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What's Changed Since Kathleen Hawk Sawyer Last Headed Prison Bureau?


The Federal Bureau of Prisons is being scrutinized after sex offender Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide at a federal jail in Manhattan. So this week, Attorney General William Barr appointed a new director at the Bureau of Prisons. Kathleen Hawk Sawyer will face a lot of challenges.

NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has the story.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: The first thing you should know about the new director of the Bureau of Prisons, Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, is that she's done the job before. She led the agency for 11 years from 1992 to 2003. That capped a career with the bureau that began back in 1976 as a psychologist at a federal facility in Morgantown, W.Va. But it's been 16 years since she last led the agency, and experts say a lot has changed in the interim.

JONATHAN SMITH: You know, I think the system has changed. And it's much more complicated than when she was last director, partially because the growth in population, partially because you see a much harsher and more punitive system.

LUCAS: That's Jonathan Smith, a lawyer who has done litigation and advocacy work on prison conditions. He says today's federal system uses solitary confinement more frequently than it did in the past. He says the use of private prisons has skyrocketed, as has the privatization of services across the system. And perhaps most importantly, the federal prison population has jumped from 65,000 in 1992 to more than 177,000 in 2019.

SMITH: So I think she's going to face a, you know, very, very different system and a very different set of challenges as she joins the BOP now.

LUCAS: In Hawk Sawyer's first stint atop the bureau, she was thought of as a champion of rehabilitation, as someone who pushed for higher education opportunities inside federal prisons, Smith says. A lot of that has gone now, in part because of Congress, in part because of decisions made by the Justice Department. And that, Smith says, highlights a simple fact - the director has limited power to address deep-rooted problems.

SMITH: A director is important. They set the tone. They have a huge influence over policy. But the director alone, without the support of the administration - it's going to be very difficult to fix these longstanding problems.

LUCAS: For those who work inside the nation's federal prisons, such as Darrell Palmer, a corrections counselor and Bureau of Prisons union leader, one pressing problem in need of immediate attention is chronic understaffing.

DARRELL PALMER: The biggest challenge now is trying to get staff higher up and get some correctional officers back into the prison system.

LUCAS: The bureau was ordered to eliminate some 6,000 positions, which cut staffing levels at facilities across the country. Palmer says that at the high-security prison in Pennsylvania where he works, for example, the staff is short about 40 correctional officers.

Several things have contributed to the bureau's staffing crisis - attrition, recruiting problems, a generation of officers reaching the mandatory retirement age of 57. But it was a hiring freeze that President Trump imposed shortly after taking office in 2017 that pushed the system over the edge. That freeze was only lifted by the attorney general in April.

PALMER: It's - as I say, it's the perfect storm.

LUCAS: To try to make up for the shortfall, correctional officers are being forced to work overtime and double shifts. The situation is so bad, Palmer says, that secretaries, food service workers and even nurses are sometimes being forced to fill in as guards. That leads to safety issues, he says. It also has a ripple effect on other services.

PALMER: When the other staff were hired to do other things, that - the things that they were supposed to be doing isn't getting done. So you're robbing Peter to pay Paul, basically.

LUCAS: It took the death of a high-profile inmate to put the bureau and its struggles under a public microscope. Now it falls to Hawk Sawyer to try to address a long list of challenges and fix a system that some call overcrowded, poorly managed and broken. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "VICES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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