Congress OKs bill overhauling oversight of troubled federal Bureau of Prisons

The Senate passed legislation Wednesday to overhaul oversight and bring greater transparency to the crisis-plagued federal Bureau of Prisons following reporting from The Associated Press that exposed systemic corruption in the federal prison system and increased congressional scrutiny.

The Federal Prison Oversight Act, which the House passed in May, now goes to President Joe Biden to be signed into law. It establishes an independent ombudsman for the agency to field and investigate complaints in the wake of rampant sexual abuse and other criminal misconduct by staff, chronic understaffing, escapes and high-profile deaths.

It also requires that the Justice Department's Inspector General conduct risk-based inspections of all 122 federal prison facilities, provide recommendations to address deficiencies and assign each facility a risk score. Higher-risk facilities would then receive more frequent inspections.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., introduced the bill in 2022 while leading an investigation of the Bureau of Prisons as chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on investigations. It passed unanimously Wednesday without a formal roll call vote, meaning no senator objected.

Ossoff and the bill's two other sponsors, Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind., launched the Senate Bipartisan Prison Policy Working Group in February 2022 amid turmoil at the Bureau of Prisons, much of it uncovered by AP reporting. Reps. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Lucy McBath, D-Ga., backed the House version of the bill.

In a statement, Ossoff called Wednesday's passage “a major milestone” and that his investigation had “revealed an urgent need to overhaul Federal prison oversight.”

Advocates for incarcerated people also praised the bill's passage.

“After all the headlines, scandals, and controversy that have plagued the Bureau of Prisons for decades, we’re very happy to see this Congress take action to bring transparency and accountability to an agency that has gone so long without it," said Daniel Landsman, the vice president of policy for the advocacy group FAMM.

Jonathan Zumkehr, the union president at a federal prison in Thomson, Illinois, said the legislation will also help protect prison workers. At his facility, female staff members were subject to more than 1,600 instances of sexual harassment and abuse by inmates from 2019 to 2023, and had little recourse to stop it, he said.

"Inmates were exposing themselves on a daily basis and management was saying, ‘oh no, it never happened here, it only happened a couple of times,'" said Zumkehr. The newly passed bill, he said, “would force an investigation to say, ‘hey, did it happen?’ and it would enforce reporting of the number of sexual attacks from an inmate to a staff member, and vice versa.”

“That would be huge, because right now the bureau doesn’t track sexual attacks on staff," said Zumkehr, who is pursuing separate legislation to make such conduct a federal crime.

A message seeking comment was left with the Bureau of Prisons.

Under the legislation, an independent federal prison ombudsman would collect complaints via a secure hotline and online form and then investigate and report to the attorney general and Congress dangerous conditions affecting the health, safety, welfare and rights of inmates and staff.

Along with inspecting prison facilities, the legislation requires the Justice Department’s Inspector General to report any findings and recommendations to Congress and the public. The Bureau of Prisons would then need to respond with a corrective action plan within 60 days.

Biden signed a separate Ossoff bill into law in December 2022 requiring the Bureau of Prisons to fix broken surveillance cameras and install new ones.

An ongoing Associated Press investigation has uncovered deep, previously unreported flaws within the Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest law enforcement agency with more than 30,000 employees, 158,000 inmates and an annual budget of about $8 billion.

AP reporting has revealed dozens of escapes, chronic violence, deaths and severe staffing shortages that have hampered responses to emergencies, including inmate assaults and suicides.

In April, the Bureau of Prisons said it was closing its women’s prison in Dublin, California, known as the “rape club,” giving up on attempts to reform the facility after an AP investigation exposed rampant staff-on-inmate sexual abuse.

Last year, two high-profile prisoners were attacked and another killed himself in federal prisons.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was stabbed 22 times by a fellow prisoner last November at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tucson, Arizona. The suspect said he targeted Chauvin because of his notoriety for killing George Floyd, federal prosecutors said.

Disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar was stabbed in July 2023 at a federal penitentiary in Florida, and “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski killed himself at a federal medical center in June 2023.

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Associated Press reporter Farnoush Amiri in Washington contributed to this report.

07/11/2024 01:32 -0400

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