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Congress passes bill to overhaul troubled federal Bureau of Prisons – Boston Herald

By meerna Jul11,2024
Congress passes bill to overhaul troubled federal Bureau of Prisons – Boston Herald

By MICHAEL R. SISAK and MICHAEL BALSAMO

The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation to improve oversight and bring more transparency to the crisis-ridden federal Bureau of Prisons after an Associated Press expose of systemic corruption in the federal prison system and increased congressional scrutiny.

The federal prison oversight bill, which the House passed in May, now heads to President Joe Biden for signature. It establishes an independent agency ombudsman who would hear and investigate complaints about rampant sexual abuse and other misconduct by staff, chronic understaffing, escapes and high-profile deaths.

It also requires the Justice Department’s inspector general to conduct risk-based inspections of all 122 federal prisons, make recommendations to address deficiencies and assign each facility a risk score. Higher-risk facilities would then be inspected more often.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat, introduced the bill in 2022 investigating the Bureau of Prisons as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on investigations. The bill passed unanimously Wednesday without a formal roll-call vote, meaning no senators objected.

Ossoff and two other sponsors of the bill, Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, R-Illinois, and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Indiana, launched the Bipartisan Prison Policy Working Group in February 2022 amid a turmoil at the Bureau of Prisons, much of it exposed by AP reporting. Reps. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Lucy McBath, R-Georgia, sponsored the House version of the bill.

In a statement, Ossoff called Wednesday’s passage a “key milestone” and said his investigation “revealed the urgent need for a fundamental overhaul of federal prison oversight.”

Advocates for people imprisoned also praised the bill’s passage.

“After all the headlines, scandals and controversies that have plagued the Bureau of Prisons for decades, we are thrilled to see this Congress take action to bring transparency and accountability to an agency that has failed to address this for so long,” said Daniel Landsman, vice president of policy at the advocacy group FAMM.

Jonathan Zumkehr, union president at the federal prison in Thomson, Illinois, said the legislation would also help protect prison workers. At his facility, women were subjected to more than 1,600 incidents of sexual harassment and abuse by inmates between 2019 and 2023 and had few options to prevent it, he said.

“Inmates were exposing themselves every day, and management was like, ‘Oh no, this has never happened here, it’s only happened a few times,’” Zumkehr said. The newly passed bill, he said, “would force an investigation to say, ‘Hey, did this happen?’ and force the number of sexual assaults to be reported by an inmate to a staff member and vice versa.”

“That would be a big deal because the office currently does not track sexual assaults against employees,” said Zumkehr, who is seeking separate legislation to make such conduct a federal crime.

The Bureau of Prisons received a message seeking comment.

Under the legislation, an independent federal prisoner rights ombudsman would collect complaints through a secure hotline and online form, then investigate and report to the attorney general and Congress unsafe conditions that affect the health, safety, welfare or rights of prisoners and staff.

In addition to inspecting prisons, the regulations require the Justice Department’s inspector general to report any findings and recommendations to Congress and the public. The Bureau of Prisons would then have to respond with a corrective action plan within 60 days.

In December 2022, Biden signed a separate bill from Ossoff requiring the Bureau of Prisons to repair broken surveillance cameras and install new ones.

An ongoing Associated Press investigation has uncovered serious, previously undisclosed misconduct at the Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest law enforcement agency, with more than 30,000 employees, 158,000 inmates and an annual budget of about $8 billion.

AP reporting has revealed dozens of escapes, chronic violence, deaths and severe staffing shortages that have hampered response to crises, including inmate assaults and suicides.

In April, the Bureau of Prisons said it was closing a women’s prison in Dublin, California, known as a “rape club,” abandoning efforts to reform the facility after an AP investigation revealed rampant sexual abuse of inmates by staff.

Last year, two high-ranking inmates were attacked in federal prisons, and one committed suicide.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was stabbed 22 times by a fellow inmate last November at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tucson, Arizona. The suspect said he targeted Chauvin because of his notoriety for killing George Floyd, federal prosecutors said.

Disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar was stabbed in July 2023 in a Florida federal prison, and “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski committed suicide in a federal medical facility in June 2023.

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Associated Press reporter Farnoush Amiri in Washington contributed to this report.

By meerna

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