My rants are usually triggered from media stories written as if the subject matter is some profound eureka moment on an issue BOP insiders have lamented for decades. Enter the AP story from November 14, “ Workers at federal prisons are committing some of the crimes”. Workers at federal prisons are committing some of the crimes (apnews.com)
I’ve been an advocate for outside BOP leadership going back to the Clinton Administration when rumors circulated that a person from outside the agency was being considered for the Director position which was eventually filled by Kathleen Hawk Sawyer. Even back then, there was a quickly deteriorating leadership culture manifesting like a slow cancerous disease partly because of agency cultural factors exacerbated by unprecedented prison population growth due to the Sentencing Reform Act. These factors set the foundation for the proliferation of sub-standard leaders which have manifested into several issues which have flown under the media radar for decades.
BOP insiders will tell you the agency culture includes the “homesteaders” who are the backbone of the agency’s rank and file. Homesteaders realize the importance of family and stability for their children and will not sell their soul moving endlessly around the country for promotions until the agency finally spits them out when they crash and burn or are no longer puppet worthy. On the other side, you have the “fast trackers” who are subordinates that grab on to a person’s coat tail and ride them around the agency regardless of their ethics or leadership ability. They are the self-serving, “Yes Men” and “Yes Women” willing to say and do anything to promote while appeasing their superiors who conform to the marching orders of regional and central office puppet masters, some of which have never even worked in a prison.
It should be no surprise that the nature of dysfunctional government in general, diminished budgetary resources and lack of sound correctional leadership would culminate in bright ideas like continually cutting institution staff by moving the goal post regarding staffing quotas. The constant and never ending “do more with less” pressure to reduce the compliment of staff in the trenches was never going to end well, especially while they constantly observed this F up, move up agency culture full of nepotism. The BOP has a prison population similar to The Texas Department of Corrections but has a bureaucracy which includes six regional offices and a central office in DC with twelve divisions. The regional offices, also headed by a director, function like six separate kingdoms in a vacuum within the overall agency for significant duplication of efforts and lack of operational uniformity.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to meet with the newly appointed Director, General Mark Inch. I was pleased an outsider was appointed to run the agency and requested to meet with him to discuss prison reform. He invited me to the central office which never would have happened if it were inside appointment. I sent him some reform ideas in advance and spoke to him for about an hour and suggested the agency consider closing all regional offices. To my surprise, he indicated he already had plans to close two of them. What surprised me even more was the reason he gave for not being able to close all the regional offices. He stated that he would not be able to “mentor all the wardens” who apparently needed mentoring by the regional directors. I was a bit speechless and caught off guard because when I began with the agency in the 1980’s, wardens were seasoned, experienced and the majority had been primarily chosen for their leadership ability. In my thought process and opinion, a warden has no business running a federal prison if they need mentoring . Director Inch abruptly retired in just over a year with the agency.
As the agency hits rock bottom, there are two important things to understand. First, the fish rots from the head. Second, no meaningful reform can be accomplished until the underlying agency cultural issues are addressed such as the lack of transparency, accountability and most importantly outside leadership and oversight. In my perception and humble opinion, the most productive federal reform recommendations are as follows in order of priority:
Expand the BOP Ombudsman Office to include a training, communication and liaison function to foster better relationships with congress, legal professionals and advocacy organizations. It should also have a component to function as an informal complaint system to address issues from the incarcerated and their families on both individual and general correctional issues and/or grievances prior to a formal complaints or litigation.
Perform a management analysis by an independent, private entity to determine the necessity of the six regional offices and administrative staffing levels. It is likely positions can be allocated to the field to support custodial /security and correctional treatment programs which will make institutions and communities safer. This is especially needed to hire more officers to work in the housing units and reduce the caseload sizes of correctional treatment staff for the delivery of programs.
Remove the restriction on upward mobility and allow staff to promote beyond the GS-13 level without requiring geographic mobility. Staff with leadership abilities are severely restricted on promoting above the GS-12 level because they are required to sign a mobility statement.
Set a minimum academic educational requirement for a person to attain a warden’s position. There is no educational requirement to become a warden aside from a high school diploma.
Hire correctional treatment staff such as case managers and counselors directly from the community rather than limiting the pool of candidates to internal hires.
The DOJ has an opportunity to address the dysfunction but must first understand the answer is not legislation, a blue ribbon commission or think tank report. The answer is for the DOJ to appoint another person from outside the culture with an outside support infrastructure/network who will not succomb to the pressures of the agency status quo people or the beltway NGO insiders who simply don’t have the knowledge or skill set to effecutate menaingful and productive change.
As always, my two cents!