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Senate Judiciary panel to hear about federal inmate deaths

A watchdog review found Bureau of Prisons deficiencies created unsafe conditions in the nation’s federal prisons

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies at a House hearing last year. He is expected to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for a hearing on inmate deaths.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies at a House hearing last year. He is expected to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for a hearing on inmate deaths. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to question the head of the federal prison system Wednesday after a scathing watchdog report found systemic and operational failures contributed to scores of prisoner deaths.

The Justice Department’s inspector general reviewed hundreds of inmate deaths and found serious issues at the Bureau of Prisons that created unsafe conditions. The report criticized the agency’s emergency response to inmate deaths, raised doubts about its ability to properly assess inmate mental health and detailed failures in the agency’s efforts to root out contraband drugs and weapons.

Chronic problems within the bureau also were contributing factors to inmate deaths, the report stated, as it pointed to staffing shortages, an ineffective staff disciplinary process and an out-of-date security camera system.

Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters and DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, whose office released the report this month, are expected to appear before the Judiciary panel for a hearing on medical and non-medical inmate deaths.

Horowitz, in a video released along with the report, said it’s critical that the agency address the challenges, “so it can operate safe and humane facilities and protect inmates in its custody and care.” He said the report “identifies numerous operational and managerial deficiencies, which created unsafe conditions prior to and at the time of a number of these deaths.”

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin announced the hearing shortly after the report was released, saying that accountability in the bureau “is necessary and long overdue.” The Illinois Democrat issued a statement that more needs to be done, even as the agency has moved toward a new course since Peters became BOP director in 2022.

“It is deeply disturbing that today’s report found that the majority of BOP’s non-medical deaths in custody could have been prevented or mitigated by greater compliance with BOP policy, better staffing, and increased mental health and substance abuse treatment,” Durbin said earlier this month.

Senators on the Judiciary panel will also hold a subcommittee hearing later Wednesday about the nation’s “correctional staffing crisis.”

The system also faces other issues, such as keeping up its prison infrastructure, with the inspector general’s office last year reporting that the agency is in dire need but had lowballed maintenance funding requests for years.

Report details

The DOJ inspector general report reviewed 344 inmate deaths from fiscal years 2014 to 2021, with suicide accounting for just over half of the deaths.

The report highlighted the high-profile inmate deaths of Jeffrey Epstein, the registered sex offender, and gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, both instances that grabbed national headlines and drew attention to conditions inside the federal prison system.

The inspector general’s report did not document deaths related to health care and instead analyzed inmate deaths due to suicide, homicide, accident and “unknown factors.”

Among the inmates who died by suicide, more than half were housed alone in a cell, a practice that the bureau itself has recommended against, noting that it heightens the risks of prisoner suicide, according to the report. The inspector general’s office found that prison agency staff did not “sufficiently conduct” inmate rounds or counts in more than a third of the suicides outlined in the report.

In almost half of the inmate deaths, investigators found “significant shortcomings” in the bureau’s emergency response. Those issues included a lack of response urgency, unclear communications via radio and not bringing a defibrillator to a medical emergency.

There were also issues with the administration of the anti-overdose drug naloxone, and medical staff members reported that they believed correctional officers were uncomfortable administering the drug despite being trained, the report found.

Investigators also zeroed in on contraband in prison facilities. Contraband drugs or weapons contributed, or appeared to contribute, to nearly a third of the inmate deaths that investigators reviewed, according to the report. That included 70 inmates who died from drug overdoses.

The report touched on one case in which an inmate was able to collect more than 1,000 pills even though the cell was searched the day before the death.

“The BOP’s reconstruction report indicated that, if staff had prevented the inmate from acquiring the large amount of medication, the suicide may have been prevented,” the report stated.

Weapons can be fashioned from things inside a facility like locks, belts and bed frames, according to the report, and staff at one location estimated that around 70 to 80 percent of its inmates had some type of contraband weapon.

The bureau, in a statement, acknowledged “the tragic nature of unexpected deaths among those in our care” and said it has taken “substantial steps” to mitigate deaths.

“We are committed to suicide prevention, substance use disorder treatment, and combating contraband,” the bureau said.

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