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June 12, 2023

"The Bureau of Prisons is beset by dysfunction. Here’s how to address it."

The title of this post is the title of this Washington Post editorial which was published over the weekend.  Here is how the editorial starts and ends:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons generally labors in obscurity, except when a high-profile inmate arrives, as Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes did the other day, or when a notorious one passes away, most recently FBI-agent-turned-Russian-spy Robert Hanssen.  And yet its mission — housing roughly 159,000 people convicted of federal crimes humanely and securely, and then fostering their reentry to society — is crucial to the rule of law.  The BOP operates 122 facilities at a cost of about $8.4 billion in fiscal 2023, the second-biggest budget item, after the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the Justice Department.  With more than 34,000 personnel, the BOP is the department’s largest employer.

It’s time for more attention to be paid to the BOP. A steady flow of reports has documented an agency beset by chronic problems — unsanitary kitchens, sexual assaults, an astonishing recidivism rate of around 43 percent — in urgent need of reform.

In April, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s watchdog agency, declared management of federal prisons a “high-risk area.”  The BOP “faces significant, longstanding management challenges … which represent a serious threat to inmate and staff safety,” the GAO noted.  Last year, Senate hearings, chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), exposed major failings at the 121-year-old federal penitentiary in Atlanta, including rampant smuggling of drugs and weapons, rodent infestation, malfunctioning sewage systems and — tragically — 12 inmate suicides between 2012 and 2020....

To be sure, there has been some recent progress.  The federal prison system has $290 million for modernization and repair in fiscal 2023, up significantly from the previous year.  Still, there’s a limit to what funding can achieve absent structural reform.  Bipartisan legislation, spearheaded by Mr. Ossoff and enacted in December, has produced the BOP’s first required inventory of its security cameras — albeit with the depressing finding that 80 percent of the roughly 25,000 devices are analog — and a plan for a systemwide upgrade.  More is needed.  A recently introduced bill, also bipartisan, would require [Inspector General] Mr. Horowitz’s office to inspect all BOP prisons and assign each a risk score, with higher-risk facilities required to face more frequent inspections. It would also establish an independent ombudsman to assess inmate and staff complaints.

The BOP’s new director, Colette S. Peters, took office in August 2022, tapped by Attorney General Merrick Garland after serving as director of Oregon’s prisons.  She is refreshingly open to legitimate criticism.  In a statement to The Post, she expressed “sincere appreciation for the valuable work” of the GAO and Mr. Horowitz.  What remains to be seen is whether her appointment will end the revolving door at the top of the BOP: She is the sixth director or acting director in the past six years.

Perhaps more than anything else, the BOP needs stable leadership, without which consistent policy cannot be sustained, let alone reformed. Its director should be nominated by the president for a single 10-year term, subject to Senate confirmation, like the director of the FBI.  A measure proposed in both houses last year would make this change, yet it languishes, despite bipartisan support from lawmakers including its initial sponsor in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Mr. Ossoff. 

The need for structural change at the BOP is clear.  So are the costs of inaction.

I like both the themes and the particulars of this editorial, but it also should have stressed that the FIRST STEP Act created, directly and indirectly, a number of new responsibilities for BOP which provides even more of a need for structural reforms to massive federal prison systems.

Some of many prior recent related posts:

June 12, 2023 at 10:45 AM | Permalink


B.O.P. = Backwards On Purpose.

A new director with all deputies being career BOP cronies will not have the institutional knowledge or sway to drive change.

Posted by: Zachary Newland | Jun 14, 2023 10:34:22 AM

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