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Congress poised to spend less on federal prison infrastructure

Senate and House appropriations bills are short of the almost $2 billion in modernization and repair needs the agency identified

The Metropolitan Correctional Center, which is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, was closed in 2021 because of "substantial building deficiencies" that jeopardized safety, a DOJ watchdog report stated.
The Metropolitan Correctional Center, which is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, was closed in 2021 because of "substantial building deficiencies" that jeopardized safety, a DOJ watchdog report stated. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Congress is poised to spend less next fiscal year on federal prison infrastructure, even as a federal watchdog reported this year that the agency is in dire need and has lowballed maintenance funding requests for years.

A report from the Justice Department’s inspector general earlier this year featured images of crumbling and worn-out facilities in the federal Bureau of Prisons, a system in which about a third of the institutions are more than 50 years old.

Federal prisons across the nation need maintenance, and three facilities were in such bad shape that they were fully or partially closed as of last fall, the DOJ inspector general’s office reported in May.

That includes the shuttered high-rise facility in lower Manhattan where sex offender Jeffrey Epstein killed himself. Meanwhile, some lawmakers have proposed legislation to overhaul federal prison oversight that includes a provision to score facilities in terms of risk and outline recommendations.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will get a chance to press on infrastructure issues when federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters appears Wednesday for an oversight hearing.

Funding proposals

Senate appropriators have proposed $209 million for the agency’s building and facilities account in fiscal 2024, while lawmakers on the House side have sought to allocate $273 million in their draft Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill.

But both figures are far short of the almost $2 billion in modernization and repair needs the agency identified as of May 2022, according to the inspector general report. The figure also did not include projects less than $300,000.

The federal prison system received $290 million in fiscal 2023 for its building and facilities account. A total of $108 million came through regular appropriations while additional $182 million was provided through emergency funding.

Shane Fausey, who recently ended a stint as the national president for the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals, said the fiscal 2024 funding amount proposed by congressional lawmakers is “insulting” and would not even begin to tackle the backlog.

The men and women who work in the federal prison system deserve a clean and safe environment to work in, and people who are incarcerated also deserve to have a clean, safe and humane environment, Fausey said.

“And I think systemically we’re falling short on that, just because of this backlog of these life safety systems that are broken or in disrepair,” Fausey said.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons said the agency has worked to “develop and implement strategies” to request the needed resources to help the “aging prison infrastructure challenges.”

“Receiving additional funding is vital to address immediate needs and to prevent conditions from worsening from their current state,” the spokesperson said. “The FBOP is very much in need of infrastructure funding to keep all systems and structures in a good state of repair.”

The DOJ watchdog report included photos of cracked and rusted infrastructure, and it said roofing and HVAC systems were among the top areas of need when it came to estimated costs.

The Bureau of Prisons is responsible for a sprawling infrastructure footprint that covers about 65 million square feet of floor area in more than 120 institutions across the nation.

The bureau projects that its prison population will increase through fiscal 2024, as will overcrowding in parts of the system, all while the infrastructure is exposed to more aging and deterioration, the watchdog report said.

The agency lacks the funding to keep up with its maintenance repairs, and the cost of an unfinished project only increases the more it’s delayed due to inflation and further deterioration, according to the inspector general’s report.

But the federal watchdog didn’t put all the blame on Congress.

While the prison agency had about $1.5 billion in modernization and repair needs in 2021, it sought less than $200 million for that area in fiscal 2022, and Congress appropriated only $59 million.

The report said the bureau did not have a clear infrastructure strategy, making it more challenging for the agency to communicate its needs to Congress and leadership in the executive branch.

Going without such a strategy, the agency is “unable to prioritize projects, or effectively communicate its needs” to decision-makers, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a video posted in May.

Another issue in the prison agency is its inability to get projects off the ground, even when the funding is provided.

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 stated. But those projects have been in the planning stages for more than 10 years and the funds largely have not been spent, it said.

In the fiscal 2024 appropriations process, the Biden administration has renewed a proposal to eliminate funding for the construction of a new federal prison in Letcher County, Ky. GOP lawmakers in the House have sought to reject that proposal, according to a Republican bill summary.

Legislative proposal

A bipartisan slate of lawmakers are pushing a bill that would direct the Justice Department’s inspector general to conduct inspections of federal prison facilities and report their recommendations and findings to the public.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., one of the lawmakers backing the legislation, said he’s supportive of prison infrastructure funding, but said there needs to be changes and oversight to make sure it’s being implemented properly.

Aside from the need to provide basic facilities, poor prison conditions could open the government up to significant liability, which could end up costing American taxpayer money, Armstrong said.

“I think there are facilities that exist within our system that run the real risk of costing taxpayers a lot of money in a lawsuit, and we should fix it and we should make sure that we do it well,” he said.

But Armstrong also pointed to the infrastructure funds that are going unused.

“They’re asking for less money than they should have, and they can’t spend the money we give them — that’s a real problem,” he said.

Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., a former sheriff who also supports the prison oversight bill, said he wants to make sure government funding goes to the right place.

Older prisons weren’t built with reentry in mind, Rutherford said, and the conditions of confinement can influence whether a person returns to society rehabilitated — or more angry at society.

“We’ve got to look at how we’re treating them while we’ve got them housed, and then how we reintegrate them back into society, so it’s not one or the other. We’ve got to be looking at both,” Rutherford said.

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