Bureau of Prisons: Opportunities Exist to Better Analyze Staffing Data and Improve Employee Wellness Programs

GAO-21-123 Published: Feb 24, 2021. Publicly Released: Feb 24, 2021.
Jump To:
Fast Facts

The Bureau of Prisons is responsible for the custody and care of more than 125,000 federal inmates in its facilities, as well as the safety and security of its staff. But there are questions about the Bureau's ability to fully staff its facilities, the effects of staffing shortfalls, and the mental health of corrections staff.

The Bureau uses overtime data to assess staffing levels, but hasn't assessed associated risks to staff and inmate safety, such as officer fatigue. Also, the Bureau could improve its employee counseling program by collecting feedback on how the program meets their needs.

Our recommendations address these issues.

Hand unlocking door in a prison facility.

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has multiple methods for assessing its staffing levels to determine shortfalls, but each contains inconsistencies in either terminology or methodology and we found reliability concerns with each. For two methods, BOP was unable to provide supporting documentation, and for the third, a BOP official stated that the method did not account for different institutions' characteristics. By developing a reliable method for calculating staffing levels at BOP institutions, or amending existing methods, BOP would have a more accurate picture of the extent of any shortfalls and could take corrective action to address identified workforce gaps.

BOP has practices for addressing staffing challenges, such as using overtime, but has not assessed associated risks to staff and inmate safety, such as officer fatigue and decreased observation skills. Overtime expenditures, without adjusting for inflation, have increased 102 percent from 2015 through 2019. Conducting a risk assessment of its overtime use would better position BOP to identify the potential risks of overtime and respond, as appropriate.

Overtime Expenditures at Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Institutions from Fiscal Years 2015 through 2019

Overtime Expenditures at Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Institutions from Fiscal Years 2015 through 2019

Note: Data are expenditures in nominal dollars, and have not been adjusted for inflation. For more details, see figure 4 in GAO-21-123

BOP could improve data collection efforts to enhance its employee wellness programs. For example, BOP operates an Employee Assistance Program, which provides counseling and referral services to employees, and BOP is working to improve the program. However, BOP has not collected program feedback from employees in a systematic way. By developing a method to routinely collect and evaluate feedback, BOP would be better positioned to help ensure employee satisfaction and to identify ways to continually enhance the program.

Why GAO Did This Study

As of November 2020, BOP employed more than 37,000 individuals responsible for the care and custody of more than 125,000 federal inmates in BOP institutions. Questions have been raised about BOP's ability to fully staff its institutions, the effects of staffing shortfalls, and the mental health of corrections staff.

