Democratic senators on Tuesday grilled the head of the federal Bureau of Prisons over the treatment of inmates and spending during a testy hearing before the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs panel.
Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels defended the agency and said they were forced to deal with a large inmate population with limited resources.
“The bureau does not control the number of inmates in our system, or the length of their stay,” Samuels told lawmakers.
Samuels denied that federal prison officials used solitary confinement.
“We do not practice solitary confinement,” he said.
“Our practice has always been to ensure that when individuals are placed in restrictive housing, we put them in a cell with another individual,” he continued, adding that staff members periodically make rounds to check in on them.
Samuels added that barring evidence that an inmate poses a threat to others or a medical evaluation calling for solitary confinement, “we do not under any circumstances, nor have we ever had the practice of putting an individual in a cell alone.”
Booker expressed surprise at those claims.
“That’s astonishing to me, and I’d love to explore that further, because all of the evidence is that it is a practice at the federal level,” he said.
Samuels described Special Housing Units, an agency alternative housing method that lasts on average 65 days, but insisted it was not solitary.
McCaskill noted that only 5 percent of the bureau's prisoners have committed violent crimes.
“You don’t even have primary jurisdiction probably on most of those crimes in the federal system,” she continued.
“The federal law enforcement system was not designed or ever intended to address what most people think of as crime in this country,” she said.
“You’re spending 7 bullion dollars, and 95 percent of that money is being spent on non-violent offenders. That’s an astounding number.
“How many times have you been brought into the policy questions of who is being prosecuted in the federal system and why? Because you guys don’t get 911 calls,” McCaskill continued.
She said federal prosecutors “get to decide what they want to prosecute, unlike state prosecutors who have to make a decision on every single case.”
“For any policy decisions, relative to who is being prosecuted, that remains with my colleagues in the department,” Samuels said of the Justice Department.
The hearing also comes amid a renewed push for prison and sentencing reform in Washington.
Samuels accompanied President Obama on a recent tour of the El Reno correctional institution in Oklahoma. Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison and cited issues with overcrowding and mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.
“This huge spike in incarcerations is also driven by nonviolent drug offenses where the sentencing is completely out of proportion with the crime,” Obama said after the visit.