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Senate Hearings Painted Bleak Picture of Broken Federal Bureau of Prisons

BOP Director Colette Peters blamed understaffing and “crumbling” facilities for the increasing number of deaths in federal prisons during hearings last week.

This photo shows the entrance sign to FCI Three Rivers in Texas.
Julie Tuason / Wikimedia Commons

In hearings this past Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, multiple advocates and officials, including Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette S. Peters and Department of Justice Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, testified that the federal prison system is in “crisis” as a result of “staff and management performance failures; bureaucratic incompetence; and flawed, confusing, and insufficient policies and procedures.”

In a nearly two-hour meeting, the BOP and DOJ officials said glaring and dangerous issues permeate almost every aspect of the federal prison system. Officials painted the nation’s national carceral system as a network of crumbling, decrepit prisons staffed by far too few individuals. The low number of staffers, officials said, directly contributes to a host of safety and health issues for guards and imprisoned people, including lax security, poor mental and physical healthcare administration, and a permeating sense of stress and low morale.

“Our agency is in crisis as it relates to recruitment and retention,” Peters said. “We are still faced with an inability to compete with the private sector and other law enforcement agencies.”

The hearings came in the wake of a damning February audit regarding deaths in federal prisons between 2014 and 2021. In the report, the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General said prison officials often responded poorly to medical emergencies, failed to keep basic records about medical incidents or fatalities, and did not follow proper procedures to prevent suicides. The report based its conclusions on its analysis of 344 deaths from non-natural causes in Bureau of Prisons custody between 2014 and 2021. More than 3,000 people in federal custody died from allegedly natural causes during that period.

“To properly respond to high-stress, potentially life-threatening inmate emergency situations—such as hanging, attempted homicide, or drug overdose—BOP staff must be prepared to promptly follow correct protocols and use proper, easily accessible, functioning equipment,” the report said. “However, we found significant shortcomings in BOP staff’s emergency responses to nearly half of the inmate deaths in our evaluation scope.” 

During last week’s hearings, federal officials noted that base pay for prison guards and workers is lower than that of most other law enforcement agencies—Peters said, for example, that federal correctional officers in New York earn less than half of what they could make in the state’s prison system.

Peters added that pay is so low that many federal prisons are losing staff to “better pay and better working conditions” at grocery stores and fast-food restaurants.

Peters said morale is abysmal among those who remain in the federal system. Correctional workers experience high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, obesity, hypertension, and other similar ailments—issues compounded by the fact that the BOP uses mandatory overtime to make up for staffing shortages. When personnel issues get particularly dire, the BOP uses a practice called “augmentation,” by which the agency assigns non-correctional employees—such as maintenance, healthcare, or mental health workers—to guard crucial areas. Officials said the practice then strips incarcerated people of essential services.

Other aspects of the prison system do not seem to be working much better. Officials noted, for example, that facilities are crumbling around the country, and imprisoned people are often served spoiled food. Furthermore, when guards are caught bringing contraband into prison facilities, officials said few are punished. The BOP’s internal affairs bureau has a backlog of roughly 7,000 cases. And, even when officers are charged, contraband cases are generally misdemeanors, which means prosecutors often drop those cases. Instead, officials warned that the lax oversight lets corrupt prison employees use contraband to groom or otherwise sexually abuse imprisoned people by using illegal drugs or other banned items as rewards.

Last month’s OIG audit also noted that illegal drugs were involved in one-third of all federal prison fatalities between 2014 and 2021. These deaths appear to be reflective of longstanding issues of staff misconduct and a broader lack of accountability. An investigation published by The Appeal last year found that at least six correctional officers at the federal women’s prison were convicted of running a “sex for contraband” scheme. Despite facing maximum sentences of 20 years, five guards received one year, while the sixth received no prison time at all.

After The Appeal published its investigation into ongoing issues of sexual assault by staff at FCI Tallahassee, the BOP and OIG’s office inspected FCI Tallahassee unannounced. In his written testimony, Horowitz described “glaring and disturbing” violations of federal prisoners’ rights at the prison. 

“We observed buildings that were in serious disrepair, with damaged roofs and leaking windows, causing female inmates to use feminine hygiene products to try to control the leaks,” Horowitz wrote. “We identified extraordinarily serious issues with the Food Service Department; this included moldy bread being served to inmates as well as discolored and rotting vegetables in a food preparation refrigerator at the female prison. In the food storage warehouses, we found what appeared to be rodent droppings, as well as bags of cereal with insects in them and warped food containers.” 

In a separate hearing later the same day, advocates and state prison officials begged federal lawmakers to address overcrowding and staffing levels across the prison system.

Santia Nance, founder of Sistas in Prison Reform told senators that staff shortages had caused prison officials to repeatedly cancel visitation at the Virginia facility where her fiancé is serving a 20-year sentence.

“For people with loved ones in prison, close contact creates the best outcome for all parties. Ninety-five percent of people in prison will come home, and strengthening family bonds has been scientifically proven to increase public safety and reduce recidivism. But short staffing has interfered with our ability to maintain our family bond,” Nance said.

However, other observers said they felt lawmakers seemed more focused on hiring new guards than addressing the effects of mass incarceration. Daniel Landsman, vice president of policy for the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocacy group (FAMM), said that, in addition to addressing the immediate staffing issues, legislators ought to look to alleviate long-term personnel shortages by releasing more people from prison.

“We still advocate, to the highest degree, exploring safe ways to reduce our prison population,” Landsman told The Appeal. After describing the hearing itself as “bleak,” Landsman said the staffing crisis should urge lawmakers to not just make life better for prison guards but also utilize procedures like compassionate release—that is, letting elderly or seriously ill people out of prison—and passing the Second Look Act, which would allow judges to re-sentence imprisoned people after specific periods of time.

In particular, Landsman highlighted the testimony of Brandy Moore White, head of the Council of Prison Locals for the American Federation of Government Employees union, who said that prison staffing issues also make it harder for imprisoned people to rehabilitate themselves, since staffing shortages mean incarcerated people get less time out of their cells or to talk to family.

“Of course, we wouldn’t be FAMM if we didn’t mention there were two ways to address staffing levels,” Landsman said. “You can either hire more people, or you can shrink the prison population. We need to do both.”