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November 30, 2022

Accountability for Prison Conditions

Are Changes Coming?

A congressional investigation into the U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta confirmed reports of drug trafficking and violence.

A congressional investigation into the U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta confirmed reports of drug trafficking and violence.

Many people base their perception of federal prison conditions on crime shows and movies that portray a stark and difficult life. Sometimes, however, the truth can be harsher than fiction. In February of this year, the Associated Press reported on a “rape club” at the Federal Correctional Institution for women in Dublin, California – the investigation of which led to the arrest of its warden. A congressional investigation into the U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta confirmed reports by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of drug trafficking and violence, as well as “horrific” conditions for those who had not yet been tried for their alleged offenses. While these two facilities present extreme situations, they are not alone. A Senate hearing in July focused on how a lack of transparency and accountability has enabled many years of poor conditions and coverups. One proposed solution to these problems is awaiting action in Congress.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal prison facilities reported the rapid spread of the coronavirus, which led to class action litigation against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to address the safety of those living or working in the facilities. That litigation produced depositions and expert testimony of prisoner conditions, care, and abuse. In July of this year, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) issued a subpoena for the then-director for BOP to testify as to how the conditions could persist but were not satisfied by his responses. In October 2022, following a federal judge’s admonition of the BOP that it “should be deeply ashamed” for its “demonstrated contempt for the safety and dignity of the human lives in its care,” the Department of Justice launched its own investigation.

To address and prevent these problems, PSI Chairman Jon Ossoff (D-GA) introduced bipartisan legislation to bring necessary oversight and accountability to federal prisons: S. 4988, the Federal Prison Oversight Act. Among other things, the legislation would create the position of ombudsman within the Department to, among other things, receive and investigate complaints from those incarcerated, their families, or their representatives. An identical, bipartisan bill was introduced in the House as H.R. 9009 by Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA).

The ABA has, for decades, called for reforms to the American correctional system and to how we treat those in custody. In 2008, the ABA produced a blueprint for oversight that includes minimum requirements for oversight of correctional systems. S. 4988/H.R. 9009 echo many of the ABA’s recommendations. While passage of the bills is unlikely this Congress, they are expected to return in the next one. The BOP now has a new director who does not come from within the agency’s culture and is open to reforms. Whether and how the BOP changes may come down to the willingness of lawmakers and their constituents to support a system that provides a safe environment, humane treatment, and the programs necessary to help former offenders return to society as more productive members of their community.

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