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House Subcommittee Report Highlights ‘Culture Of Fear And Retaliation’ In Federal Prisons

Wardens and other senior officials in the federal prison system engage in gross misconduct, avoid consequences by disrupting investigations and disciplinary proceedings, and encourage a “culture of fear and retaliation,” according to a report from a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The deep-seated abuses documented in the report [PDF] have appeared in other government oversight records going back to at least 2004, yet according to the report, “the culture apparently remains.” That culture may impact some efforts to bring relief to federal prisoners via reforms like the First Step Act, which will be implemented this year.

The report was submitted during the last Congress by Republicans on the Subcommittee on National Security and is dated January 2, 2019.

“These measures of protection have given management at many [Bureau of Prisons (BOP)] facilities a disturbing level of impunity,” the report states.

The subcommittee found 12 complaints against five wardens that were opened and closed on a single day. Complaints against senior staff included assaults on prisoners, falsifying records, creating a hostile work environment, embezzlement, harassment, and retaliation. None of the people who lodged complaints were notified of their outcome.

Misconduct was “largely tolerated or ignored altogether.” The names of specific facilities and personnel were not published in the report.

The report highlighted two cases in which reports of sexual harassment by senior officials led to retaliation. Subordinates were verbally berated, transferred to other facilities, and demoted.

Rather than operate in accordance with shared policies and practices, each facility is run as “its own island within BOP” and local investigators are “superficially independent,” susceptible to influence by senior staff, the report indicated

Management is in a position to learn sensitive details of allegations against them, including the name of their accuser and the subject of investigation. They can influence how and whether there is an investigation and what actions, if any, are taken. Knowing the identity of their accusers increases the chance that accusers face retaliation, and whistleblowers have experienced discrimination within a week of filing a complaint.

The management structure within BOP facilities contributes to the breakdown in oversight. Local investigators are typically lieutenants chosen by the warden and are subordinate to upper management.

The report noted investigators have three levels of supervisors above them with the power to threaten their employment, especially if upper management are the subject of complaints and they are unhappy with an investigator’s findings.

Senior officials who engaged in misconduct received extremely lenient consequences and were moved to different facilities to avoid punishment.

In some cases, they received commendations and awards after reports were made against them. Some were allowed to retire with a clean record and full benefits, and cases were delayed to allow them to end their careers unscathed.

The subcommittee recommended that senior prison officials be excluded from the investigative process and barred from influencing decisions. (This recommendation has been made in previous years.)

They also suggested that people who report misconduct be informed of the status and outcome of the investigation.

***

The report omitted the perspectives of people incarcerated in the federal prison system and their loved ones, focusing primarily on BOP employees. But prisoners also suffer from the impunity of senior officials in their facilities.

“Overall, people often fear retribution for reporting waste fraud and abuse. The difference is incarcerated people do not have whistleblower protections like federal employees,” Maureen told Shadowproof. (Her daughter is in federal prison, and we’re withholding identifying information to protect her from retaliation.)

“Like the military, the prison environment is ripe for sexual harassment and abuse and sweeping incidents under the rug.”

“Incarcerated people know to expect retribution if they speak up about wrongdoing behind bars,” Maureen added. “They know there is a serious lack of oversight and no independent oversight authority outside of DOJ [Department of Justice] or DOC [Department of Corrections].”

Maureen described how her daughter and other incarcerated women spoke out against poor living conditions and medical care following a natural disaster.

“The women knew if they complained they would face some serious consequences. They accepted those consequences because someone needed to do something about the terrible conditions in that prison.”

“Like other families with incarcerated loved ones,” Maureen continued, “I was afraid to complain because I was concerned about what would happen to our loved ones. The women kept telling us though, we have to do something. The administrative remedy process was not working. Their complaints were getting lost, misfiled or simply thrown away and the poor conditions were not getting addressed.”

“With their consent, the families of these women filed complaints with the DOJ OIG. The DOJ OIG showed up at that prison unannounced a few weeks later.”

Maureen said her daughter and some of the women were put in solitary confinement after investigators came. Though allegations of misconduct against her were not substantiated, she was transferred to a different facility.

“Despite having been a model inmate, excellent conduct and having a strong work and programming history, she arrived at the next facility being labeled a troublemaker. She was fortunately able to overcome that hurdle and continues to do her time well.”

She said the “lesson that incarcerated people have learned is that you should expect retribution just like this or worse if you speak up about waste, fraud, and abuse.”

***

The BOP management culture highlighted in the report will likely affect the efficacy of certain aspects of the First Step Act.

Some provisions of the new law rely on the discretion and approval of wardens. For example, one important provision of the law involves keeping families connected to their networks and communities by moving them to facilities within 500 miles of home.

However, the language of the bill makes clear that these transfers are subject to “the recommendation from the warden of the prison at which the prisoner is incarcerated at the time of making the request.”

Wardens also play a role in determining who is eligible for pre-release custody. According to the law, among the criteria for such a placement is that the individual is either assessed to have a low risk of recidivism in their last two assessments or that they have a petition to be transferred approved by a warden.

Those petitioning prisoners will be placed at the mercy of a warden, who must determine the individual is not “a danger to society,” has made a “good faith effort to lower their recidivism risk” through programs and activities, and is “unlikely to recidivate.”

The First Step Act also lets wardens prohibit mentoring, reentry, or spiritual services for prisoners in pre-release custody “if the warden finds that the provision of such services would pose a significant security risk to the prisoner, persons who provide such services, or any other person.”

For wardens who engage in patterns of abuse and retaliation described in the report, these areas of discretion could be a major cause for concern.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.