WASHINGTON (AP) — For years the federal Bureau of Prisons has been plagued by systematic failures, from massive staffing shortages to chronic violence. But the largest agency in the Justice Department has largely stayed out of the public view.
The death of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein and the revelation that he was able to kill himself while behind bars at one of the most secure jails in America has cast a spotlight on the agency, which has been besieged by serious misconduct in recent years.
Staffing shortages at the agency — it employs more than 35,000 people and has an annual budget of more than $7 billion — are so severe that guards often work overtime day after day or are forced to work mandatory double shifts. Violence leads to regular lockdowns at federal prison compounds across the nation, and a congressional report released this year found “bad behavior is ignored or covered up on a regular basis.”
At the same time, the Bureau of Prisons will be responsible for carrying out the first federal executions in more than 15 years, the first of which is scheduled for Dec. 9.
Issues at the Bureau of Prisons are likely to take center stage Tuesday as the agency’s new director appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her appearance comes as federal prosecutors in New York prepare to charge two correctional officers who were responsible for guarding Epstein when he took his own life in August at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. The city’s medical examiner ruled Epstein's death a suicide.
The officers are suspected of failing to check on him every half-hour, as required, and of fabricating log entries to claim they had done so. Federal prosecutors offered the guards a plea bargain, but the officers declined the deal, according to people familiar with the case. The people insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Officials at the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment, though they have said that they will make hiring and training their top priorities.
The falsification of records has been a problem throughout the federal prison system. Union officials have long argued that the reduction of staff is putting guards and inmates in danger, but they’ve faced an uphill battle as society turns a blind eye. The agency’s director, Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, sent a memo to senior prison system officials that detailed how a review at facilities across the country found some staff members failed to perform required rounds and inmate counts but logged that they had done so anyway.
Across the board, the Bureau of Prisons has been down 4,000 jobs since 2017. Some officers are forced to work so much overtime that they skip going home between shifts and sleep in their cars instead.
An Associated Press analysis of federal staffing found a sharp decline in correctional officers across the country in the first two years of the Trump administration.
Between December 2016 and September 2018 — the date of the most recent data available from the federal Office of Personnel Management — the number of correctional officers fell by more than 11%, from 19,082 to 16,898. That decline reversed a longtime trend. Before Donald Trump took office, the number of federal correctional officers had continuously increased: there were 12.5% more officers at the end of 2016 than in the beginning of 2012.