By Timothy Williams
Misconduct in the federal prison system is widespread, tolerated and routinely covered up or ignored, including among senior officials, according to a congressional report released this week. The report, by the House Subcommittee on National Security, found that a permissive environment in the Bureau of Prisons had often made lower-ranking employees targets of abuse — including sexual assault and harassment — by prisoners and staff members.
Inmates can easily exploit that culture of permissiveness, the report said. “If they know that an employee will get little support from management if harassed, that employee becomes a target.”
The study underscores a New York Times investigation of federal prisons last year that found rampant sexual harassment, retaliation for those who spoke out and few consequences for those responsible.
“Some individuals deemed responsible for misconduct,” the congressional report said, “were shuffled around, commended, awarded, promoted, or even allowed to retire with a clean record and full benefits before any disciplinary action could apply.”
The Bureau of Prisons settled a large sexual discrimination case in 2017 after 524 current and former female guards, nurses and others at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, near Orlando, said they had suffered years of abuse by male colleagues and prison inmates.
The women, who said they had been threatened with sexual assault and had to put up with inmates who exposed themselves whenever they approached, were awarded $20 million.
As part of the congressional report released this week, investigators reviewed thousands of pages of case files, arbitration documents and emails.
More than a dozen allegations against five federal prison wardens included assaulting an inmate, embezzlement, harassment, retaliation and creating a hostile work environment, according to the report, which did not include names. Those complaints were opened and closed within a single day, the report said, and the people who made the complaints were never told the cases had been closed.
Wardens in federal prisons are given wide leeway in handling accusations of misconduct in their facilities. When an allegation is made against a staff member, the warden generally appoints a lieutenant to investigate the claim.
But the report found that lieutenants often have at least three supervisors, including captains and wardens, who sometimes seek to influence an investigation or obtain details that could lead to retaliation against those who make the complaints.
The report is the second time in recent years that significant problems have been uncovered in the disciplinary structure of the federal prison system.
In 2004, an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General found that discipline was not fairly imposed and that wardens had far too much influence in the process.
The 2004 report determined that more than one in five prison employees who were found to have violated federal law or departmental policy — including falsification of government documents, unprofessional conduct of a sexual nature and endangering the safety of others — had received only an oral reprimand or no punishment at all.
“Although small differences between the process in 2004 and the present show B.O.P. made some improvements, the culture apparently remains,” the congressional report released this week said.
But after the captain informed a regional director about the harassment claim, he was told to apologize to the warden.
The director, according to the report, told the captain she was aware that the warden “has allegations of sexual harassment at all of the other institutions that he has been to, and he is still sitting in the warden’s chair! People need to realize that and get over it!”
The captain was later stripped of his duties and transferred to another prison where he took a job as a lieutenant — a demotion.
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