WASHINGTON — Members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in a Thursday hearing grilled the top leader of federal prisons on how the agency would address staffing shortages and reports of abuse of incarcerated people.
“The Bureau (of Prisons) has been riddled with mismanagement and, sadly, with scandal,” said the chair of the committee, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin.
Durbin said he was concerned about the overuse of solitary confinement and media reports of inmates being abused by staff at prisons and jails. He pressed the new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Colette S. Peters, about those reports of women and men who were incarcerated and experienced sexual abuse.
Peters, who was sworn into her position in early August after serving as the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, said BOP has no tolerance for sexual harassment or assault of any kind. She said the agency is working to “ensure that BOP employees remain guided by our core values.”
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said he was concerned about BOP staff who came forward after witnessing mismanagement and abuse at certain facilities, but were punished when they spoke up.
“Whistleblowers help keep government honest,” Grassley said. “It’s been widely reported that inmates who complain face punishment, but reports also indicate that whistleblower employees at the bureau face retaliation for their speaking up. This is not how you build accountability or trust.”
Abuse and deaths
Reports of abuse of incarcerated people by staff are not uncommon. A lawsuit was filed this year against a county jail sheriff in Indiana by women who said a guard sold their key to male inmates who raped them.
Additionally, a 10-month bipartisan report by the U.S. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Georgia Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff, found that the Department of Justice did not properly count nearly 1,000 deaths of incarcerated people in jails and prisons.
Peters, along with two other witnesses, John E. Wetzel, CEO of Phronema Justice Strategies in Pennsylvania, and Shane Fausey, the president of the Council of Prison Locals in Arkansas, stressed that staffing shortages are a major reason why the agency can’t function properly.
Fausey, who runs the union that represents about 30,000 BOP staffers, said that staffing levels have continued to decline each year.
“The chronic understaffing of this agency has led to an unprecedented exodus, effectively wiping out all the record hiring efforts of mid-2021,” he said in his testimony.
He said there are currently 34,945 BOP employees, compared to 43,369 in January 2016.
2 million incarcerated people
Prisons are facilities under state or federal control where people who have been convicted of a crime serve their sentences. Jails are managed by a city or county and are where most people are incarcerated while waiting for a trial, usually because they cannot afford bail.
However, some people do serve their sentences in the local jails because they have short sentences or the jail is renting that space.
There are about 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, scattered across 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile corrections facilities, 186 immigration detention centers and 82 Indian Country jails. Others are in military prisons, state psychiatric hospitals and U.S. territory prisons, according to data collected by the Prison Policy Institute, a think tank that studies incarceration in the U.S.
“I want you to succeed in fixing what’s broken,” Ossoff said to Peters.
He asked her if she would visit U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta, which was the subject of a 10-month report that found inmates were routinely denied nutrition, clean drinking water, hygiene products and proper medical care, and cells were infested with rats and roaches.
Peters agreed and also said she would work to make sure the agency was responsive to requests by the investigative panel Ossoff chairs.
Ossoff also asked her if BOP would publicly publish “facility-by-facility death data within BOP facilities.”
“I can certainly consult our team of lawyers 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 reentry management offices.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, said that a facility in her state was facing staff shortages as well as infrastructure problems such as mold and mildew. She asked Peters if she would fix the issues at the Federal Correctional Institute in Memphis.
“We have infrastructure issues across the board,” Peters said, adding that the agency has estimated about $2 billion in infrastructure repairs.
Peters said that the agency is having difficulty recruiting in rural areas and is adding hiring bonuses to attract potential employees.
Almost all senators on the committee acknowledged that Peters was only a couple of months into her job and that she had inherited an agency with systemic problems, such as the staffing shortages, COVID-19 and crumbling infrastructure. They did not blame her for the actions of her predecessor, former director Michael Carvajal.
Senators criticized him heavily for his response in trying to contain COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons.
However, Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton spent most of his time railing against Attorney General Merrick Garland, and asking Peters if she believed the 11,000 incarcerated people released under the pandemic-era CARES act were breaking the law.
“Are you certain not a single one of those criminals who are serving their sentence at home are not currently engaging in criminal activity?” he asked.
Peters said she could not make that determination.
The 2020 CARES act directed BOP to transfer about 11,000 low-risk incarcerated people from correctional facilities to home confinement, in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Only 17 of those released committed new crimes.
One of the witnesses, Cecilia Cardenas of Davenport, Iowa, was one of those 11,000 incarcerated people who were released to home confinement early in the pandemic. She said she was not surprised that only 17 inmates recommitted crimes, as “many of us are serving sentences longer than needed to hold us 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 please regardless of written policy, and many harass prisoners.”
Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said he has been concerned about the way women are treated in jails and prisons, and stressed the need for his bill, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, to be passed.
The bill would make it easier for women to keep in touch with their families, prepare them for the end of their sentences and provide better care for those who have experienced trauma.
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