Senate Report: The Bureau Overseeing Federal Prisons Has Failed to Protect Women Inmates from Sexual Abuse
The agency’s director said she is committed to combating this issue through prevention, reporting, investigation, discipline and prosecutions.
Sexual abuse of women inmates at federal correctional facilities is a pervasive problem, as outlined by a new Senate report, but federal leaders are hoping to change that.
The issue of sexual misconduct in federal prisons is not new, but there have been various new efforts to study and address it in recent months. This has overlapped with a new director coming to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who is looking to improve accountability at all levels and tackle the agency’s long-standing issues.
“Over the past decade, female inmates in at least two-thirds (19 of 29) of federal prisons that held women were sexually abused by male BOP employees, including senior prison officials,” said a report released on Tuesday from majority and minority staff on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, based on an investigation launched in April. Specifically, between 2012 and 2022, “there were at least 134 instances across 19 female facilities where BOP employees were either prosecuted for sexual abuse of female prisoners or where BOP [Office of Internal Affairs] substantiated allegations that BOP employees sexually abused female prisoners.”
There were at least four facilities over the past decade where there were recurring cases: Metropolitan Correctional Center: New York, Metropolitan Detention Center: Brooklyn, Federal Correctional Complex: Coleman and Federal Correctional Institution: Dublin.
Other findings were: the bureau has not systematically analyzed complaint data under the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act; the Office of Internal Affairs has a backlog of 8,000 cases, which includes hundreds of sexual abuse ones, and its annual reporting is “confusing” and “obscures” its backlog; and only after abuses at the Dublin facility surfaced did the bureau start making agency-wide changes.
Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., subcommittee chairman, said at a hearing on Tuesday, “our findings are deeply disturbing and demonstrate, in my view, that the BOP is failing systemically to prevent, detect, and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees.” In addition to government officials, the three formerly incarcerated women who were sexually abused while at BOP facilities testified.
“Our work is to combat sexual misconduct and that work is complex and must include prevention, reporting, investigation, discipline and also prosecution,” said Colette Peters, BOP director who came into the role in August. She said she welcomes accountability and oversight and that the vast majority of her employees come to work every day to do the right thing.
When asked how the bureau plans to clear the vast backlog of cases, Peters said they’re adding more than 40 positions to the Office of Internal Affairs.
“I think when you talk about, senator, what’s gone wrong over the last 10 years, it has been lack of resources, it has been lack of accountability,” she said. “When you have investigations open for as long as we’ve had, it’s hard to hold people accountable at the end of those investigations.” However, even with those new positions, it will take about two years to clear that backlog, Peters noted.
Last month, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco outlined steps the Justice Department would take to crack down on sexual misconduct by BOP employees, following the issuance of a report by a working group of senior Justice Department officials that she ordered over the summer. Peters said she is committed to implementing the recommendations in the report.
“Following a review of the bureau’s disciplinary system, we have a plan in place to improve the timely processing of discipline and to ensure staff who engage in sexual misconduct are held accountable,” Peters said in her prepared statement for the hearing. “Once implemented, the bureau will continue to review the process to ensure it is effective in addressing the issues in the report.
Michael Horowitz, Justice Department inspector general, underscored during his testimony that curbing sexual assault in BOP facilities is a high priority for his office. He said BOP needs to take more time and be more effective at holding corrupt prisons bureau employees accountable; rely on credible inmate testimony (the subject of a management alert from his office in October); improve the cameras system; and improve contraband policies.
In discussing reporting methods, Horowitz posed the question, “Why does the bureau have to rely on only the inmates coming forward?”
He noted: “We could talk about Brooklyn, MDC Brooklyn, we could talk about MCC New York, we could talk about FCI Atlanta, we could talk about the Thompson prison, we can keep going. Why aren’t those employees coming forward when they’ve got a predator among their fellow employees? They’re the eyes and ears along with the inmates.” Peters agreed with that sentiment, which she said ties into hiring the right people for the job.
Horowitz also acknowledged his office could use more resources.
“We have the equivalent of 56 OIG agents to cover our BOP case load from the 122 BOP prisons, and 56 OIG agents to handle cases involving all other components of the department, including the FBI, [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Marshals Service],” he wrote in his prepared statement. “Yet, despite this already considerable dedication of OIG resources to BOP work, we know that the BOP needs more independent investigative oversight.” That is why the IG office requested from appropriators the funding for 16 additional staff to establish an interdisciplinary BOP oversight team to bolster its oversight efforts, Horowitz stated.
When asked about the issue of false reports, Horowitz said you have to be careful vetting complaints and not jump to conclusions. This is also why having cameras is critical, he added. Peters agreed and said the bureau could use more resources for cameras.
The House passed bipartisan legislation to address deficiencies in BOP’s security camera and radio systems. The Senate previously passed the bill, so now it goes to the president’s desk.
Separately, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Alex Padilla, D-Calif., on Monday pressed the Justice Department for more answers on BOP staff misconduct, after receiving their requested data on staff-on-staff and staff-on-inmate sexual misconduct and abuse investigations from 2017 to 2021. The Senate Judiciary Committee leaders and members have sent the department various queries on this issue over the past year.
“This data show an alarming number of reports of sexual abuse across bureau facilities and that the majority of these reports were closed as unsustained,” the senators wrote. In a footnote, they explained that due to the confidentiality and complexity of the data, they agreed with the Justice Department request to not disclose it at this time. The lawmakers asked for a response to their questions by January 9.
“As demonstrated by our recent actions, the department is taking sexual misconduct in federal prison facilities extremely seriously and we have been proactive in working with Congress on this issue,” said a spokesperson for the Justice Department. “We are currently reviewing the letter and will respond to it in due course.”