010 Justice Department study.

While crowding has increased, the inmate-to-staff ratio has gone down. Fewer officers is not a strategy for success. The consequences can be real and bloody.

“Serious correctional worker understaffing and prison inmate overcrowding is causing a significant increase in dangerous inmate-on-worker assaults,” Dale Deshotel, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, told the House Judiciary Committee in December.

In his written statement, Deshotel said “illustrations of this painful reality include: (1) the savage murder of Correctional Officer Jose Rivera on June 20, 2008, by two prison inmates at the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, CA.; (2) the brutal stabbing of a correctional officer on April 23, 2009, by a prison inmate at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, IN.; (3) the brutal stabbing of a correctional officer on November 1, 2009, by a prison inmate at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA; and (4) the more than 350 vicious inmate-on-staff assaults that have occurred at various BOP institutions since the murder of Correctional Officer Rivera.”

In fiscal year 2010, there were almost 1,700 assaults on bureau staff, according to an April 2011 GAO report.

The bureau did not respond to requests for comment on the GAO report. In an Oct. 2 letter to Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said “for safety purposes, BOP critically needs high security prison capacity.”

“The negative effects of overcrowding on safety are even more pronounced in high security facilities that house the most serious offenders,” Holder wrote. “Nearly 90 percent of these inmates have a history of violence, and nearly 70 percent have been sanctioned for violating prison rules. Assaults on BOP staff are higher at high security prisons than at lower security facilities.”

Much of this bad news could be better if Uncle Sam had greater flexibility in reducing his prison population. A number of states have done more than the federal government in modifying their sentencing policies.

“Because of the mandatory minimum sentences required for many federal offenses and the absence of parole for most federal inmates in the federal system, BOP generally does not have the authority to significantly adjust an inmate’s period of incarceration,” the GAO said in September.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, an organization that supports reforms in sentencing policy, said New York and New Jersey each have reduced their prison populations by about 20 percent over the past decade. New York has modified its drug laws and allowed reduced sentences for inmates who participate in drug treatment programs. New Jersey has focused on reducing parole revocations.

“There is a sharp divide” between the approach of states and the federal government toward incarceration, Mauer said. State budget pressures are “forcing them to confront these issues” in a way not present at the federal level, he added.

So what can be done at the federal level?

The bureau does have the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), but crowding and underfunding reduce its effectiveness. Inmates who successfully complete the program can get a sentence reduction of up to a year. It sounds good on paper, but “RDAP programs are full,” says the GAO, “and BOP cannot keep up with demand for RDAP enrollment” because of staff and budget shortages.

Congress made some progress on reforming drug sentencing laws with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which lessened the severe sentencing discrepancy between federal crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. But the changes were not retroactive, so some offenders remain imprisoned with sentences based on a 100-to-1 disparity in the way crack and powder were treated for sentencing purposes, despite a law that recognizes that fundamental unfairness.

Reforming sentencing laws is one option the GAO listed for addressing crowding, along with allowing alternatives to incarceration, providing greater sentencing flexibility and increasing capacity.

Something needs to happen soon.

As Mauer said: “It’s not a good situation for anybody involved.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at