Congress passes bill to restructure oversight of problematic federal prisons

Congress passes bill to restructure oversight of problematic federal prisons

The action was triggered by the sexual abuse of imprisoned women in the now closed Dublin prison and other scandals.

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WASHINGTON, DC — The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation to restructure oversight and increase transparency at the troubled Federal Bureau of Prisons, following Associated Press reports exposing systematic corruption in the federal prison system and increased congressional scrutiny.

The Federal Prison Oversight Act, which the House of Representatives passed in May, now goes to President Joe Biden to sign into law. It would establish an independent ombudsman for the agency to receive and investigate complaints about rampant sexual abuse and other criminal misconduct by staff, chronic staff shortages, escapes and celebrity deaths.

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It also requires the Justice Department’s inspector general to conduct risk-based inspections of all 122 federal prisons, make recommendations to correct deficiencies, and assign a risk score to each facility. Higher-risk facilities would then be inspected more frequently.

Senator Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia) introduced the bill in 2022 while leading an investigation into the Bureau of Prisons as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s Investigations Committee.

Ossoff and the bill’s other two sponsors, Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mike Braun (R-Indiana), formed the Senate Bipartisan Working Group on Prison Policy, much of which was reported by AP, in February 2022 amid the turmoil at the prison bureau. Reps. Kelly Armstrong (R-D) and Lucy McBath (D-Georgia) sponsored the House version of the bill.

In a statement, Ossoff called Wednesday’s passage of the law “an important milestone” and said his investigation had “highlighted the urgent need for an overhaul of federal oversight of prisons.”

“After all the headlines, scandals and controversy that have plagued the Bureau of Prisons for decades, we are very pleased that Congress is taking action to bring transparency and accountability to an agency that has gone without it for so long,” said Daniel Landsman, vice president of policy for the prisoner rights group FAMM.

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

Under the bill, the independent prison ombudsman would accept complaints through a secure hotline and online form and then investigate dangerous conditions that affect the health, safety, welfare and rights of inmates and staff and report them to the Attorney General and Congress.

In addition to inspecting prison facilities, the law requires the Justice Department’s Inspector General to report all findings and recommendations to Congress and the public. The Bureau of Prisons would then have to respond with a corrective action plan within 60 days.

An ongoing Associated Press investigation has uncovered profound, previously unreported deficiencies in 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 reports uncovered dozens of outbreaks, chronic violence, deaths and severe staff shortages that hampered response to emergencies, including assaults and inmate suicides.