Congress Seeks to Create New Independent Federal Prison Oversight Body
Legislation introduced this week follows a string of reports, including in The Appeal, that have revealed widespread sexual abuse and misconduct at Bureau of Prisons facilities.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg Apr 27, 2023
A bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers introduced legislation this week to establish a new oversight system for federal correctional facilities. As part of this “inspections regime,” the bill would create an Ombudsman position responsible for investigating allegations of abuse, who would be empowered to make unannounced visits to federal prisons and communicate confidentially with incarcerated people.
The Federal Prison Oversight Act, sponsored by Democratic Senators Jon Ossoff and Dick Durbin and Republican Senator Mike Braun, comes in response to a series of revelations about widespread abuse and corruption inside Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities. Representatives Lucy McBath of Georgia and Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota introduced companion legislation in the House. The bill would not apply to state prisons or local jails, which incarcerate the majority of prisoners in the U.S.
Former BOP director Michael Carvajal resigned last year following criticism over a number of scandals, many of which were first uncovered by the Associated Press. But controversy has continued in recent months, including in the wake of an Appeal investigation published this week documenting a culture of sexual abuse and cover-up at FCI Tallahassee, a federal women’s prison. Senators introduced a similar version of the Federal Prison Oversight Act last September amid Senate subcommittee investigations into conditions in federal prisons. The bill did not receive a vote.
“My bipartisan investigations of corruption, abuse, and misconduct in the Federal prison system revealed an urgent need to overhaul Federal prison oversight,” Ossoff said in a statement this week.
Under the new bill, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) will “conduct comprehensive, risk-based inspections of the BOP’s 122 correctional facilities,” according to a press release from Ossoff’s office.
The legislation requires OIG to create a risk assessment system for BOP facilities, which it would use to determine higher-risk facilities that would be subject to more frequent checks. The OIG could base a prison’s risk score on a variety of factors, including the frequency of assaults, lockdowns, or incidents of sexual abuse, as well as the availability of programming. BOP would then have 60 days to provide a response, including a “corrective action plan,” to be posted on the OIG website.
The Federal Prison Oversight Act would also create a new BOP Ombudsman position within the DOJ, tasked with reviewing complaints of abuse, neglect, poor living conditions, or other issues at federal correctional facilities. Although this official would have the power to investigate allegations, the BOP would maintain the authority to determine what action, if any, to take.
Under the legislation, the ombudsperson would be allowed to visit any BOP facility without providing notice and communicate privately and confidentially with staff and incarcerated people during in-person interviews or through electronic messaging, mail, or telephone. Prison staff would not be permitted to be present during these interactions or to record or monitor such communications. The OIG currently has the authority to make unannounced visits and communicate confidentially with incarcerated people.
The bill would task the ombudsperson with creating a hotline and online form for loved ones of incarcerated people to report allegations of abuse or misconduct. It would also compel BOP to establish channels for incarcerated people to make confidential reports to the ombudsperson.
Ossoff has spearheaded several Senate investigations into conditions at federal prisons. Last summer, the Georgia senator subpoenaed then-BOP director Carvajal to testify during a Capitol Hill hearing on allegations of corruption at the federal prison in Atlanta.
“The investigation has revealed that gross misconduct persisted at this prison for at least nine years and that much of the damning information revealing misconduct, abuse, and corruption was known to BOP,” Ossoff said at the hearing.
Another investigation revealed that staff have sexually abused prisoners in at least two-thirds of federal prisons that have held women over the past decade and that BOP has failed to stop it. On Tuesday, The Appeal published an investigation uncovering “rampant” sexual abuse by staff against incarcerated women at FCI Tallahassee, as well as retaliation against those who attempt to report misconduct.
Senators revised the newly introduced legislation to be more inclusive of different types of sexual harm, following revelations brought to light during a Senate investigation last year, according to Ossoff’s office. The new language states that the Inspector General may use incidences of sexual abuse to assess a prison’s risk score, whereas the previous version had mentioned only “sexual violence” or “assault.”
Corene Kendrick, Deputy Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told The Appeal that the Federal Prison Oversight Act would “shine the light in the dark corners of the BOP.”
The ACLU is among a diverse group of organizations that have expressed support for the bill, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and the Conservative Political Action Committee. A union that represents nearly 30,000 correctional officers also announced its support.
“Independent oversight of the Bureau of Prisons has become both essential and necessary,” said Shane Fausey, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, in a statement.
While the Federal Prison Oversight Act would empower the OIG and Ombudsman to inspect prisons, document abuses, and recommend changes, these agencies do not have the authority to enforce their recommendations. Even if this legislation were to pass, the next challenge would be to ensure that BOP implements the suggested reforms, said Kendrick.
“They start doing these reports and these inspections, then what’s going to happen?” she said. “You don’t want them to write a report that just goes on the shelf and nobody does anything about it.”
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