WASHINGTON, DC – Attorney General Merrick Garland calls Collette Peters a “visionary” who will reform the corrupt Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which incarcerates both federal and District of Columbia offenders. The first test of that claim will come Sept. 29 at a Senate Judiciary Committee BOP oversight hearing, when Director Peters will field questions. A new report, unique because it is centered on stories from the people inside the federal system, documents just how probing, persistent and pointed those questions need to be.
“Media and congressional investigations in recent months have exposed crimes such as sexual harassment and unreported deaths at particular institutions, but this report, which for the first time, allows the people still inside to speak out, documents that neglect and abuse are rampant throughout the BOP system,” says Pam Bailey, co-founder of More Than Our Crimes, which collaborated on the report with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Titled “Voices from Within the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” the report shares a variety of detailed, personal stories from across the 122 federal institutions, including substandard medical care, neglect of mental health, unsanitary living conditions, chronic lock downs of entire units or prisons, shoddy programming, physical abuse by prison staff and retaliation against prisoners who file grievances. It suggests that some of the questions asked of Director Peters should include:
- Many of the dysfunctions and abuses that are rampant in federal prisons appear to be system wide. Yet reports from prisoners indicate that staff members often view each institution like its own mini fiefdom. What will you do to impose operating standards and values across such a far-flung network of prisons?
- Although an internal grievance procedure exists so that prisoners can seek redress when rules are violated or other wrongs are committed, incarcerated individuals and their family members report widespread retaliation or deliberate delay or loss of forms when they access the system. What will you do to document the extent of such problems and how could the grievance system be reformed to be safer, more reliable and fair?
- The long-term use of restrictive housing has increased dramatically throughout the BOP in recent decades. This practice is harmful to both prisoners and staff and does not increase security. What steps will you take to reduce or eliminate this practice?
- Internal accountability systems do not function to identify and correct staff misconduct, as has been demonstrated repeatedly by external investigations, journalists, litigation and criminal prosecutions. What steps will you take to strengthen internal accountability to address systemic and individual violations of prisoners’ rights?
- Despite the programming and other incentives built into the First Step Act, punishment and warehousing seem to be the predominant culture across the federal system. What are you prepared to do to strike the right balance between accountability and meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation, available to all prisoners who are ready for and desire it?
Ultimately, More Than Our Crimes and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee are calling for Congress to create an independent body with oversight authority and to repeal the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which prevents incarcerated individuals from seeking relief from the court until they exhaust all internal channels—a process that is too easily thwarted at best and downright dangerous at worst.
“Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that sunlight is ‘the best of disinfectants,’” notes Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “Prisons currently operate in the darkness and shadows. Independent and robust oversight, including and the opportunity for the people we incarcerate to have their concerns heard without fear of retaliation, would shine a much-needed bright light on the noxious conditions behind the walls of FBOP prisons. We hope the new BOP head commits to transparency, accountability and change, and that Congress will hold her to those pledges.”
More Than Our Crimes is a nonprofit initiative under the fiscal sponsorship of the Justice Policy Institute. We advocate for and give voice to the individuals detained in federal prisons, with a special sub-focus on those from the District of Columbia. More Than Our Crimes was co-founded by Robert Barton, now in his 27th year of federal incarceration, at the Coleman 1 penitentiary in Florida, and writer/human rights activist Pam Bailey.
Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs is a nonprofit with a mission of fighting discrimination, repairing the damage of historic racial inequity and breaking down barriers to opportunity.