A storied past.
For more than 90 years the Bureau of Prisons has achieved many accomplishments and faced extraordinary challenges.
Pursuant to Pub. L. No. 71-218, 46 Stat. 325 (May 14,1930), Congress established the Bureau of Prisons within the Department of Justice and charged the agency with the "management and regulation of all Federal penal and correctional institutions." The federal prison system had already existed for nearly 40 years under the Three Prisons Act (1891), which authorized the first three federal penitentiaries: USP Leavenworth, USP Atlanta and USP McNeil Island, and had since grown to 11 federal prisons. The wardens functioned autonomously for the most part with limited oversight by a Department of Justice official, the Superintendent of Prisons, in Washington, DC. With the creation of the Bureau of Prisons, the agency assumed the responsibilities of oversight, management and administration of the 11 Federal prisons in operation at the time.
As time passed and laws changed, the Bureau's responsibilities grew along with the prison population. By the end of 1930, the agency operated 14 facilities for just over 13,000 inmates. In 1932 the Bureau opened USP Lewisburg, the first penitentiary built by the newly established agency. By 1940, the Bureau had grown to 24 facilities with 24,360 inmates. Except for a few fluctuations, the number of inmates did not change significantly between 1940 and 1980, when the population was 24,252. However, the number of facilities almost doubled (from 24 to 44) as the Bureau gradually moved from operating large facilities confining inmates of many security levels to operating smaller facilities that confined inmates with similar security needs.
As a result of Federal law enforcement efforts and new legislation that dramatically altered sentencing in the Federal criminal justice system, the 1980's brought a significant increase in the number of Federal inmates. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 established determinate sentencing, abolished parole, and reduced good time; additionally, several mandatory minimum sentencing provisions were enacted in 1986, 1988, and 1990. From 1980 to 1989, the inmate population more than doubled, from just over 24,000 to almost 58,000, and the number of federal prisons increased to 62. During the 1990's, the population more than doubled again, reaching approximately 136,000 at the end of 1999 as efforts to combat illegal drugs and illegal immigration contributed to significantly increased conviction rates. By the end of the decade, the Bureau was operating 95 institutions.
For the next 13 years, the inmate population continued to increase to over 217,000 in 119 institutions. In 2014, for the first time in 34 years, the population declined. A variety of legislative changes, including most recently the First Step Act of 2018, will continue to contribute to the overall decline in the inmate population. Today, the Bureau operates 122 federal prisons and manages an inmate population of 159,474.