'Staff errors' led to 152 US inmates serving extra time: report

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WASHINGTON, May 24 (Reuters) - Errors by the U.S. agency that oversees the federal prison system resulted in 152 inmates staying in prison beyond their scheduled release dates between 2009 and 2014, a government watchdog said on Tuesday.

The errors caused three inmates to serve more than one year of extra time, and cost the U.S. government at least $1 million to incarcerate the prisoners for the additional time and to settle lawsuits by four of the late-released inmates, according to U.S. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

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'Staff errors' led to 152 US inmates serving extra time: report
A prison cell block is seen following a tour by US President Barack Obama at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison, in a push to reform one of the most expensive and crowded prison systems in the world. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE -- In this Aug. 17, 2011 file photo, reporters inspect one of the two-tiered cell pods in the Security Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif. Inmates say newly imposed welfare checks in the SHU have created excessive noise by the guards, causing California prison officials to hand out earplugs to inmates and tell the guards to walk softly while going about their rounds.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)
In this June 18, 2015, photo, a prisoner walks near his crowded living area in Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala. Alabama is trying to stave off federal intervention in its overcrowded prison system with a reform package approved this spring that includes a bond issue for additional prison space and a new law making sweeping changes to sentencing and probation standards. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
In this June 18, 2015 photo, prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line during a prison tour at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala. Alabama is trying to stave off federal intervention in its overcrowded prison system with a reform package approved this spring that includes a bond issue for additional prison space and a new law making sweeping changes to sentencing and probation standards. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
In this June 18, 2015, photo, prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line during a prison tour at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala. Alabama is trying to stave off federal intervention in its overcrowded prison system with a reform package approved this spring that includes a bond issue for additional prison space and a new law making sweeping changes to sentencing and probation standards. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
An inmate with mental health conditions is handcuffed to a table while jailed in the Medium Observation Housing at the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. Conditions for mentally ill inmates in Los Angeles county have been a focus of federal probes since 1997, and the number with psychiatric disorders was an issue in a recent debate over a new jail. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An inmate with mental health conditions eats is a cell while jailed in the High Observation Housing at the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. Conditions for mentally ill inmates in Los Angeles county have been a focus of federal probes since 1997, and the number with psychiatric disorders was an issue in a recent debate over a new jail. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Handcuffs sit on a rail in the High Observation Housing at the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. Conditions for mentally ill inmates in Los Angeles county have been a focus of federal probes since 1997, and the number with psychiatric disorders was an issue in a recent debate over a new jail. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An inmate works in the kitchen at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California, U.S., on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. California is under a federal court order to lower the population of its prisons to 137.5 percent of their designed capacity after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that inmate health care was so bad it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Photographer: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A prison cell is seen through the door window following a tour of the cell block by US President Barack Obama at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison, in a push to reform one of the most expensive and crowded prison systems in the world. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Inmates with mental health conditions are escorted to the the Correctional Treatment Center Hospital at the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. Conditions for mentally ill inmates in Los Angeles county have been a focus of federal probes since 1997, and the number with psychiatric disorders was an issue in a recent debate over a new jail. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A bird flies over barbed wire on top of fences at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California, U.S., on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. California is under a federal court order to lower the population of its prisons to 137.5 percent of their designed capacity after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that inmate health care was so bad it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Photographer: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Most of the late-released inmates served a month or less of extra time. Five federal inmates were also released earlier than they should have been during the same period, the audit found.

U.S. prison populations have soared in recent decades as a result of harsher federal and state-level sentencing policies. A recent White House economic study found that overcrowded prisons strain the U.S. economy more than they boost it or reduce crime.

One inmate in the audit report published Tuesday spent more than a year of extra time in prison because federal prison officials had not checked his online court records and therefore missed a judge's order substantially shortening his sentence.

While the 152 prisoners released late due to staff error were a tiny portion of the 462,000 federal inmates released between 2009 and 2014, Horowitz also identified more than 4,000 federal prisoners whose releases the Bureau of Prisons classifies as "untimely," but not due to staff error.

"Neither the Department nor the BOP has attempted to work with the other agencies to examine these cases, and they don't appear to fully understand all of the actions that can contribute to untimely releases," Horowitz said in a video accompanying the report.

The "vast majority" of untimely releases are the result of court-initiated actions and are not errors of any type, according to U.S. Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush.

"That being said, the Department of Justice is already taking affirmative steps to implement the recommendations of the Office of the Inspector General to further reduce instances of inappropriate untimely releases occurring," he said in an emailed statement.

Horowitz's report recommended seven ways for the Justice Department to better prevent prisoners being released at the wrong time, and asked the agency to show evidence of improvement by the end of August.

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