The prisons bureau can do more to figure out the scope of the problem and develop effective solutions, the IG found.

The prisons bureau can do more to figure out the scope of the problem and develop effective solutions, the IG found. David Madison / Getty Images

The Bureau of Prisons Needs to Do More to Address Inmate-on-Staff Sexual Harassment, a Watchdog Says

The report “affirms the years of widespread reports from across the country of this pervasive and demoralizing conduct in our nation's prisons,” a union president said. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons should conduct regular risk assessments about the pervasiveness and severity of inmate-on-staff sexual harassment, with a specific emphasis on risks for female staff, according to its watchdog, which found this is a bureau-wide problem. 

That is one of nine recommendations from the Justice Department inspector general in a report released on Thursday based on multiple congressional inquiries regarding concerns about the safety of prisons bureau employees.  

“We found that, while the BOP has taken some actions to respond to allegations and mitigate the risk of inmate-on-staff sexual harassment, it can do more to assess the full scope of the issue and increase the effectiveness of its mitigation efforts,” the report said. While the IG had trouble getting reliable data, it was able to ascertain that this is a bureau-wide issue and staff believe it particularly affects women, according to a survey the IG conducted in 2019. The percentage of women working for the prisons bureau was 27.5% in September 2019 (and 28.4% in September 2022). 

For most of the IG’s time doing fieldwork, BOP used a system to report and track  inmate-on-staff sexual harassment allegations that had shortcomings, particularly allowing for discretion by those in the lietenant-level to decide whether or not to enter paper incident reports into the system. This led to variations in the reporting process, said the IG. In 2019, the bureau started to move to a new electronic system called the Discipline and Administration Reintegration Tracking System. 

BOP first put the new tracking system in six institutions in 2019, 21 in 2020, the majority of remaining ones in 2021 and then the last 14 in early 2022. For security reasons, it could not be added to residential reentry centers, residential reentry management offices, and witness security program areas.

“While the implementation of [the Discipline and Administration Reintegration Tracking System] appears to have been a positive step to address some of the issues we saw early during our fieldwork, such as insufficient accountability with paper incident reports, the lack of adequate behavior, victim and gender identifier information still carries risks, such as an inability to discern the full scope of staff victims,” said the report. “Additionally, full implementation of [the system] occurred in 2022, after our fieldwork, and it is too early to determine whether it will be successful in standardizing the reporting and tracking of inmate-on-staff sexual harassment incidents and aiding the BOP in more effectively collecting and analyzing inmate-on-staff sexual harassment data to fully assess the scope of the problem.”

As of 2019, the BOP locations with the highest number of respondents who reported inmate-on-staff sexual harassment in the IG’s survey were: the federal correctional complexes in Coleman, Florida; Florence, Colorado; Victorville, California; Butner, North Carolina; Allenwood, Pennsylvania; Hazelton, West Virginia; Pollock, Louisiana; Tucson, Arizona; and Beaumont, Texas; and U.S. Penitentiary, Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. Also, the IG found that security facilities, which are often part of larger complexes, have had a “substantially higher” average number of sanctioned incidents, which means that the incident was reviewed by the unit discipline committee or discipline hearing officer, the inmate was determined to have committed the act and the inmate was disciplined.

The watchdog also found that inmate-on-staff sexual harassment can lead to decreased staff morale, unsafe work environments, monetary costs due to legal settlements or decisions and trouble retaining qualified staff. The bureau is already facing a years-long staffing shortage, which is one of the top priorities for BOP Director Colette Peters, who took over in August, in addition to addressing staff morale. 

Peters wrote in her response to the report that “the BOP appreciates OIG’s work and notes it is in large part a historical survey of BOP’s incident reporting system as it existed prior to the implementation of the Discipline and Administration Reintegration Tracking System.” She expressed concern that because this change and others in regard to training for correctional officers occurred from when the fieldwork was conducted and the issuance of the report, there could be “miscellaneous conclusions” in the report. 

The review started in 2019 and the site visits and survey were also both conducted in 2019. The data documents used were from fiscal 2015 to 2021. The IG also did some assessments of the Discipline and Administration Reintegration Tracking System in 2022. 

Nevertheless, BOP largely agreed with all nine recommendations and noted the steps it will or has already taken to implement them.

The report “affirms the years of widespread reports from across the country of this pervasive and demoralizing conduct in our nation's prisons,” said Shane Fausey, national president of the Council of Prison Locals. “Even with the agency's failure to capture the necessary data, after years of reports and tens of millions of dollars in financial damages, the full depth of the problem is secondary to the human costs and suffering of the men and women who protect America.”

Fausey called on the BOP director to convene a working group, with agency leadership and employee representatives, within 90 days to “focus on proper tracking, mandatory reporting, and immediate steps necessary to improve the conditions our employees work in and prevent this intolerable and dehumanizing behavior.” 

Also, “commensurate with the immediate efforts initiated to protect offenders from this type of behavior, we are requesting immediate actions by the attorney general, the director of the FBI, and the director of the BOP to collaboratively align their assets and use the full prosecutorial might of the Department of Justice to hold sexually deviant offenders fully accountable for their behavior, prosecute those that abuse our employees, and prosecute them to deter successive criminal misconduct,” Fausey said. 

The bureau is closing a special detention unit in an Illinois facility that has “been plagued by inmate deaths, suicides and the reported sexual harassment of guards,” The New York Times reported last week. Also, on February 10, BOP leadership sent an email to all employees, shared with Government Executive, providing updated notices of ethical obligations for new employees and supervisors as a reminder of their duties. This follows reports from the media, Congress and Justice Department about sexual assault allegations by BOP employees on inmates.