I’ve been thinking about federal prison

It’s an unusual feature of today’s politics: Supporters of both 2016 presidential candidates call for imprisonment of the opposite-party candidate. Seeing President Trump and Mrs. Clinton in close proximity at the funeral of President Bush 41 the other day, I could imagine a hissed exchange. “You should be in jail!” “No, you should be in jail!”

In a nation where more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated and another nearly five million are on parole, prison seems to be a common fate.

Most prisoners live in state, county or municipal prisons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, part of the Justice Department, houses, as of Tuesday, 180,841. That’s down from a peak of 219,298 in 2012.

Its web site states, “We are an agency like no other.” That’s true. It has a necessary but unhappy mission. If you want to get a grim reality check, check out the Entering Prison page.

BOP is also an agency in distress. For one thing, It’s processes are in need of at least some digital upgrades. Numerous testimonies, like this one from a group called Prison Professors, describe a slow, paper-driven process of simply checking people in.

Worse, though, is a staffing crisis. Several years have passed since the Government Accountability Office took a look at BOP. But back in 2014 it noted that the federal prison population had grown by 50 percent in the previous 15 years. BOP was struggling to keep up. It couldn’t avoid crowding, a big contributor to violence.

The guard population has also been shrinking. The BOP early this year announced a 12 percent staff reduction through attrition, citing the falling prison population. In February, USA Today reported that nurses and cooks were being assigned to guard duty. Whatever the authorized staffing levels, BOP has thousands of vacancies, including for guards.

Perhaps the facility at Hazelton, West Virginia exemplifies BOP’s problems. Just before Thanksgiving, guards — who are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees — marched in favor of more staffing. Two guards had been recently assaulted by inmates and three Hazelton inmates were murdered last year.

Among the dispatched: Famed Boston gangster, former FBI informant and convicted murderer Whitey Bulger. That case has prompted a lot of questions about why Bulger was moved to Hazelton and how he was left alone and out of sight of security cameras. Despite the understandable desire for revenge against a person like Bulger, federal prisons shouldn’t be sites of extra-judicial proceedings. It’s a serious issue and still not fully explained.

A New York Times article last month detailed the special dangers and humiliations of female federal prison guards. According to that account, sometimes male officers and supervisors don’t respond appropriately to harassment committed — or attempted — by the inmates. The piece noted that BOP paid a $20 million settlement to women employees in 2017. How many guards, how much training might that $20 million have bought?

That was followed up by a September 2018 inspector general report on BOP management, not of female guards but of female prisoners, of which BOP houses some 13,000. The IG found the bureau did not take a strategic approach. That resulted in uneven levels of attention to special requirements of female prisoners. Last month acting BOP director Hugh Hurwitz testified to accepting all 10 of the IG’s recommendations.

If, at a given population, prisons are dangerous to inmates and guards, it stands to reason that leaving staff levels as they are as the inmate population drops would increase safety and effectiveness. Simply dropping staffing in tandem with the inmates would maintain the ratios that produce danger and gaps in care. What am I missing?

BOP uses contracted-out prisons for about 11 percent of its inmates. A 2016 inspector general look-see found that commercial prisons — always controversial — had more adverse incidents per capita than BOP’s own prisons.

So there’s a lot of work to do. All the more important as Congress possibly takes up criminal justice and sentencing reform in the next session.

Regardless of how many people are incarcerated and for how long, prisons should be safe and humane. Threats to life and limb should not be a regular feature for service as a guard. In these issues, the Bureau of Prisons operates in a much broader environment involving law enforcement, immigration, the courts and Congress. It doesn’t entirely control its own destiny. And it doesn’t deal with the same population as, say, Marriott.

The very fact of incarceration, to my mind, is severe-enough punishment for crime. If you’ve ever visited anyone serving time in prison, it hits you when you leave, head out to your car and drive off to dinner or shopping or your private home.

You think, instead, where do they head after leaving a tile visiting area that makes a bus terminal seem like luxurious?


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