How to fix the Bureau of Prisons

Bureau of Prisons path forward is not complicated, but it does go steeply up hill.

Follow the rest of Federal News Network’s series, The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government.

If my interview series, The Worst Place To Work in the Federal Government, showed anything, it’s that the Bureau of Prisons has a clear path to improvement. It’s not like a corporation whose products are slowly growing out style and require magical insight to restore. But the path rises steeply. And the bureau starts from a deep valley, having the lowest employee satisfaction scores among hundreds of federal government components.

No, BOP has a few discrete things to do. In my interview with BOP Director Collette Peters, I got the impression she’s well aware of what they are. Having spent 10 years as head of corrections for Oregon, she knows what it takes to operate prisons. Her tenure there was no fairlyland, but she did gain a reputation for emphasis on staff wellness and greater humanization of inmates. In joining the Biden administration 10 months ago, Peters left a mixed record in Oregon. To be sure, prisons present difficult challenges, work that is often thankless, with inmate populations that contain a percentage of people simply impervious to correction. So I wish her well in  a monumentally tough job.

To have any effect, Peters will have to stick around. None of my guests in this series — including Gretta Goodwin of the Government Accountability Office, Inspector General Michael Horowitz of the Justice Department, former warden Bob Hood — dismissed the idea of the BOP director having a fixed term appointment. Horowitz expressed dismay that in his 11 years as IG, he’s dealt with 11 BOP directors. Peters alluded to the “weebees,” career managers who say, “We be here before you arrived, we be here when you leave.” To change an organization one must get that level of management on board, or replace it.

As a regular political appointee, she’s not likely to serve for 10 years at BOP. My hardly-profound advice: Move fast and focus on the top of the list.

BOP does have wardens with skill and management ability. Yes, one warden — and his chaplain — recently reported, ironically, to federal prison for sexual assault of female prisoners. But the bulk of correctional officers take the “correctional” part of their titles seriously. As one in my series commented, he really likes running into a former inmate out shopping or bowling or something, and realizing that person won’t return.

With a 40% recidivism rate, BOP is not meeting its mission goals. Reducing that metric will also move that Best Places To Work needle upward. Reducing return inmates requires the right inmate programming available in the necessary degree, something Peters also said she recognizes.

Another way to improve life for the correctional officers and other prison staff members — and inmates for that matter — would be repair of old and crumbling facilities. Peters noted that recent requests for $2 billion in repair and maintenance would only cover deterioration that threatens life and safety, not the totality of what the Bureau needs system-wide.  Even so, Peters said, for this fiscal year Congress only gave BOP $80 million for fixing things. Now BOP has retained a contractor to do an assessment for the entire  need.

Finally, BOP has the universally recognized need to get to full, authorized staffing, as I said at the outset of the series. Prison locations and pay scales make recruitment difficult. In some thinly-populated, rural areas, Peters said, sometimes the prison already employs everyone eligible. Getting someone from Chicago or New York to move to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania or Three Rivers, Texas — why, that’s a hard sell. For people already in the urban areas, BOP pay scales may not cut it.

Maintaining full staffing also requires providing a good employee experience, so people don’t leave as fast as they come in. Officers say full staffing alone will improve their lives by reducing mandatory double-shifts. Other employees, trained in correctional duty though they might be, won’t get yanked off their regular jobs onto the cellblock floor.

Full staffing, better communication from management, coordination between custody and programming, continuity of leadership — this is what the Bureau of Prisons needs. Nothing exotic, but these goals lie behind heavy rocks the bureau needs to push out of the way.


Follow the rest of Federal News Network’s series, The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government.

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