Saturday, June 22, 2024

Opinion | How to end the dysfunction at the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Opinion | How to end the dysfunction at the Federal Bureau of Prisons


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.

Over the past decade, Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz has “found weaknesses and failures in the management of BOP operations” and “made dozens of recommendations to address them,” according to the IG office’s website. Nevertheless, “at far too many institutions,” problems persist, despite a steady decline in the federal prison population — from its peak of approximately 219,000 in 2013 — which should, in theory, make the system more manageable.

The IG has found that the BOP’s institutions often lack proper security cameras to monitor activity within their walls, a contributing factor in sexual and other assaults, both among inmates and between staff and inmates. BOP facilities are aging — about 30 percent are more than 50 years old — with a maintenance backlog of roughly $2 billion. Congress has set aside more than $1 billion to build two new prisons, the IG noted, but after more than a decade of planning, the money has mostly not been spent; lawmakers have refused to rescind the funds so they could be used for other purposes.

In an unannounced visit this year to the Waseca, Minn., low-security prison for women, Mr. Horowitz’s investigators found it was “generally well-run.” Even so, they reported inmates sleeping in basements, sometimes under leaky pipes; a brisk trade in contraband drugs; security cameras that produced poor-quality images; and long waiting lists for classes in which inmates acquire skills necessary for their post-release lives. Staff shortages at Waseca required the facility to assign maintenance and even educational personnel to pinch-hit for correctional officers — a distressingly common practice throughout the BOP system.

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 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.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).



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