Attorney General Merrick Garland, prepares to depart following a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing Wednesday.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, prepares to depart following a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing Wednesday. Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times via AP

Budget Request for Federal Prisons Agency Isn’t Enough, Union Says

Agency argues the president’s request “provides sufficient funding to cover ...cost increases in pay and benefits, rent costs, and prison and detention operations.” 

The federal prisons agency would receive a funding increase under President Biden’s fiscal 2022 proposal, when factoring out the coronavirus supplement for fiscal 2021, but the union representing prisons employees says it’s still not enough to alleviate staffing, overtime and other concerns. 

The congressional justification accompanying President Biden’s detailed budget proposal released on May 27 requested $7.8 billion for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which appears to be a 3.5% decrease from the fiscal 2021 enacted level, but that enacted level includes $300 million in one-time supplemental appropriations related to pandemic response. A BOP spokesperson told Government Executive that when the supplemental appropriations are left out, “this does not represent an actual cut to the BOP’s base budget.” 

The bureau spokesperson also noted that the fiscal 2022 budget request includes a reduction of $267 million to reflect decreases in the BOP’s inmate population in recent years and decreases in the associated per-inmate costs. However, the budget request still “provides sufficient funding to cover the BOP’s cost increases in pay and benefits, rent costs, and prison and detention operations” and “excluding the standard non-recurral of the one-time supplemental funds, the BOP’s FY 2022 budget request is a net increase of $14 million from the FY 2021 enacted base budget.” 

The congressional justification noted that per the executive order Biden signed on January 26, BOP expects to close the 11 privately managed facilities by the end of calendar year 2022. 

Budget documents for the Justice Department, which houses BOP, listed prisons bureau priorities for fiscal 2022 as including: investing in energy efficient projects at facilities and continuing to implement the 2018 First Step Act, a bipartisan bill aimed at reforming the criminal justice system and reducing the prison population.

“Although crowding system-wide is 6% under capacity, and minimum security institutions are 52% under capacity and low security institutions are nine percent under capacity, the BOP continues to face challenges at high security institutions, which are 20% over capacity,” said the BOP budget document. “However, high security crowding has decreased, including a decrease from 52% over capacity at the end of FY 2014. The BOP maintains institution security through a combination of sound correctional practices, highly trained staff, technology, and careful classification of inmates.” 

Shane Fausey, national president of the Council of Prison Locals C-33, a division of the American Federation of Government Employees, told Government Executive the fiscal 2022 proposal still does not provide enough funding and that spending levels should be determined by results or reduction of contraband and violence, not inmate populations. 

“For far too long the budgetary process in the Bureau of Prisons has been driven by a hard number associated with the size of the inmate population,” he said. “Even though the agency has experienced a slight decline in inmate population, the hard reality is the explosion of mandatory double shifts of overtime, reassignments, increases in prison violence and illicit contraband, and years of a dysfunctional staffing crisis, all point to our inadequate funding and a budgetary process which no longer serves the American people.” 

He called on the Biden administration, attorney general and Congress to “provide us the necessary tools and budgetary resources so that we may succeed in our mission and continue to protect the American public” as “BOP consistently falls short in their budgetary requests.” 

Joe Rojas, the Southeast regional vice president at the AFGE Council of Prison Locals, pointed out that the Government Accountability Office issued a report in February saying BOP is “at risk” of not being able to carry out its responsibilities when it doesn’t have sufficient staffing, which has been a challenge for a while. He said the agency needs more funding in order to boost staffing levels, so it can rely less on overtime and augmentation to temporarily fill correctional officer positions with other staff.

“The challenges the BOP has faced in the past—maintaining the overall safety of inmates, staff, and the public; interdicting contraband in its facilities; budget and staffing shortages; rising medical care costs due to an aging prison population; and long-term infrastructure maintenance—continue to impact the BOP,” said the Justice Department inspector general in a report published in November 2020. “During 2020, the unexpected and unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the strain on BOP.”

A few months after this report came out BOP launched a new and “unprecedented” initiative to increase staffing at the agency. This “not only enhances the safety and wellbeing of employees and inmates, but also provides rewarding careers in positions of leadership and mentorship, from corrections officers to educators,” the agency said in a press release. 

During a hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Panel on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, praised many aspects of the budget for the Justice Department, but she said she had some concerns. 

For example, she noted the committee has called on BOP many times to decrease its use of excessive overtime and augmentation, so she wanted to be reassured that the president’s budget would accomplish that. 

On augmentation, Attorney General Merrick Garland told lawmakers during the hearing that he is “concerned about this” for protection of staff and inmates. He outlined how recently BOP has “made dramatic increases in the number of hires,” which will alleviate the issue of augmentation over time, he said. 

Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., who chairs the bipartisan BOP Reform Caucus, said the president’s budget request “is one of the first steps in the appropriations process and gives Congress an idea of the executive branch’s priorities,” in a statement to Government Executive.

“Our caucus is working hard on proposals to address staffing shortages at the BOP and ensure increased accountability from the agency,” he said. “I look forward to working with the budget and appropriations committee to enact meaningful reform that will improve the lives of corrections officers and those in the communities they serve.”