The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is responsible for the care and custody of approximately 158,000 federal inmates (nearly half of whom are incarcerated for federal drug use). In 2023, Strengthening Management of the Federal Prison System was added to the High Risk List, which includes areas across the federal government vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement or in need of transformation. This area is being added due to BOP’s significant longstanding management challenges including staffing, which represent a serious threat to inmate and staff safety. Additionally, BOP’s plans to manage key rehabilitation programs are limited. These programs require better planning and ongoing review by BOP to be successful in reducing some inmates’ sentences through credit-earning programs and lowering the rate of recidivism.
Prior to being added to the High Risk List, GAO and BOP leadership met on these issues, and the Director of the Bureau of Prisons expressed her commitment to bring sustained attention to resolving this area.
Other challenges include:
- There have been a number of concerns about BOP’s ability to fully staff its institutions, the effects of staffing shortfalls, and the mental health of corrections staff. To help address these concerns, BOP should implement a reliable method for calculating staffing levels and routinely collect and evaluate employee feedback.
- In FY 2019, BOP began using a new medication-assisted treatment program to treat inmates with opioid use disorder. It estimated that this program would cost $76.2 million. The agency is expanding this program, but hasn’t documented how it will gauge all of the additional agency personnel needed to operate it.
- The First Step Act of 2018 requires BOP to provide inmates with programs that may lower their risk of recidivism. It also provides inmates with opportunities to earn time credits that could reduce the amount of time they spend in a BOP facility. However, BOP needs to collect certain data to monitor its implementation of the First Step Act and develop a mechanism to monitor whether it is offering enough of these programs to meet the needs of inmates. BOP should also ensure that its plan for evaluating these programs has specific, quantifiable goals and clear milestone dates.
- Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, can present a specific danger to BOP’s institutions—including its inmates and staff who may not be able to evacuate due to security measures. However, BOP lacks the data collection and analytic capacity needed to prepare for such disasters and protect its physical resources.
- Some inmates face challenges when they reenter society—such as getting identification documents or accessing health care. Federal law requires BOP to create procedures to help inmates apply for federal and state benefits (like Medicaid) when they are released. However, BOP hasn’t assessed whether its health care reentry policies and procedures are effective. BOP also doesn’t have complete data on the number of people leaving prison with identification documents —which, if collected, could help BOP better assist people with obtaining such documents.