WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. has more prisoners per capita than any other nation while the federal prison population - half of it made up of drug offenders - is swollen by growing numbers of women and foreign inmates. They are stretching the seams of institutions that are nearly 40 percent over capacity, said prison director Harley Lappin. At a Thursday hearing, Committee Chairman Alan Mollohan asked, "Where in the world are you going to put these people?"
The federal government holds 210,000 people in prison. Roughly 18 percent of the inmates are housed in private prisons run by contractors. The other 172,000 inmates are squeezed into government facilities that only have a listed capacity of 126,000 beds, which means the buildings hold 37 percent more prisoners than their designs allow.
In his testimony on Thursday, prison director Harley Lappin said the prison population is expected to grow by an additional 7,000 members next year.
"It's clear that the bureau of prisons is heading down an unsustainable path," West Virginia Democrat Mollohan said as chair of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee as it reviews the Federal Prison Bureau's fiscal year 2011 $6.1 billion budget request, which is roughly $6 million more than this year's budget.
The United States already imprisons more people per capita than any other nation and its prison population continued to grow by 7,091 inmates in 2009, with 7,000 more expected by the end of this year, and again next year.
Each inmate costs taxpayers $27,000 a year.
"We're number one. That's not very good," Virginia Ranking Member Frank Wolf said.
Lappin said the phenomenon is "tragic" and blamed the growth on a variety of factors, pointing to the exponential growth in women prisoners as one. They currently make up 6.5 percent of the prison population.
The United States has also seen a 45 percent increase in the last two years of people booked for immigration crimes and Lappin noted that countries like Vietnam and Cuba refuse to take back their convicted citizens, leaving the United States to hold the foreigners indefinitely. More than a quarter of the federal prisoners are non-citizens, numbering 55,000.
"There has to be some candid conversation with some of these countries," Wolf said, visibly irritated. "There ought to be some repercussion."
Of the 60,000 inmates released last year, around 20,000 were deported.
The average term is 10 years and after it is fulfilled, the inmates are given $50 and clothing, and are released onto the street. Forty percent return to crime and to federal prison.
Lappin said that crowding is hampering re-entry programs that teach inmates job and life skills, and that it has led to increased violence among inmates who were double-bunking and who are now triple-bunking in rooms meant for one prisoner.
"The inmate population far outpaces the bed-space added," Lappin said.
Federal laws have also extended their reach. "We've federalized more crimes that had traditionally been state crimes," Lappin said, pointing to sex, drug and gun offenses.
This phenomenon, taken with the release of criminals in budget-strapped states, has recently driven state prison populations to a 38-year-low.
Despite the strain, spending to overhaul the prison system appeared to take little priority among the lawmakers. "The nation is fundamentally broke," Republican Wolf said. "If we could not print our money, we would be in bankruptcy court."
Wolf said he strongly supports following the lead of states and releasing prisoners.
By far the largest number of federal inmates -- 55 percent -- have been locked up for drug crimes. Fifteen percent were booked on weapons crimes, 11 percent on immigration violations, eight percent for violent crimes, and four percent for sex offenses.
Lappin admitted that the incarceration system leaves a lot to be desired, saying, "I don't think we're doing a good enough job."