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Federal prison director tells senators about staffing ‘crisis’

Bureau of Prisons incomes can't compete with the private sector and other law enforcement agencies

Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters testifies as Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz listens during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on deaths in federal prisons.
Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters testifies as Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz listens during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on deaths in federal prisons. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators zeroed in on chronic staffing problems in the federal Bureau of Prisons on Wednesday, as the head of the agency said the system faces a “crisis” in recruiting and retaining employees.

Long-standing staffing shortages were among the problems cited in a scathing watchdog report this month that found systemic and operational failures contributed to scores of prisoner deaths over the years.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters said they have thrown every incentive they can at the problem — such as raising the base salary for correctional officers by $2,000 — but are still not able to compete with the private sector and other law enforcement agencies.

One correctional officer at a federal prison about an hour outside of Boston recently quit for a better offer working at a grocery store, Peters told lawmakers. In another example, one advertisement in the New York City subway said city correctional officers can make around $130,000 after a certain amount of time on the job, she said.

“While in the same amount of time, our officers, after we’ve implemented the 35 percent retention bonus, would be making about $90,000. The story is the same throughout the country,” Peters said.

“The bottom line, as I said in my opening comments, is we need to pay them more,” she said, describing the recruitment incentives as “Band-Aids.” The government, she said, must figure out how to increase the base salary.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said at the hearing that border patrol agents can start out making many thousands of dollars more than correctional officers, and reported that border agents can top out at an annual income above six figures, even without becoming a supervisor.

“It’s great trouble competing with other law enforcement agencies,” Peters responded.

Senate appropriators have proposed $8.47 billion for BOP salaries and expenses in a fiscal 2024 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, while lawmakers on the House side proposed $8.49 billion in their draft version of that spending bill.

Either figure, if enacted, would be a slight increase from a fiscal year 2023 allocation of $8.39 billion.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said the agency has simply not been provided enough resources.

“I have a lot of frustrations obviously with what’s going on. But I’ve watched you now as a professional struggle mightily to meet the demands that are put on you in a moment where Congress is not giving you the resources necessary to do your job,” Booker said.

Staffing issues are in the spotlight after a DOJ inspector general report this month slammed 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.

The report reviewed 344 inmate deaths and concluded that issues, such as a failure to adhere to policies and procedures, were contributing to inmate deaths.

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., used the hearing to underscore the findings of the watchdog report, which found that suicide accounted for just over half of the deaths the inspector general’s office reviewed.

Of the suicides, almost half took place in a “restrictive housing setting,” the report said.

“It’s time for solutions and change,” Durbin told Peters. “The lives of hundreds of Americans in Bureau of Prisons custody are at risk.”

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