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.

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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.

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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.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
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
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. The contractor will work over several months with staff across BOP Human Resources, BOP regional offices, and BOP institutions to assess existing methods for calculating the BOP's current staffing levels and recommend improvements. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation.
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. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation.
Bureau of Prisons
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
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
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 to assess overtime and augmentation usage and develop an overtime calculation tool. According to BOP, this should provide them with additional tools to help the agency make informed staffing decisions, among other things. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation.
Bureau of Prisons
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
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
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 by analyzing past usage of incentives and developing recommendations on whether to adjust incentives in the future, among other things. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation.
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
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 participation and cost data. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation.
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)
Open
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 methods to collect and evaluate feedback in its Employee Assistance Programs. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this 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)
Open
DOJ concurred with our recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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