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Senate Judiciary panel to hear about federal inmate deaths

Ryan Tarinelli, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to question the head of the federal prison system Wednesday after a scathing watchdog report found systemic and operational failures contributed to scores of prisoner deaths.

The Justice Department’s inspector general reviewed hundreds of inmate deaths and found serious issues at the Bureau of Prisons that created unsafe conditions. The report criticized the agency’s emergency response to inmate deaths, raised doubts about its ability to properly assess inmate mental health and detailed failures in the agency’s efforts to root out contraband drugs and weapons.

Chronic problems within the bureau also were contributing factors to inmate deaths, the report stated, as it pointed to staffing shortages, an ineffective staff disciplinary process and an out-of-date security camera system.

Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters and DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, whose office released the report this month, are expected to appear before the Judiciary panel for a hearing on medical and non-medical inmate deaths.

Horowitz, in a video released along with the report, said it’s critical that the agency address the challenges, “so it can operate safe and humane facilities and protect inmates in its custody and care.” He said the report “identifies numerous operational and managerial deficiencies, which created unsafe conditions prior to and at the time of a number of these deaths.”

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin announced the hearing shortly after the report was released, saying that accountability in the bureau “is necessary and long overdue.” The Illinois Democrat issued a statement that more needs to be done, even as the agency has moved toward a new course since Peters became BOP director in 2022.

 

“It is deeply disturbing that today’s report found that the majority of BOP’s non-medical deaths in custody could have been prevented or mitigated by greater compliance with BOP policy, better staffing, and increased mental health and substance abuse treatment,” Durbin said earlier this month.

Senators on the Judiciary panel will also hold a subcommittee hearing later Wednesday about the nation’s “correctional staffing crisis.”

The system also faces other issues, such as keeping up its prison infrastructure, with the inspector general’s office last year reporting that the agency is in dire need but had lowballed maintenance funding requests for years.

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