Does federal customer experience extend to prisoners?

Customer experience — it’s the word on many an agency’s collective mind these days as they try to modernize how they deliver services and generally interact with the public.

Many years ago, an official commented on how state and local government represented “retail” government, while the federal government represented “wholesale” — not dealing directly with the public very often.

That model doesn’t hold up. In reality, people interact with the federal government and federal employees in countless ways. An animation the Obama administration made early on depicted a person’s interactions with the federal government from cradle to grave. The Founding Fathers unlikely envisioned that model for their new republic, having disliked the depredations of King George III. But in 2021, to use a piece of vernacular blather, it is what it is.

Therefore, the customer experience drive is a worthy one. It recognizes two things.

One, that for a passport, a Social Security account, a card to get through airport screening easier, a research grant, an airplane pilot’s license, a gun background check, or a $2 bill — you’ve only got one source. The federal government is a monopoly for most of what it offers.

Second, that for legitimacy and basic public support, the government needs to be easy to deal with and responsive. Often feds say they want to be as good as the best of the private sector.

Sometimes the government is not issuing benefits like passports or Medicare cards. Many agencies have law enforcement missions, and those come with hard edges.

But several agencies manage to at least relate to the public in a way that furthers the mission and give out information that can keep well-intentioned people out of trouble. Those activities are more public relations than customer experience, but they’re connected. The Transportation Security Administration falls into that category. No one likes screening and the carry-on restrictions, yet on the whole the TSA does a creditable job on a mission made necessary by an irrational world.

It even manages to put a human, and slightly humorous, face on its mission with its online advice for travelers. TSA Valentine’s Day blog, for instance, gave the “good news” that battery operated, including rechargeable, “adult-type products” are allowed in carry-on luggage. Good to know.

TSA’s general reminders blog for last week’s Prohibited Items Week, states, “If we had a nickel for every knife we see in a carry-on bag, well, we’d all be retired and off living on some beautiful island by now.” The bloggers also point out that even in the depressed travel year of 2020, concealed guns per passenger rates went up.

Luckily, on the mission delivery itself, it’s fair to say that the airport customer service on the whole exhibits the training and self-discipline the officers have.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is also no-nonsense. I’ve personally known a couple of people over the decades who found out the hard way. You think you’re out on a Saturday morning to pick up bagels. You come back to your car, and they’re waiting. Game’s up. You get home eight years later.

So don’t smuggle illegal drugs.

Yet even the DEA has public facing activities that humanize the agency while also delivering on part of its mission. Tomorrow is one of its twice-a-year Take-Back days where consumers can get rid of unused prescription medications, those in pill form anyway. I was surprised to learn there’s a DEA Foundation that sponsors after-school dance programs to help keep kids out of trouble from the temptations of boredom.

What about when “customers” experience the government against their will? For example, if they commit a crime, get caught and are sentenced to prison. Ideas about incarceration have changed a lot since, say, the Victorian era. In those days, in England anyhow, prisoners held in squalor also were forced to pay their “gaoler” for food and certain services — such as the act of having themselves locked into shackles.

This came to mind in an interview with the Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. They found substandard conditions for detention of illegal immigrants at a contractor-operated center in Eloy, Arizona, known as the La Palma Correction Center. It’s operated by a contractor called CoreCivic. Contractors operating prisons on behalf of the government have long been controversial. They are certainly a challenge for contract management and oversight.

A statutorily required inspection of the facility — done virtually — found “violations of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention standards that threatened the health, safety, and rights of detainees.” And this: La Palma “did not meet standards for medical care, segregation, grievances, or detainee communication. We found that the medical unit was critically understaffed, took an average of 3.35 days to respond to detainee sick call requests, and neglected to refill some prescription medications.”

OIG Senior Advisor Ellen McSweeney told me ICE made changes and is en route to fixing the problems. But it didn’t concur with the OIG on all of the recommendations, and the two sides are in a bit of a tug of war.

Now, the United States is undergoing an immigration crisis, largely self-inflicted because of political sclerosis. Regardless of what one thinks of illegal border crossers, those detained are human beings protected by statutory and policy standards. McSweeney and deputy IG Glenn Sklar point out, immigration law is civil, not criminal.

No one expects detention, whether civil or criminal, to take place at the Ritz Carlton. From the pictures, La Palma is clearly a prison, much less the Eloy Motel 6. But since incarceration itself is a punishing condition in the first place, it must also be humane, safe, fair and standards-based. A tall order for the staff, the management, and the taxpayers. That’s especially so when the influx of immigrants is at high levels, and all the more difficult when agencies use contractors, which according to Sklar, ICE does for 70% of its detention facilities.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

25-year-old Oxford University medical student ran the fist ever sub-four-minute mile on May 6,  1954. Physiologists at the time told him that the goal was unachievable and was dangerous even attempt.

Source: Guinness World Records

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