Federal prisons ‘riddled with mismanagement’ probed by US Senate panel
by Ariana Figueroa, Georgia recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder and in the States Newsroom, republished with permission]
September 30, 2022
WASHINGTON — Members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing Thursday questioned the head of federal prisons on how the agency would handle staffing shortages and reports of incarcerated abuse.
“The Bureau (of Prisons) has been riddled with mismanagement and, unfortunately, scandal,” said committee chairman, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin.
Durbin expressed concern about the overuse of solitary confinement and media reports of inmates being abused by jail and prison staff. He pressed the new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Colette S. Peters, about these reports of incarcerated women and men who were victims of sexual abuse.
Peters, who was sworn in in early August after serving as director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, said BOP has no tolerance for sexual harassment or assault of any kind. She said the agency strives to “ensure that BOP employees remain guided by our core values.”
The committee’s top Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, expressed concern about BOP staff who came forward after witnessing mismanagement and abuse at some facilities, but said was punished when he spoke.
“Whistleblowers help keep government honest,” Grassley said. “It has been widely reported that inmates who complain risk punishment, but reports also indicate whistleblowers in the office face retaliation for speaking out. This is not how you build accountability or trust.
Abuse and death
Reports of abuse of incarcerated persons by staff are not uncommon. A court case was filed this year against an Indiana County jail sheriff by women who said a guard sold their key to male inmates who raped them.
Additionally, a 10-month bipartisan report by the United States Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, chaired by Georgia Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff, found that the Justice Department did not count well nearly 1,000 deaths of people incarcerated in jails and prisons.
Peters, along with two other witnesses, John E. Wetzel, CEO of Phronema Justice Strategies in Pennsylvania, and Shane Fausey, president of the Council of Prison Locals in Arkansas, pointed to staffing shortages as one of the main reasons why the agency cannot function properly.
Fausey, who heads the union which represents around 30,000 BOP staff, said numbers have continued to decline each year.
“The chronic understaffing of this agency has led to an unprecedented exodus, effectively wiping out all of the record hiring efforts of mid-2021,” he said in his testimony.
He said there are currently 34,945 BOP employees, up from 43,369 in January 2016.
2 million people incarcerated
Prisons are state or federally controlled facilities where people convicted of a crime serve their sentence. Jails are run by a city or county and are where most people are incarcerated while awaiting trial, usually because they cannot post bail.
However, some people serve their time in local jails because they are serving short sentences or the jail rents that space.
There are approximately 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, distributed among 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local prisons, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention centers and 82 prisons nationwide. Indian. Others are in military prisons, state psychiatric hospitals and U.S. homeland prisons, according to data collected by the Institute of Prison Policya think tank that studies incarceration in the United States The 10-month investigation by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff, found the Justice Department failed to enforce the 2013 Death Notification Act in detention. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder (File)
“I want you to succeed in fixing what’s broken,” Ossoff told Peters.
He asked her if she would go to the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, which was the subject of a 10 month report that found detainees were regularly deprived of food, drinking water, hygiene products and proper medical care, and the cells were infested with rats and cockroaches.
Peters agreed and also said she would work to ensure the agency responded to requests from the Ossoff Investigative Committee chairs.
Ossoff also asked if BOP would publicly release “facility-by-facility death data within BOP facilities.”
“I can certainly consult with our legal team and see if that’s a possibility,” she said.
Peters oversees 122 Bureau of Prisons facilities, six regional offices, two staff training centers, two contract facilities, and 22 residential rehabilitation management offices.
Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, said a facility in her state was facing staffing shortages as well as infrastructure issues such as mold and mildew. She asked Peters if she would fix the problems at the Federal Correctional Institute in Memphis.
“We have infrastructure issues at every level,” Peters said, adding that the agency estimated infrastructure repairs at around $2 billion.
Peters said the agency struggled to recruit in rural areas and added hiring bonuses to attract potential employees.
Almost every senator on the committee acknowledged that Peters had only been in the job for a few months and had inherited an agency with systemic issues, such as staff shortages, COVID-19 and the collapse of infrastructure. They did not blame him for the actions of his predecessor, former director Michael Carvajal.
Senators have sharply criticized him for his response in trying to contain COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons.
However, Republican Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton spent most of his time cursing Attorney General Merrick Garland and asking Peters if she believed the 11,000 incarcerated people released under the CARES Act of the pandemic era were breaking the law.
“Are you sure that none of these criminals who are serving their sentences at home are currently engaged in criminal activities? He asked.
Peters said she couldn’t make that decision.
The CARES Act of 2020 ordered BOP to transfer approximately 11,000 low-risk incarcerated individuals from correctional facilities to home isolation, in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Only 17 of them released has committed new crimes.
One of the witnesses, Cecilia Cardenas of Davenport, Iowa, was one of those 11,000 incarcerated people who were released at home at the start of the pandemic. She said she was not surprised that only 17 inmates had re-offended, as “many of us are serving longer sentences than necessary to hold ourselves accountable for our mistakes”.
Cardenas was serving a 10-year sentence for selling drugs, primarily cocaine.
She said independent oversight is needed because many “correctional officers are free to do whatever they want regardless of written policy, and many harass prisoners.”
Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said he was concerned about how women are treated in jails and prisons, and stressed the need to pass his bill, the dignity of imprisoned women.
The invoice would make it easier for women to stay in touch with their families, prepare them for the end of their sentence and better support those who have experienced trauma.
Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact editor John McCosh with any questions: [email protected] Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.