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Time for a Really New Broom at the Federal Bureau of Prisons

April 17, 2011 11:46:56 pm
Comments (12)

By Margaret Colgate Love

Harley Lappin’s impending retirement as Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) provides an opportunity to step back and consider how his successor should be  chosen. Since 1964, BOP’s director has been promoted from within the  organization, and career management has been a source of institutional  pride.  

But the experience of the past two decades suggests it is time to try a different approach.

To  begin with, there is the question of BOP's extraordinary growth. For the half century after BOP’s establishment in 1930, the federal prison population was stable at about 20,000 prisoners. When I was the liaison  between Main Justice and BOP in the late 1980s, there were 45 federal correctional facilities holding about 45,000 prisoners. By then the  federal prison population had begun the relentless upward trajectory produced by  the  abolition of parole, long mandatory sentences, and the federalization of  crime.

This perfect storm has quadrupled BOP’s size in just 20 years, so that there are now 180 federal prisons and more than 212,000 federal  prisoners.

But the dramatic change in BOP’s size has not been accompanied by the sort of  corresponding changes in management philosophy and institutional culture that  one might reasonably expect in a growth industry.  

Paradoxically, rapid expansion seems to have induced a kind of organizational paralysis. Where BOP's policies and practices were once considered creative and compassionate, now they are regarded as bureaucratic and heartless.

When I worked with BOP some 20 years ago, the federal system was considered the  gold standard in progressive American corrections.  Not any  more. One need look no further than the regulations  recently proposed by the Attorney General to implement the Prison Rape  Elimination Act, heavily influenced if not dictated by BOP, which reflect a far  less enlightened approach to sexual abuse of prisoners than that of many state  systems.

BOP's institutional sclerosis is directly attributable to its place within the Department of Justice.  For all it has gained in size since 1985, BOP has lost as much in institutional independence. 

A career-led BOP has become captive to the Justice Department's prosecutorial agenda, which has closed off  many management and policy options available in more independent state  systems. For example, it will be hard for BOP to replicate the downsizing that is taking place in many state systems, since proposals to reduce prison population are heresy in a Justice Department dedicated to putting more and more people away for longer and longer periods of time. 

Thus, at the same time BOP complains about dangerously overcrowded facilities and budget shortfalls, it chooses to implement policies that lengthen prison terms, refuses to use ameliorative tools given it by Congress, and even turns  down requests from federal judges to send terminally ill prisoners home to  die.

A few years ago a BOP director was publicly criticized by senior Justice Department officials for allowing too many prisoners to serve short sentences in halfway houses, to enable them to keep their jobs and see their children. The message was not lost on the director who followed her.

It is bad enough that the director of BOP is appointed by the chief federal prosecutor, and is subject to his direction and control.  No state prison  system is under the same roof with programs whose objectives are in such tension with progressive correctional practices and responsible budgeting.

But what is worse is the absence of any official constituency outside the Justice Department that might allow BOP's director to take a stand against the rising tide of new prison admissions, as many state prison heads have done.  As it is, BOP proudly projects continued growth into an indefinite future.

If size alone were the measure of importance, the search for a new BOP director would be as rigorous as the search for a new FBI director.  (I vividly recall being told in 1989 that the Little B(BOP) had bumped the Big B(FBI) from the top spot in the Department's budget submission.) 

But quite apart from their comparable size, these two agencies are equally responsible in their  respective spheres for keeping the American public safe and secure. The Attorney General has declared his commitment to lowering recidivism rates through correctional improvements in state systems.  He could effectively test this message in his own house by recruiting a BOP director  whose vision of the job extends beyond being a jailer.

So I say that the Administration should scrap the tradition of career management at BOP. It is time to fight fire with  fire, and bring in politically accountable leadership to manage the federal  correctional establishment into its next stage.  

The President should  therefore direct the Attorney General to conduct a nationwide search for a new  federal prison director, and to make clear that professional independence will  be that position’s most prized qualification.  If the right candidate can  be found, perhaps it will not be necessary to consider a more complete  separation of prisons and prosecutors.

Ideally,  the new head of BOP would be someone with experience managing a major state correctional system, someone who knows how to shield elected officials in a crisis, woo a stingy legislature, and use a bully pulpit.  

The rank and file of skilled BOP professionals will quickly adapt to new management style, and be thrilled to  have their agency restored to the respectability it once  enjoyed.  

But even more than professional "street cred," the  new  director must have a humane correctional philosophy and the courage to put it  into practice when this means going toe-to-toe with presidential appointees who  have different ideas.  When someone  will be made responsible for so many human lives and such a transcendent  message, we should expect  nothing less than the very best.

ED NOTE:  The BOP announced March 26 that Harley Lappin will retire as federal prisons director on May 7 after leading the Bureau of Prisons for eight years.

Margaret Love served as Associate Deputy Attorney General in the late 1980s, and as U.S. Pardon Attorney in the 1990s, and worked with BOP management in both capacities.

