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September 14, 2020

Making the case for independent oversight of the federal Bureau of Prisons

Kevin Ring has this effective new Hill commentary headlined "Congress should support independent oversight of federal prisons." I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

If the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) can ignore a United States senator with impunity, what chance does an average citizen with a loved one in prison have of getting their concerns addressed?  The answer is likely none.  It’s time for Congress to address the BOP’s lack of accountability and transparency by creating an independent body to oversee the agency.

Nine months ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) learned of allegations that women were being sexually assaulted by corrections staff at the Coleman federal prison complex in his state.  He also had heard reports that Legionnaire’s disease was spreading throughout the complex.  He wrote to Attorney General William Barr to ask what the BOP, which the Justice Department oversees, was doing to protect women and stop the disease’s spread.  Nine months later, Rubio still had not gotten a response.

What Rubio experienced is what nearly 160,000 families with people in the BOP’s custody experience every day: maddening silence or, if they’re lucky, getting the run-around in response to inquiries about a loved one’s health, safety, or sometimes even their location.  If a U.S. senator cannot get answers from the BOP, imagine what doing so is like for an average person with no political connections.

The media, lawmakers, taxpayers and families are left in the dark about how the BOP runs its 122 prison facilities.  Prisoners and their families regularly must resolve problems small, large and life-threatening with the agency, for the years or decades that a sentence lasts.  Congress’s judiciary committees hold BOP oversight hearings, but they are rarely in-depth or revealing.  At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, committee members were unable to get data from the BOP about basic issues such as coronavirus testing, demographics of people released, and the agency’s response to ongoing federal litigation.  An agency that is constitutionally required to maintain the health, safety, and rehabilitation of 160,000 people deserves continuous oversight, not a hearing once or twice a year....

Several states have established effective prison oversight offices to great success. These offices, sometimes called “ombudsmen,” typically are independent from state Departments of Corrections.  Their powers include the ability to enter and inspect prisons without notice, conduct confidential interviews with incarcerated people and prison staff, recommend improvements and monitor their implementation, access data and records, and even help resolve complaints from families and prisoners.

Oversight such as this helps identify and prevent problems (and costly lawsuits) and makes prisons safer places for those who reside and work there.  This year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law greatly expanding the powers of the state’s oversight office.  Washington State, Pennsylvania and New York also have prison oversight bodies, and Texas has a statewide jail oversight body.

September 14, 2020 at 03:17 PM | Permalink

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