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Temporary Halt of Federal Prison Labor at National Parks, but New Policy Proposed To Resume It

According to the report: At one unnamed national park—the prisoners, whose criminal histories included firearms and drug related convictions—were found with contraband after they had been left working unsupervised in a park campground for about two hours. NPS employees were overseeing the work detail program without any formal training or guidance, which led to inmates gaining access to contraband such as tools and knives.

The investigation also uncovered that the rules relating to prisoner work details varied from one park to the next and required no approval beyond the local level. No structure for oversight has been in place from the Interior Department.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt responded to the report by putting a temporary hold on allowing prisoners to work in national parks effective April 2, 2020.

“I hereby order and direct NPS to immediately cease the use of prison labor,” stated Bernhardt. “Any agreements in place regarding the same are hereby rendered null and void.”

Bernhardt noted that NPS officials had known about the potential deficiencies that the absence of formal policies could create for over a year, but he was motivated to momentarily halt the prison work program only after the inspector general’s report pointed out “disturbing information regarding questionable practices” by NPS administrators.

The Inspector General report said: “We also found that prison work detail agreements differed from park to park, because they were coordinated and approved at the park level between the local NPS superintendent and the supporting prison facility. When we asked the NPS for documentation on these prison work details, the NPS identified five memoranda of understanding, three cooperative agreements, and three task agreements being used Service-wide. We also found that two national parks used prison work details without any written agreement in place at all.”

“The absence of NPS policies and oversight regarding prison work details at NPS properties creates risks to NPS employees, park visitors, and the prison community, and may expose the U.S. Department of the Interior to liability,” the report continued.

It was hoped that the recommendations from the inspector general’s report would “improve the safety and security of NPS employees and park visitors,” as well as enable the prison work details to proceed.

Bernhardt instructed officials in his department to develop a standardized federal protocol and policy within 60 days so that the NPS prison work program could be reinstated. The coronavirus pandemic delayed the establishment of the new policy, but Interior released a memorandum outlining it on July 9, 2020.

“The NPS has successfully utilized prison work details for decades,” it said. “Prison work details have served as a critical resource in wildland fire crews, and landscaping, maintenance and public work projects crews, across the National Park System. In addition to aiding the conservation mission of the NPS, these details have the added societal benefit of preparing prison laborers for post-incarceration life by teaching them important, marketable job skills.”

The new proposed policy, which applies to prisoners’ help in federal, state, tribal and privately run prisons, recommends that to avoid future problems Interior should “employ standardized agreement templates and language” between the NPS and prisons it works with. The memorandum outlined a series of requirements to improve “NPS employee training, the transportation of prisoners to and from NPS units, the oversight of work performed, and other important considerations necessary to facilitate these arrangements.

The memorandum lacked “the force and effect of law,” and as of press time the new proposed policy had not been fully implemented. 


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