Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco speaks during the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Police Executives Forum in May 2022.

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco speaks during the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Police Executives Forum in May 2022. Sarah Silbiger-Pool/Getty Images

The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sexual Misconduct by Prisons Employees

“Sexual misconduct by staff will not be tolerated, and I look forward to collaborating with our federal partners to eradicate [it],” said the new director of the prisons agency.

The Justice Department is taking immediate action to crack down on sexual misconduct by federal prisons employees and improve handling of complaints, following an internal review that found an urgent need for change. However, the agency’s union took issue with how the review was conducted. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons received hundreds of complaints of sexual abuse by its employees over the past five years and while not all were “meritorious or prosecutable, the volume alone is a strong signal of the need for attention to this problem,” said a report published on November 2 by a working group of senior Justice officials that was ordered by the deputy attorney general

“I appreciate the prompt delivery of this report, and I welcome its recommendations,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, in a memo on November 2. “The working group identified a ‘need for immediate actions to address the department's approach to sexual misconduct perpetrated by BOP staff, as well as the importance of further review to consider longer-term and more systemic-changes.’” She ordered various immediate actions to implement some of the working group’s 50-plus recommendations that span the themes of prevention, reporting, investigations, prosecutions and discipline. 

Specifically, she asked BOP Director Colette Peters to share the working group’s report across the bureau and send a bureau-wide message underscoring the seriousness of sexual misconduct and that it won’t be tolerated; instruct the wardens and CEOs of BOP facilities that allegations of sexual misconduct have to be reported immediately to the pertinent regional director and Office of Internal Affairs as well as the inspector general office; and issue guidance “reiterating and emphasizing that all administrative misconduct assessments, investigations, disciplinary decisions, and witness credibility determinations must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, without any prohibition against substantiating misconduct based on inmate testimony.” 

The Justice Department inspector general issued a management advisory last month with concerns that BOP is regularly excluding inmates’ testimony in administrative misconduct investigations. BOP officials pushed back on some of the findings from the IG. They agreed with two of the three recommendations from the watchdog and had major concerns with the other. 

Monaco also directed the principal associate attorney general to work with the U.S. attorneys and other litigating components of the Justice Department on the need to use all tools available to hold perpetrators accountable. “Where such cases proceed to sentencing, prosecutors should consider moving for upward departures or variances if sentences within applicable sentencing guidelines ranges are not fair and proportional to the seriousness of the offenses,” she added. 

Next, in order to implement the working group’s recommendations, Monaco directed the BOP director and other relevant department heads to do an expedited review and implementation of its work plans, which should be shared with the Office of the Deputy Attorney General within 30 days of her memo’s issuance. 

One of the specific recommendations is that BOP should establish stricter policies to prevent sexual harassment by staff as well as “address sexual harassment perpetrated by inmates against staff, which can impair BOP’s ability to recruit and retain staff and also contribute to a culture of acceptance of sexual harassment more generally.” Other examples of recommendations are to enact training specific for staff at women’s-only facilities; administer a “climate study” to determine the ubiquity of sexual misconduct in the institutions; and stress that reporting of allegations to the inspector general office is completely confidential. 

For the review, the working group reviewed BOP’s policies and practices, went through data, and conducted listening sessions with stakeholders, such as outside groups and formerly incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse. The scope of the review did not include sexual misconduct by inmates. 

Monaco also directed the creation of a “standing advisory group to further consider and coordinate best practices for investigating and prosecuting sexual misconduct by government actors,” which will report regularly to her office. Members will include officials from BOP, Justice’s civil rights division, the FBI, the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, and the Office on Violence Against Women. 

Peters, who just came into the role of prisons director in August, thanked the working group and welcomed its recommendations to improve the bureau’s ability to safely house those in its custody. 

“While the majority of the BOP's 35,000 law enforcement professionals demonstrate our agency's core values, my message to those who do not is clear: I will fervently pursue accountability for those who, at any level of the agency, abuse their position of trust,” Peters said in a statement provided to Government Executive on Monday. “Sexual misconduct by staff will not be tolerated, and I look forward to collaborating with our federal partners to eradicate sexual misconduct in the BOP.” She made similar remarks on handling employee misconduct in a recent interview with Government Executive.

The report and subsequent guidance “although somewhat created with good intentions, is lacking entirely of any input or perspective of the employees of the BOP,” said Shane Fausey, national president of the union that represents BOP employees. “We could have addressed our concerns with the inequitable application of discipline and best practices based upon nearly a century of correctional experience,” he continued. “Unfortunately, this appears to be politically motivated and falls short of the abuses that all people, both employees and incarcerated people are subjected to within our federal prisons.” 

He said he hopes the attorney general and deputy attorney general apply “equal and necessary effort” for addressing sexual misconduct by inmates and prisons staff. “We too expect the protections and support of the DOJ when the +99% of the honest and dedicated correctional professionals are subjected to the same type of horrid behavior and believe convening a similar workgroup is long overdue,” said Fausey. “Inequitable application of the law is a constitutional failure.” 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement on Friday, the report “is evidence of the desperate need for reform. The new director, Colette Peters, needs to show resolve and Congress needs to back her efforts to clean up this sorry mess."