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Congress set to spend less on federal prison infrastructure

Congress is poised to spend less in the next fiscal year on federal prison infrastructure, even though a federal watchdog reported this year that the agency badly needed and cut funding requests for maintenance for years.

A Justice Department inspector general report released earlier this year presented images of dilapidated and worn-out facilities within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a system in which about a third of facilities are more than 50 years old.

Federal prisons across the country are in need of maintenance, and three facilities were in such poor condition that they were fully or partially closed last fall, the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General reported in May.

This includes the boarded-up skyscraper in Lower Manhattan where sex offender Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide. Meanwhile, some lawmakers have proposed legislation to overhaul oversight of federal prisons, which includes a provision to assess facilities for risk and make recommendations.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will have a chance to press infrastructure issues when Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters appears Wednesday for an oversight hearing.

Financing proposals

Senate backers proposed $209 million for the agency’s buildings and facilities in fiscal 2024, while House lawmakers sought to allocate $273 million in their plan of Commerce-Justice-Science spending law.

But both numbers fall well short of the nearly $2 billion in modernization and repair needs identified by the agency in May 2022, according to the inspector general’s report. This figure also does not include projects under $300,000.

The federal prison system received $290 million in fiscal year 2023 for its construction and facilities account. A total of $108 million was provided through regular appropriations, while an additional $182 million was provided through emergency funding.

Shane Fausey, who recently ended his term as national chair of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Local Jail Council, said the amount of fiscal 2024 funding proposed by congressional lawmakers is “insulting” and would not even reduce the backlog.

The men and women who work in the federal prison system deserve a clean and safe work environment, and incarcerated people also deserve to have a clean, safe and humane environment, Fausey said.

“And I think consistently we’re not getting there, just because of this backlog of these life safety systems that are broken or in disrepair,” Fausey said.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said the agency has been working to “develop and implement strategies” to request the resources needed to address “aging prison infrastructure challenges.”

“Receiving additional funding is vital to meet immediate needs and prevent conditions from deteriorating from their current state,” the spokesperson said. “The FBOP is in dire need of infrastructure funding to maintain all systems and structures in good condition. »

The DOJ surveillance report included photos of cracked and rusted infrastructure, and it indicated that roofing and HVAC systems were among the top needs in terms of cost estimates.

The Bureau of Prisons is responsible for a vast infrastructure that covers approximately 65 million square feet of space in more than 120 facilities across the country.

The bureau projects the prison population will increase in fiscal year 2024, as will overcrowding in parts of the system, while infrastructure will be exposed to further aging and deterioration, according to the watchdog’s report.

The agency does not have the funds to keep up with its maintenance repairs, and the cost of an unfinished project only increases as it is delayed due to inflation and a further deterioration, according to the inspector general’s report.

But the federal watchdog hasn’t placed all the blame on Congress.

While the prison agency had about $1.5 billion in modernization and repair needs in 2021, it requested less than $200 million for this area in fiscal year 2022, and Congress did not allocated only $59 million.

The report said the bureau lacks a clear infrastructure strategy, making it more difficult for the agency to communicate its needs to Congress and executive branch leaders.

Without such a strategy, the agency is “unable to prioritize projects or effectively communicate its needs” to decision-makers, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a video released in May.

Another problem with the prison agency is its inability to get projects off the ground, even when funding is provided.

As the system faces infrastructure problems, Congress set aside more than $1 billion to allow the agency to build two new institutions, the watchdog’s report said. But those projects have been in the planning stages for more than 10 years and funds have largely gone unspent, he added.

As part of the FY 2024 appropriations process, the Biden administration renewed a proposal to eliminate funding for the construction of a new federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky. Republican lawmakers in the House sought to reject that proposal, according to a summary of the Republican bill.

Legislative proposal

A slate of bipartisan lawmakers are pushing a bill that would require the Justice Department’s inspector general to conduct inspections of federal correctional facilities and report its recommendations and findings to the public.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., one of the lawmakers supporting the legislation, said he supports funding prison infrastructure but said there needs to be changes and oversight to ensure it is correctly implemented.

Besides the need to provide basic facilities, poor prison conditions could expose the government to significant liabilities, which could end up costing U.S. taxpayers money, Armstrong said.

“I think there are facilities within our system that run the real risk of costing taxpayers a lot of money if they go to trial, and we should address that and we should make sure we do it right,” he said. he declared.

But Armstrong also pointed out that infrastructure funds remain unused.

“They’re asking for less money than they should have, and they can’t spend the money we’re giving them – that’s a real problem,” he said.

Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., a former sheriff who also supports the prison oversight bill, said he wants to make sure government funding goes to the right place.

Older prisons were not built with reentry in mind, Rutherford said, and prison conditions can influence whether a rehabilitated person returns to society — or becomes more angry with society.

“We need to think about how we treat them while we house them and then how we reintegrate them into society, so it’s not one or the other. We need to look at both,” Rutherford said.

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