GAO was asked to examine BOP staffing levels and other related challenges. This report examines, among other objectives: (1) the methods BOP uses to assess staffing levels; (2) the practices BOP uses to address any staffing challenges, and the extent to which it assesses their effectiveness; and (3) what, if anything, BOP could do to improve staff mental health and related services. Among other methods, GAO examined program and staffing documentation and data, and interviewed BOP officials knowledgeable about budget and personnel practices.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO is making 7 recommendations, including that BOP develop and implement a reliable method for calculating staffing levels, or amend existing methods; conduct a risk assessment of its overtime use; and develop and implement a method to routinely collect and evaluate employee feedback on its Employee Assistance Program. The Department of Justice concurred with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Bureau of Prisons
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Director of BOP should develop and implement a reliable method, or amend existing methods, for calculating staffing levels at BOP institutions. (Recommendation 1)
Open – Partially Addressed
BOP concurred with this recommendation and has begun taking early steps to address it. In June 2021, BOP reported that it hired a contractor to assist the agency in calculating staffing levels at BOP institutions and, in August 2022, BOP reported that the contractor had completed its assessment and developed a new automated staffing tool prototype. BOP reports that the intent of the new tool is to address BOP staffing challenges by providing an updated, standardized, and transparent view of staffing guidelines, and also for assessing staffing levels. BOP also reported in August 2022 that the contractor is testing the new tool prototype, primarily focusing on correctional services positions, in one of BOP's regions before expanding it to additional regions. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation by assessing (1) the extent to which the tool's test shows that it can effectively calculate staffing levels in the test region and reliably be expanded to additional regions and ultimately, BOP-wide, and (2) that the tool can be adapted for all positions and not just those in correctional services, so that BOP can implement it more broadly to address total staffing needs.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should develop and implement a plan for analyzing data to help identify and address the causes and potential impacts of staffing challenges on staff and inmates. (Recommendation 2)
Open
BOP concurred with this recommendation and has begun taking early steps to address it. In June 2021, BOP reported that it hired a contractor to assist the agency over several months in analyzing data to identify and address impacts of staffing challenges. In August 2022, BOP provided an update of specific steps the contractor was taking in other areas-as noted the status for our first recommendation-but did not provide any further detail on the contractor's effort related to this specific recommendation, which is to develop and implement a plan for analyzing data that would help it identify and address the causes and potential impacts of staffing challenges on staff and inmates. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation.
Bureau of Prisons
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Director of BOP should conduct a risk assessment of its overtime and augmentation use, including identifying risks to staff, inmates, and institution security; and determining actions to respond, as appropriate. (Recommendation 3)
Open – Partially Addressed
BOP concurred with this recommendation and has begun taking early steps to address it. In June 2021, BOP reported that it hired a contractor to assist the agency in assessing the risk of overtime and augmentation usage and develop an overtime calculation tool. In August 2022, the contractor finalized its risk assessment of overtime and augmentation use, which included an assessment of whether overtime and augmentation were associated with, for example, sick leave, vacancies, or inmate and staff incidents, BOP also reported that the contractor created a tool to retroactively track overtime spending. In October 2022, BOP reported that it had not yet finalized options in response to the contractor's findings. For example, BOP officials noted that they continue to work with the contractor to enhance the overtime calculation tool. They are also considering how to incorporate augmentation usage into the tool, as the tool concentrates solely on overtime currently. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation by assessing the actions in takes to further enhance this newly developed risk assessment tool and to respond to the risks identified.
Bureau of Prisons
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Director of BOP should assess the outcomes of the staffing incentives it utilizes by developing performance measures and goals, measuring outcomes against them, and adjusting incentives, as appropriate. (Recommendation 4)
Open – Partially Addressed
BOP concurred with this recommendation and indicated it has begun taking early steps to address it. In June 2021, BOP reported that it hired a contractor to assist the agency by analyzing past usage of staffing incentives and developing recommendations on whether to adjust incentives in the future, among other things. In August 2022, BOP reported that the contractor had completed and delivered its assessment of staffing incentives, but that the contractor continues to develop a bureau-wide framework to standardize incentive usage, consistent with the federal Office of Personnel Management regulations, as well as Department of Justice and BOP policy. In October 2022, BOP noted that it is still working on developing related performance measures and outcomes for inclusion in its Human Capital Strategic Plan and that it anticipates finalizing the performance goals in the next several months. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation by reviewing its Human Capital Strategic Plan once complete for inclusion of these metrics.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should develop and implement a method that ensures its Employee Assistance Program participation and cost data are collected in a more timely and reliable manner. (Recommendation 5)
Open – Partially Addressed
BOP concurred with this recommendation and indicated it has begun taking early steps to address it. In June 2021, BOP reported that it hired a contractor to assist the agency over several months in implementing a method for collecting Employee Assistance Program (EAP) participation and cost data. In August 2022, BOP provided us with the contractor's report that included, in part, EAP participation data, based on responses to a survey that was developed and disseminated to all BOP staff. In October 2022, BOP reported that, based on the contractor's assistance, it developed a new method for collecting EAP participation data. BOP reported that this new method would also allow it to collect and calculate costs in a timelier and more reliable manner, but we will monitor BOP's revised efforts at collecting cost data related to the EAP.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should develop and implement a method to routinely collect and evaluate employee feedback on its Employee Assistance Program such as leveraging existing tools or creating new ones, as applicable. (Recommendation 6)
Closed – Implemented
We found that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had not collected feedback from employees about its Employee Assistance Program in a systematic way, and had instead relied on anecdotal and informal feedback. As a result, we recommended that BOP develop and implement a method to routinely collect and evaluate employee feedback, such as leveraging existing tools or creating new ones. BOP finalized a survey regarding the Employee Assistance Program and distributed it to employees in July 2021. The survey includes questions for participants to rate their experience utilizing the program, among others. BOP anticipates that this survey will be delivered every two years. BOP has also entered into a contract for a vendor to conduct focus groups with staff regarding their satisfaction and feedback on the Employee Assistance Program services. These surveys and focus groups are consistent with our recommendation.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should utilize the suicide data it collects to routinely assess the suicide rate among BOP staff and tailor its suicide prevention training materials to address the unique challenges that high-risk groups may face. (Recommendation 7)
Closed – Implemented
We found that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) did not calculate the suicide rate across the Bureau, or compare the rate to the nationwide average for context, despite tracking data on staff deaths by suicide that have occurred since fiscal year 1997. We recommended that that BOP utilize the suicide data it collects to routinely assess the suicide rate among BOP staff and tailor its suicide prevention training materials to address the unique challenges that high-risk groups may face. BOP concurred with our recommendation, and in response, took a number of steps. First, it published a Staff Wellness Report in fiscal year 2021, which included a comparison of BOP's staff suicides in fiscal year 2021 to the most recent suicide rate in the United States. The report also included comparisons to national suicide rates by gender, method, race, ethnicity, veteran status, and BOP department. BOP intends to issue this report annually. Second, BOP issued training materials and guidance, developed in coordination with a BOP working group, on how staff can help colleagues who are at higher risk for death by suicide or if they are approached by a colleague experiencing emotional distress or thoughts of suicides, among other things. These materials include information on how, for example, to use clear and precise language that avoids judgment or assumptions, and provides phone numbers for the BOP Employee Assistance Program and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The data and assessment included in the Wellness Report, the tailored suicide prevention training materials, and informational resources to raise awareness about suicidality and prevention are consistent with our recommendation. As a result, BOP now has increased its understanding about the extent to which deaths by suicide are occurring within its workforce, including related trends, and has better tailored its efforts to prevent suicides among BOP staff.

Full Report

GAO Contacts