Bureau of Prisons: Opportunities Exist to Better Analyze Staffing Data and Improve Employee Wellness Programs
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.
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
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.
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
|Bureau of Prisons||
Priority Rec.The Director of BOP should develop and implement a reliable method, or amend existing methods, for calculating staffing levels at BOP institutions. (Recommendation 1)
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. In March 2023, BOP reported that the contractor was testing a prototype of the tool in three of BOP's six regions, primarily focusing on positions in the correctional services discipline. BOP anticipates that the tool will be rolled out to all six BOP regional offices by June 2023, followed by positions from additional BOP disciplines . 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 regions 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)||
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 March 2023, BOP reported that the contractor had conducted research, including interviews with BOP leaders and focus groups across BOP, discussing topics such as staffing, recruiting, and retention. BOP reported that the contractor conducted additional interviews with 50 BOP employees to gain additional understanding related to employee retention. BOP reported that the research resulted in an assessment, but did not provide further detail on the results of the assessment. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress toward addressing this recommendation.
|Bureau of Prisons||
Priority Rec.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)
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 March 2023, BOP reported that the contractor had finished the analysis and that BOP had been tracking overtime and augmentation usage and trends for several months. BOP also reported that such tracking will illuminate drivers and trends of overtime and augmentation usage and help BOP invest in short and longer-time solutions to mitigate associated risks. We will continue to monitor BOP's progress in addressing our recommendation.
|Bureau of Prisons||
Priority Rec.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)
BOP concurred with this recommendation and reported in February 2022 that the same contractor was finalizing a risk analysis of the agency's current use of staffing incentives. In August 2022, the contractor finalized its analysis of staffing incentives. In March 2023, BOP stated that, based on the assessment, the contractor continued its work to standardize incentive usage, including working with BOP Executive Staff and other Human Resources staff to identify performance measures and goals for its use of incentives. This ongoing work should help BOP determine the effectiveness of staffing incentives.
|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)||
We found that data that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) collected related to its Employee Assistance Program contained multiple errors. These errors included significant variations in BOP's calculated cost per eligible staff member, and also errors in the number of staff for the Employee Assistance Program. As a result, we recommended that BOP develop and implement a method that ensures its Employee Assistance Program participation and cost data are collected in a more timely and reliable manner. In June 2021, BOP entered into a contract with a new Employee Assistance Program vendor, and requires that vendor to collect participation data. In March 2023, BOP reported that it reviews monthly invoices from the vendor to ensure that cost data is reviewed regularly to ensure accuracy. In addition to BOP's review of participation and cost data, BOP also provides regular reports to the Department of Justice that includes this data, ensuring an additional level of review for accuracy and timeliness. These new data reporting requirements and overall approach are consistent with our 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)||
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)||
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.