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Watchdog points to low budget requests for prison upkeep issues

Report also highlights $1 billion set aside for two new prison construction projects that largely remains unspent

DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies at a House hearing in February.
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies at a House hearing in February. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Bureau of Prisons has lowballed its budget requests to Congress, which has weakened its ability to address aging and deteriorating infrastructure, a government watchdog said Wednesday.

And the report from the Justice Department’s inspector general pointed to $1 billion Congress has set aside for new prison construction that has gone unspent — including a Kentucky project the government has made “repeated, unsuccessful requests to cancel.”

The DOJ watchdog featured images of crumbling and worn-out infrastructure in the nation’s federal prison system in the report, including images from the now-shuttered institution in lower Manhattan where sex offender Jeffrey Epstein killed himself.

The inspector general’s report said two major factors were to blame in the issues with the agency’s infrastructure planning: a gulf between the available and needed funding, and the lack of a “well-defined infrastructure strategy.”

“Without such a strategy, the BOP is unable to prioritize projects, or effectively communicate its needs to relevant decision-makers, including DOJ leadership, the Office of Management and Budget and Congress,” DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a video posted Wednesday.

The federal watchdog found the BOP did not request enough funding to meet its needs, and the lack of necessary funding leads to costly maintenance.

The prison agency had identified almost $2 billion in modernization and repair needs as of May 2022, according to the report. But BOP sought less than $200 million for its infrastructure in fiscal 2022, and Congress appropriated only $59 million.

A chart in the report shows the budget requests to Congress for maintenance and repairs in fiscal 2019 through 2023 has been “typically far less” than unfunded needs.

“The BOP’s facilities are aging and deteriorating. All 123 of the BOP’s institutions require maintenance, and three prisons are in such disrepair that they are fully or partially closed,” Horowitz said.

A federal prison in Estill, S.C, is partially closed because of tornado damage. Meanwhile, two facilities — one in Taft, Calif., and another in New York City — were closed after “major infrastructure issues were identified and the institutions were deemed no longer safe to occupy,” according to the report.

And as the system faces infrastructure challenges, Congress has put aside more than $1 billion for the agency to build two new institutions, the watchdog report states. But those projects have been in the planning stages for more than 10 years and the funds largely have not been spent.

“The BOP’s requests each year—made at the direction of the Department of Justice and the Office of Management and Budget—that Congress cancel one of these projects and rescind the funds have not been acted on,” according to the report.

In the fiscal 2024 appropriations process, President Joe Biden’s budget request renewed a proposal to eliminate funding for the construction of a new federal prison in eastern Kentucky. The Trump administration had made the same request.

But that project is in the district of Republican Rep. Harold Rogers, a longtime influential appropriator who is now chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding levels for the Justice Department.

Rogers has been defending the Kentucky prison project funding since at least 2017, when he told the attorney general at a hearing that Congress decided to fund the project, “and we expect it to be carried out.”

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