Congress

Congress OKs bill overhauling oversight of troubled federal Bureau of Prisons

The Federal Prison Oversight Act, which the House passed in May, now goes to President Joe Biden to be signed into law

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

The Senate passed legislation Wednesday to overhaul oversight and bring greater transparency to the crisis-plagued federal Bureau of Prisons following reporting from The Associated Press that exposed systemic corruption in the federal prison system and increased congressional scrutiny.

The Federal Prison Oversight Act, which the House passed in May, now goes to President Joe Biden to be signed into law. It establishes an independent ombudsman for the agency to field and investigate complaints in the wake of rampant sexual abuse and other criminal misconduct by staff, chronic understaffing, escapes and high-profile deaths.

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It also requires that the Justice Department's Inspector General conduct risk-based inspections of all 122 federal prison facilities, provide recommendations to address deficiencies and assign each facility a risk score. Higher-risk facilities would then receive more frequent inspections.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., introduced the bill in 2022 while leading an investigation of the Bureau of Prisons as chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on investigations.

Ossoff and the bill's two other sponsors, Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind., launched the Senate Bipartisan Prison Policy Working Group in February 2022 amid turmoil at the Bureau of Prisons, much of it uncovered by AP reporting. Reps. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Lucy McBath, D-Ga., backed the House version of the bill.

In a statement, Ossoff called Wednesday's passage “a major milestone” and that his investigation had “revealed an urgent need to overhaul Federal prison oversight.”

"After all the headlines, scandals, and controversy that have plagued the Bureau of Prisons for decades, we’re very happy to see this Congress take action to bring transparency and accountability to an agency that has gone so long without it,” said Daniel Landsman, the vice president of policy for the prisoner advocacy group FAMM.

A message seeking comment was left with the Bureau of Prisons.

Under the legislation, the independent prison ombudsman would collect complaints via a secure hotline and online form and then investigate and report to the attorney general and Congress dangerous conditions affecting the health, safety, welfare and rights of inmates and staff.

Along with inspecting prison facilities, the legislation requires the Justice Department’s Inspector General to report any findings and recommendations to Congress and the public. The Bureau of Prisons would then need to respond with a corrective action plan within 60 days.

An ongoing Associated Press investigation has uncovered deep, previously unreported flaws within the Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest law enforcement agency with more than 30,000 employees, 158,000 inmates and an annual budget of about $8 billion.

AP reporting has revealed dozens of escapes, chronic violence, deaths and severe staffing shortages that have hampered responses to emergencies, including inmate assaults and suicides.

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Associated Press reporter Farnoush Amiri in Washington contributed to this report.

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