Congress should support independent oversight of federal prisons

Congress should support independent oversight of federal prisons
© Getty Images

If the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) can ignore a United States senator with impunity, what chance does an average citizen with a loved one in prison have of getting their concerns addressed? The answer is likely none. It’s time for Congress to address the BOP’s lack of accountability and transparency by creating an independent body to oversee the agency. 

Nine months ago, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Florida senators pushing to keep Daylight Savings Time during pandemic Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts Chinese, Malaysian hackers accused of targeting over 100 organizations | GOP senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal | QAnon awareness jumps in new poll MORE (R-Fla.) learned of allegations that women were being sexually assaulted by corrections staff at the Coleman federal prison complex in his state. He also had heard reports that Legionnaire’s disease was spreading throughout the complex. He wrote to Attorney General William BarrBill BarrSunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates What Attorney General Barr really said about justice Pelosi: House will use 'every arrow in our quiver' to stop Trump Supreme Court nominee MORE to ask what the BOP, which the Justice Department oversees, was doing to protect women and stop the disease’s spread. Nine months later, Rubio still had not gotten a response

What Rubio experienced is what nearly 160,000 families with people in the BOP’s custody experience every day: maddening silence or, if they’re lucky, getting the run-around in response to inquiries about a loved one’s health, safety, or sometimes even their location. If a U.S. senator cannot get answers from the BOP, imagine what doing so is like for an average person with no political connections. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The media, lawmakers, taxpayers and families are left in the dark about how the BOP runs its 122 prison facilities. Prisoners and their families regularly must resolve problems small, large and life-threatening with the agency, for the years or decades that a sentence lasts. Congress’s judiciary committees hold BOP oversight hearings, but they are rarely in-depth or revealing. At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, committee members were unable to get data from the BOP about basic issues such as coronavirus testing, demographics of people released, and the agency’s response to ongoing federal litigation. An agency that is constitutionally required to maintain the health, safety, and rehabilitation of 160,000 people deserves continuous oversight, not a hearing once or twice a year.  

Nothing has highlighted the urgent need for oversight like seeing the impact of COVID-19 in federal prisons and the BOP’s response to it. To date, 118 prisoners and two staff members have died of the disease. In some instances, families were not even aware their loved ones were sick until the prison chaplain called to let them know the person was in the hospital on a ventilator. Andrea Circle Bear was the first woman to die of COVID-19 in federal prison. Eight months pregnant, she contracted the disease, gave birth to her daughter while on a ventilator, and died weeks later. Her grieving family was told to pick up the baby, but said that BOP otherwise did not provide information to them.

Several states have established effective prison oversight offices to great success. These offices, sometimes called “ombudsmen,” typically are independent from state Departments of Corrections. Their powers include the ability to enter and inspect prisons without notice, conduct confidential interviews with incarcerated people and prison staff, recommend improvements and monitor their implementation, access data and records, and even help resolve complaints from families and prisoners. 

Oversight such as this helps identify and prevent problems (and costly lawsuits) and makes prisons safer places for those who reside and work there. This year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law greatly expanding the powers of the state’s oversight office. Washington State, Pennsylvania and New York also have prison oversight bodies, and Texas has a statewide jail oversight body.    

An ombudsman is not a replacement for congressional oversight, but a complement, to assist members and committees in gathering information and responding to the countless constituent concerns they hear about prisons. Further, an ombudsman office wouldn’t create additional burdens for an over-encumbered prison system. It would serve to gather and share information and to provide a “customer service” resource for family members — not an unreasonable demand when taxpayers spend about $80 billion annually on prisons. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Fortunately, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June, Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinMcConnell focuses on confirming judicial nominees with COVID-19 talks stalled Senate Republicans signal openness to working with Biden Top GOP senator calls for Biden to release list of possible Supreme Court picks MORE (D-Ill.) announced plans to introduce a bill that would create an independent body charged with BOP oversight. Members of Congress should support and pass this bill. Transparency and good government are bipartisan values — and for members of Congress, independent oversight would be a crucial tool.  

Public insight into our federal prisons benefits us all, particularly during a pandemic. For some, it may feel easy to turn a blind eye towards the management of federal prisons. People such as Andrea Circle Bear’s family never had that luxury, and the costs for them have been devastating.  

Kevin Ring is the president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), a national nonprofit organization. He served as counsel to the Senate Judiciary’s Constitution, Federalism and Property Rights Subcommittee under former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and was executive director for the Republican Study Committee in the U.S. House. A former lobbyist, he served time in prison because of his role in the Abramoff lobbying scandal. Follow him on Twitter @KevinARing.