Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testifies on Capitol Hill in June 2020.

Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testifies on Capitol Hill in June 2020. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP

Watchdog Warns of Possible Security Weaknesses at Some Federal Prisons

Inmate escapes put communities at risk and increase chances of smuggling contraband into facilities, said the Justice inspector general. 

A watchdog warned on Monday of possible security weaknesses at some federal prison locations that could allow inmates to escape. 

The Justice Department Inspector General issued a management advisory memo to the Federal Bureau of Prisons about its federal prison camps (one of the six types of BOP’s 122 facilities, which have minimum security) and satellite prison camps (minimum security camps located at other institutions).

“The [Office of Inspector General] has found through multiple investigations that many [federal prison camps] and [satellite prison camps] have security weaknesses that have in some cases enabled inmates to escape undetected,” wrote Justice IG Michael Horowitz. “While the security weaknesses vary by facility, they include unsecured outer building doors within some [locations], even during times when inmates were not permitted to move freely; door locks and sensors that were susceptible to tampering, thus leading to alarms failing to function when locked doors were opened without authorization; limited or no outer perimeter fencing; and limited video surveillance.”

The memo specifically cites an incident at a camp in Beaumont, Texas, in which four inmates escaped from a satellite prison camp and went unnoticed for more than 12 hours, despite there being three overnight counts of the inmates. 

The IG’s investigation didn’t find the correctional officers violated BOP policy because evidence showed the escaped inmates might have had others pose for them or place dummies in their beds and that the correctional officers “likely complied with BOP and [Federal Correctional Complex] Beaumont policy when conducting the nighttime counts.” 

Nevertheless, the IG found security issues that allowed the inmates to leave at this location as well as others. When inmates escape, it puts the communities at risk and increases the chances that the inmates will obtain contraband items, which puts other inmates and BOP staff at risk, said the memo. The IG didn’t give any other numbers on inmates who have escaped besides the four at Beaumont. 

The Beaumont facility has started taking action to address these concerns and “we believe similar steps should be taken by the BOP at [camps] BOP-wide,” said Horowitz. 

The IG recommended that BOP make sure all alarms on exterior doors are working and cannot be tampered with, make sure video surveillance cameras are working and install video cameras on exterior doors to allow BOP control officers to watch the doors when other officers are busy with other duties, such as taking inmate counts.

The IG asked BOP Director Michael Carvajal to provide an update within 60 days about the actions the agency is taking to address these issues. 

“We appreciate the work of the Office of Inspector General in this important area” and BOP “is reviewing the [Office of Inspector General’s] recommendations and will continue to monitor the progress of security upgrades,” a BOP spokesperson told Government Executive. “As noted in the Management Advisory Memorandum, FCC Beaumont has already begun efforts to improve security at its Satellite Prison Camp...The BOP did identify sites requiring camera upgrades. The vast majority of the enhancements have been completed.” 

The agency’s mission is to ensure “facilities that are safe, secure and humane,” the spokesperson said. “BOP concurs with the [Management Advisory Memorandum’s] assessment that inmates escaping into the community could place the community at risk, and introduce contraband to the prison facility.” 

BOP’s “security designation and custody classification system” ensures that inmates housed in camps have the appropriate security level needed, the spokesperson added.  

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