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Sex Abuse, Corruption in U.S. Prisons to Be Examined By Lawmakers

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the government agency responsible for more than 150,000 inmates inside 122 facilities across the country, has been operating in crisis mode for months. Widespread corruption, abuse among workers, critical staff shortages and the rampant spread of COVID-19 among prisoners are culminating in an avalanche of inmate abuse problems for the BOP. 

To strengthen the oversight of the agency and improve its communication with Congress, a group of senators has launched the Senate Bipartisan Prison Policy Working Group. The bipartisan group includes Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. 

barbed wire of prison fence at sunset

Ossoff, in a Feb. 17 statement announcing the group’s formation, stressed his belief that U.S. prisons are “…horrifically dysfunctional and too often places where brutality and criminality are prevalent.”  

By creating the group and examining the conditions of prisons within the BOP, the senators are aiming to “…improve the safety and well-being of incarcerated people and staff, reduce recidivism rates, and promote transparency,” said Ossoff, who also introduced the legislation for the Prison Camera Reform Act of 2021 back in October. 

An Agency in Flux

The new group’s work begins just as Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Director Michael Carvajal’s job comes to an end. The embattled director announced his retirement in early January; the Justice Department is currently searching for his replacement. Carvajal was hired under the Trump administration by then-Attorney General William Barr. 

His time in office, coinciding with the pandemic was marred by mismanagement regarding infections among prisoners. According to BOP data, more than 50,000 federal prisoners have contracted the virus, and almost 300 have died. 

Carvajal’s tenure also saw myriad instances of corruption and sexual abuse at several prisons, according to a scathing November 2021 article by the Associated Press. The report found that since 2019, more than 100 workers at federal prisons have been arrested, convicted or sentenced of crimes. It described the BOP as “a hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption.’’ 

The article detailed damning instances of sexual abuse, including several at California’s FCI Dublin prison in which the former warden and other officials assaulted female inmates. 

Last month, former FCI Dublin chaplain James Theodore Highhouse was arrested on sex abuse charges. He pled guilty to five felonies on Feb. 23, admitting, among other things, that he repeatedly sexually abused a female inmate under the guise of providing spiritual guidance in his office. Highhouse also admitted lying to federal agents about his actions. 

Legislative Changes in Hiring Practices Expected 

In addition to the working group tasked with overhauling the Federal Bureau of Prisons, members of Congress are moving forward on a bill called the Federal Prisons Accountability Act of 2022

The bipartisan legislation, introduced in 2020 and now again by Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pa.), would require future agency directors to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This stipulation already exists in almost every major federal entity, including the FBI, ATF and DEA.  

Carvajal was appointed by the U.S. Attorney General.

The act would also limit the director to one 10-year-term.

The president’s selected nominee would undergo a Senate hearing and confirmation vote. Keller said the bill would demand “…further accountability” from the BOP if the bill is approved.

Further Investigation by Durbin’s Senate Judiciary Committee

The Senate Judiciary Committee is also examining the recent problems at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. On Feb. 23, Durbin and senators Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) and Alex Padilla (D-Ca.) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, asking for information concerning the prison’s recent reports of employee misconduct. Their request also included details on what procedures are currently in place to stem sexual abuse within the prison system. 

“BOP employs more than 36,000 individuals, the majority of whom are honest and dutiful,” read the letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. “Still, the misconduct of even a small percentage of BOP staff can ravage the lives of individuals in the Bureau’s custody and damage the reputation and credibility of the institution.”

Garland and Monaco have not yet publicly responded to the request.