Politics

A new Bureau of Prisons director gives administration a chance to live up to promises 

(FooTToo/iStock)

This month, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced that Director Michael Carvajal will be resigning. This came as welcome news to advocates who have been calling for a culture change at the bureau. Carvajal, a holdover from the Trump administration, maintained a culture of impunity that President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland were too slow to address.  

While the first year of the Biden administration has been a disappointment on the criminal justice front, Carvajal’s resignation is an opportunity for the administration to finally live up to many of its campaign promises. These include promises to reduce mass incarceration in our federal prison systems, end the inhumane conditions in federal prisons and detention centers across the country, vigorously address the COVID-19 crisis in federal facilities, reverse the increase in the use of solitary confinement, and meaningfully implement the First Step Act.  

Despite an executive order calling for an end to BOP and U.S. Marshals Service contracts with private prisons, under Director Carvajal, BOP and USMS officials turned a blind eye and have gone along as for-profit prison companies create “work-around” third-party contracts so that federal prisoners and detainees can continue to be incarcerated in private facilities. The ACLU’s calls to stop these end-runs around the president’s executive order with private prisons in Kansas and California have been ignored by the White House and DOJ. 

According to BOP data, as of early January 2022, almost 42,000 federal prisoners have been infected with COVID-19, and at least 275 have died. However, these numbers — especially the number of infections — are undercounts due to BOP’s practice of removing positive case counts from their data reports as prisoners who had previously tested positive are released from custody.

In November 2021, an Associated Press investigation found that the BOP, “with an annual budget of nearly $8 billion, is a hotbed of abuse, graft, and corruption, and has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct.” The AP investigation found that BOP employees account for the vast majority of DOJ employees charged with criminal actions, including sexual assaults of colleagues and incarcerated people, smuggling drugs and contraband, and extensive bribery schemes. 

The BOP incarcerates more than 157,000 people, and has about 37,500 employees. In recent years, it has lurched from one crisis to the next, from the rampant spread of coronavirus inside prisons and a failed response to the pandemic. Because one third of all federal correctional officer jobs were vacant before the pandemic, the continued shortage of security staff during the pandemic has resulted in untrained secretaries, cooks, and nurses having to serve as custody officers. Such critically low security staffing levels have hampered responses to emergencies, and led to high-profile escapes, widespread violence, and suicides. Director Carvajal also oversaw the unprecedented killing spree of federal executions during the final months of the Trump administration, which became virus super-spreader events after the BOP lied about the steps they took to reduce the risk

The next BOP director must be willing to take concerted efforts to address these problems from their first day on the job, and that includes embracing transparency, accountability, and evidence-based correctional practices. This requires a person who has the political courage to work with advocates to accelerate the release of medically vulnerable persons who by BOP’s own analysis have no or a very low risk of recidivism. Reducing the prison population is both the most effective way to reduce further COVID-19 outbreaks, and also to address the shortages of custody staff that have led to many of the problems of the past.  

The next director must also be prepared to work with the rank-and-file staff and their unions to address and listen to their concerns, and to inspire staff to envision new ways of doing their work. This includes acknowledging the fundamental human dignity of all incarcerated persons, and making clear to both prisoners and staff that the role of the BOP is to rehabilitate the persons in their custody, and not just warehouse them. Most people in federal prisons are serving sentences between one to 15 years, and 46 percent of incarcerated people in federal prisons are serving time for drug offenses. Most if not all of them will eventually return to our communities, and we collectively want them to return rehabilitated, not broken.    

Moreover, it is imperative that President Biden’s choice for the next leader of the BOP be someone with the vision, skills, courage, and knowledge to provide real leadership to implement the president’s campaign promises to reduce mass incarceration and reform the department from top to bottom. This requires a person who embraces change versus someone who wants to maintain the status quo. As another highly transmissible variant spreads throughout the country, there is no time to waste.  

Corene Kendrick is deputy director of ACLU National Prison Project.

Tags COVID-19 Joe Biden mass incarceration Merrick Garland Private prison Recidivism

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