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Federal Watchdog Finds BOP Staffing, Maintenance in Crisis

The Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report in early May 2023, finding “four foundational, enterprise-wide challenges” confronting the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The first involves “weaknesses in the BOP’s internal audit function,” deficiencies “that undermine confidence in reports and ratings of institutional conditions.” The report also calls out BOP for “delays in [its] employee discipline process,” as well as the “inadequacy of BOP assessments of institution staffing level needs.” Adding fuel to the fire: BOP’s “inability to address its aging infrastructure,” reflected in a myriad of critically deferred maintenance needs for which the agency has low-balled appropriations requests.

OIG initiated its review after things got so bad in 2021 that BOP evacuated two lockups – the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in Atlanta and the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York City. Widespread corruption among guards at USP-Atlanta was blamed for a massive problem with smuggled contraband, leading BOP to transfer out most prisoners by August 2021 and re-open four months later as a minimum-security prison. Two months later, MCC was shuttered after two guards were charged with falsifying cell-checks to shop online or nap while billionaire child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide two years before.

The report found that BOP auditors’ assessment of conditions at USP Atlanta “were in stark contrast to actual conditions there.” Part of the problem was blamed on announcing audit visits, so that prison officials had an opportunity to dress up their situation.

Also, as of September 2022, the report noted there was a significant pileup of unresolved employee misconduct cases, with just 60 Special Investigative Agents on board to handle 7,893 open cases. Worse still, “BOP had not yet imposed discipline in 2,279 other cases in which an investigation sustained an allegation of misconduct.”

Of particular concern was that BOP apparently had been operating in the dark when dealing with staffing levels. OIG “found that the BOP does not know whether the number of staff it represents as necessary to manage its institutions safely and effectively is accurate.”

Finally, OIG found $2 billion in unmet BOP repair and maintenance needs, but only $200 million had been requested from lawmakers – who appropriated just $59 million. “BOP’s inability to address backlogged major repair projects with available resources created particularly acute issues at numerous institutions,” the report noted – including MCC, where deferred maintenance played a critical role in the decision to close down the lockup. See: Limited-Scope Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Strategies to Identify, Communicate, and Remedy Operational Issues, DOJ/OIG 23-065 (May 2023).

“I need to hear the good, the bad and the ugly,” new BOP Director Colette Peters said. “We cannot have any surprises. We have to know what is happening inside our agency so we can help.” That’s a refreshing change in tone from her predecessor, former Director Michael Carvajal, whose written response to the report said its challenges were “long-established” before he came aboard in February 2020. 

Additional source: Roll Call