Buildings of the Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

Buildings of the Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas. LM Otero / AP

IG Flags ‘Inappropriate and Dangerous Events’ During Federal Prisons Training 

The training exercises led to staff members getting injured. 

An inspector general on Thursday warned of “inappropriate and dangerous” use of pepper spray and force during federal prisons’ training exercises. 

Following two incidents about a year ago in which staff members were injured, the Justice Department IG issued an advisory memorandum to the Federal Bureau of Prisons about its mock exercises for special operations response teams. The response teams were one of the BOP crisis management groups deployed to Miami and Washington, D.C., during the recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25. BOP suspended these mock exercises during the coronavirus pandemic and agreed with the IG’s recommendations on how to reform them.

BOP’s institutions maintain their own special operations response teams that usually consist of 15 members and are led by a captain. They must annually meet the qualification guidelines outlined by BOP’s Office of Emergency Preparedness. Regional correctional services administrators develop plans to certify their teams. The IG said the mock exercises are part of the certification process, along with the agency’s preparations for emergency situations, such as internal hostages.  

During the incidents the IG reviewed, response team members “deployed a distraction device munition in a confined space, which was not authorized for use under BOP policy… [and] deployed real [oleoresin capsicum or “pepper”] spray rather than inert [oleoresin capsicum] spray during a training exercise, allegedly without proper authorization,” said the report. Also, team members “used force, including firing a simunition round, against staff members who were allegedly yelling to the [special operations response team] that they were ‘out of role’ and physically vulnerable.” The report didn’t disclose where the incidents occurred or who specifically was involved.

Based on its review of the two incidents that left staff members with sustained injuries, the IG determined BOP has “inadequate” policies guiding these mock exercises. The watchdog recommended BOP: develop guidelines that require at least one safety officer to monitor the exercises and all to be filmed in order to re-evaluate them; suspend all mock exercises until the agency develops such guidelines; create policies about how and what (if at all) weapons can be used during trainings; and train all response team members and training monitors on the use of “force applications” during training and certification exercises. 

IG Michael Horowitz asked for an explanation within 60 days on how BOP plans to address the issues and recommendations. 

“BOP has received the DOJ [Office of Inspector General] memorandum and agrees with its recommendations,” a BOP spokesperson told Government Executive on Thursday. “BOP will begin developing standard guidelines for mock exercises and will issue guidance to suspend mock exercises until these guidelines are issued. BOP will work with the OIG to modify training protocols as needed.” 

This advisory memorandum comes after BOP’s crisis management teams, including the special operations response teams, were deployed to Miami and Washington at the request of Attorney General William Barr to help with the federal response to the protests against racial injustice. They “are highly trained tactical units capable of responding to prison disturbances and providing assistance to other law enforcement agencies during emergencies,” BOP spokeswoman Nancy Ayersz told Government Executive on June 3. She did not say how many officers were sent. 

The federal law enforcement presence was most prominent in Washington, D.C., where the crowds were particularly large, yet mostly peaceful. Lawmakers have been requesting investigations by inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office into various aspects of how the government handled the protests. 

On Monday, 21 Democratic Senators asked Horowitz to review Barr and the Justice Department’s “roles in directing the use of force–including the use of tear gas or a similar gas, rubber bullets, pepper balls, and batons–to suppress peaceful protesters around Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., on June 1.”

The Democrats also expressed concerns about  “the deployment of federal agents who are trained to deal with prison riots, hostage situations or other similar circumstances, but not adequately trained in protecting the constitutional rights of Americans engaged in peaceful protests,” which were “amplified by the fact that some of federal officers were deployed in generic riot gear without displaying any identifying insignia and refused to identify themselves.” Over 1,250 former Justice Department employees sent a similar letter to Horowitz on June 10.

The Justice IG’s office did not respond for comment.