DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE IN THE NEWS
This piece marks the start of a new biweekly blog series from RDP. Every two weeks, we’ll call out ongoing trends in media coverage of the Justice Department’s focus and priorities, giving context from our past DOJ oversight work as needed, with an eye to the impact of DOJ capacity and resources, as well as alignment with the Biden administration’s professed goals.
- DOJ’s Jail & Prison Oversight
The Justice Department’s power to oversee local jails around the country has made news in recent weeks, with four Democratic senators calling out the Department’s failure to meaningfully address abuses in Los Angeles jails, despite an investigatory process that began in 1996.
DOJ’s oversight power was made explicit in the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act in 1980, part of a response to the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. While the DOJ’s Special Litigation Section currently has over 40 pending investigations of correctional facilities in various states, advocates are concerned that change is not coming fast enough. Incarcerated people face crumbling facilities, increasing populations, and abuse from correctional staff. In the case of LA jails, specifically, the ACLU has brought a lawsuit detailing reports of “mentally ill detainees — most of whom had not been convicted of a crime — chained to chairs for days at a time and alleged that they were routinely denied basic necessities such as clean water and working toilets.” Similar complaints and suits exist in many other states, including West Virginia, Texas, and Washington, in recent news stories.
- Federal Bureau of Prisons Scandals
As we’ve written about previously, there have been numerous scandals involving the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in recent years. A November 2021 AP investigation called the BOP a “hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption,” based on findings of prison staff convicted of murder, sexual assault of incarcerated people, theft, and drugs and weapons smuggling. Further, despite Biden’s campaign promises to reduce the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, rates have only increased since he took office. An ongoing FOIA lawsuit seeks data about deaths of incarcerated people in custody and indications of denial of proper medical care. Even former BOP employees are publishing op-eds about the dire need for changes in the Bureau. Just last week, BOP announced it is closing the Thompson federal penitentiary in Illinois after recurring reports of “inmate deaths, suicides and the reported sexual harassment of guards.”
Some changes have come to the Bureau in the past year. Trump-era Bureau director, Michael Carvajal—whose refusal to implement the bipartisan First Step Act, aimed at reducing recidivism, we highlighted previously—stepped down in January 2022, replaced by Colette S. Peters. While Peters, who spent ten years as the head of Oregon’s state corrections department, has worked to stake out a reputation as a reformer, critics have pointed out that the Oregon prison system perpetuates many of the same issues, including harassment and sexual assault, as the federal BOP. In December 2022, President Biden signed a bill to update and improve BOP camera systems—theoretically, to increase the chances of capturing staff wrongdoing and other issues—but this measure doesn’t go nearly far enough. Progressive advocates have called for policies that would “incentivize states to reduce their prison populations”; strengthen accountability measures for police and correctional facility employees; and “advance sentencing reform to reduce the federal prison population”, among other structural changes, as we’ll explore further in future work.
There are foundational issues at play if the Department of Justice, charged with enforcing and upholding US law, cannot even control violence and law-breaking by its own staff. Further, structural issues and harm across BOP facilities raises questions about the DOJ’s ability to adequately oversee local jails and prisons. After all, how can an agency with such corruption and effectiveness issues in its own ranks be dealing useful, practical advice and direction to local facilities? And while the Justice Department is overseeing local jails and prisons, who is overseeing the DOJ’s Bureau of Prisons?
Addressing mistreatment and harm of incarcerated people in federal prisons and in local facilities should be a top priority for Biden’s DOJ. While new legislation would be welcome, Biden’s team can make the world materially more just with the powers currently on hand. We plan to explore needed changes in this arena in more depth in the coming months.