By Christopher Zoukis
Appearing at a November 28 hearing of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee looking into failings of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), particularly the agency’s treatment of its female inmates, the agency’s acting director Hugh Hurwitz accepted strong criticism delivered in September via a report from theDepartment of Justice’s inspector general Michael Horowitz.
Of the BOP’s total inmate population, women have over the past five years consistently accounted for about 7%. Currently,12,652 women are among the around 181,000 federal inmates. Of 122 federal prisons, women occupy 15 exclusively and are housed in a few other facilities which also have housing for men.
The 60-page report, Review of the FederalBureau of Prisons’ Management of Its Female Inmate Population, theInspector General faulted BOP’s treatment of female inmates for failing to develop an overall strategy for addressing the needs of female inmates.
For example, despite estimates that 90% of female prisoners have experienced trauma, programs dealing with that are insufficiently staffed and attended. Programs for pregnant inmates are similarly affected by staffing issues, and assigning staff strictly by seniority, rather than creating gender-specific positions where searches offemale inmates are frequently required, creates inefficiencies for all staff.
During the House committee hearing, several members confronted Hurwitz on BOP failing in those and other areas, including difficulties in inmates getting adequate access to hygiene products, an area which the House included in its prison reform bill.
Overall, the Inspector General’s report contained ten recommended changes for BOP to make in how it plans, trains, staffs and administers its programs and policies for female offenders; at the hearing, BOP’s acting director noted BOP agreed with and had begun implementing all of them. A progress report on achieving planned improvements is due at the IG’s office by year-end.
Hurwitz pointed to ways his agency had already taken steps to remedy several of the IG report’s criticisms. These included making all types of hygiene products available to women inmates at no cost, increasing staffing for BOP’s Women and Special Populations Branch of its Reentry Services Division, and seeing to it that the agency follows the procedures spelled out in a 2016 agency manual on caring for women inmates.
BOP’s lack of attention to implementing its updated manual for managing female inmates was a sore spot. A little-detailed four-page guidance document was first prepared in 1997 and wasn’t updated until November 2016; even then, BOP well went over a year before starting to plan, much less take any steps, to monitor whether it was being followed in practice.
Similarly, while staff at BOP facilities housing female prisoners received training on women’s unique needs, headquarters staff responsible for making policy decisions on those subjects were left untrained.
The IG report also examined BOP’s controversial conversion of women’s prison facilities in Danbury, Connecticut to facilities for male prisoners only. It found the transfer to a local jail in Brooklyn, New York moved 19% of the inmates further away from their homes and families, with conditions at the new location sub-par physically and including assault and sexual harassment by some staff members.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.