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Posted by Rick Stiff
Wednesday, January 18, 2012 01:37

I’m generally not moved by correctional commentary at this point in my life, however, reading your article while searching for information on recently-appointed Director Samuels certainly moved me to hypertension.
With your resume, I would expect you to have signficantly more insight into the Bureau’s environment from say 85’ to the present. Case in point, re the exercise, abeit approval, of the Bureau’s many inmate management tools, I was involved in numerous such cases. Rather than make a provincial and myopic decision regarding an inmate’s limits of confinement, I consulted with US Probation Officers, US Marshals, federal judges, crime victims, inmates’ family, mental/medical practitioners, etc. With their collective imputs, I rendered a decision that was always in concurrence with my chain of command, and not always a denial! From your late 80’s experiences did you not clearly discern that tremendous forces affecting the Bureau that were accountable for burgeoning populations. The removal of parole and the advent of sentencing guidelines were epic in this regard. What would you have had the Director do? Ignore, oppose, fight these developments? Some of the judiciary tried that approach and even they capitulated. One area where I think we agree involves the Bureau’s submissive posture to the AG. This was not the case prior to ’88. It was during the ’88 election when the Bureau was politicized. Regrettably, once that door opened it has stayed opened and arguably political winds haveo opened it moreso. Federal prisons are still the safest, best managed and if you rule out outrageous, Yahoo-baiting correctional initiatives by state and local jurisdictions and the AFGE, the industry standard. Having a director from outside the agency might gain a strategic organizational plan based on unbridled conjugal visits, prison-made bluejeans and inmate labor organizations. My money is on Mr. Samuels to do an exceptional job on behalf of the American public.

Posted by LEW
Monday, May 30, 2011 01:54

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is “THE LEADER” in the world of corrections, period. State facilities and other countries get their new and cutting edge ideas from the BOP, not the other way around. The BOP would not benefit from an outsider for the sake of “change.” Congress passing new laws has caused the prison population to grow, not the BOP and it’s policies or employees. Every policy and dollar is closely monitored by DOJ and Congress. Every new prison and every new initiative in the BOP requires Congressional approval. In federal government circles, only the experienced BOP staff have any clue as to how to properly manage a prison system from an inmate’s first to his or her last day. The experiment this article suggests places every inmate, staff member, and the public at risk. There is not one single prison agency in the world that does not answer to whomever pays the bills. If you advocate some new program or a new direction in the BOP, the best place to start is with Congress. The most qualified person should get the job. 100 years of education cannot replace one year of experience!

Posted by S. R. Hernandez
Tuesday, May 24, 2011 09:06

Margaret Love specializes in executive clemency and restoration of rights, sentencing and corrections policy, and legal and government ethics as well as being Yale educated which I will not hold against her. However, state legislators, lawmakers, and people like Ms. Love are quick to make policies and have their opinions of who is to lead the torch for the BOP, have never worked inside a prison; have never fed an inmate, have never had to secure an inmate or get in between a fight; have never had to work in Special Housing or ride in a patrol vehicle for 8 hours circling the prison with weapons; have never had to write incident reports and have never have to interact with the poison of this society. A Yale education or because Ms. Love has written books doesn’t mean you know what is best for the BOP. I for one like the fact that the next BOP Director should be hired from within and that only makes common sense. Ms. Love should just worry of who she needs to pardon next.

Posted by ka
Wednesday, May 11, 2011 10:50

hopefully Eric Holder will invistgate all the inmate deaths that Lappin has covered up that he is responsible for. Lappin ran a gang himself now the truth is surfing, Lappin if your reading this you got several staff members willing to testify about your corruption with all the murders and the investigations

Posted by F.J. Kennedy
Thursday, May 05, 2011 01:53

I’m not quite sure what the ideal qualities of a new director should be, but I would suggest someone from outside the BOP. As a system, the BoP is an incredibly closed system that, I my assessment, behaves like an alcoholic family in most instances. Indeed, it is an incestuous system.

the BoP one thing very, very well … it keeps folks locked up.

Certainly the staggering recidivism rate is a testimony that radical change is necessary in the underpinning philosophy of Federal Corrections, higher requirements for employment, and increased accountability to entities outside the BoP.

Senator Jim Webb said that the federal prison system is a “national disgrace”. I would go a step further and say it is a “national disaster”. The responsible federal corrections employee seems to be few and far between. Their numbers are too few to change the entrenched “group think” that seeks to raise wilful ignorance to a virtue.

Posted by Samantha
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 07:54

Perhaps Ms. Love is lobbying for the postion herself? Maybe she could ask the same questions of herself – or should have – when she was the pardon attorney as she actually had power to advise and guide on the release of all federal prisoners who applied for such consideeration. Unfortunately, she was paid alot of money for pardons that essentially only came at the end of a presidential term and at best were 15 give or take. Perhaps it is her failure there that had led to her greater insight in the current matter? Or maybe, when in the AG’s Office, she could have been more instrumental with lobbying for different sentencing guidelines, ones that are fair, or even alternative sentencing options like employed by other states and counties. She had the ability to lobby strong for sentencing restructure – or her office – and yet the same options that existed before her and during her tenure, are in fact the same options available now.

Congressional mandates have not only caused an increase in the prison population, it passed the budget with which the BOP and all federal agencies are given appropriations. The legislature is a stiffling obstacle the BOP and other agencies must deal with to get the job done. And despite their craziness and ideas of how a prison should be run without ever having worked a day in one or even seen a jail cell, they purport to apparently know what is best. Sure the Director is heard in hearings before Congress, but he is not HEARD if you know what I mean.

I could go on and on, but the end result is the same. Ms Love is uninformed to render any competent opinion of the state of the BOP, how it is managed, and what is in its best interest.

Like I have made assumptions about Ms.Love’s ineffectiveness as an attorney for the US government in two capacities, she broke the branch when she went out on this limb.

The BOP is a proud agency, does its work the best and is a leader in correctional management.

Posted by Warden
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 02:34

As an Associate Deputy Attorney General, by virtue of the position , her knowledge of and association with prison management needs appears very limited. This article contains false data .Given that, how can she know what traits the new director should possess ?" What applied 20 years ago and what is needed now is not the same. A 45,000 inmate organization is not managed the same as a 200,000 inmate organization. The BOP is a world leader in corrections and is continues to be looked at by many for advice. Let prison experts manage prisons.

Posted by Michael Hamden
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 01:01

This incisive article brings into focus BOP’s operation over the past 20 years, identifies the challenges it confronts, and maps out a course for the agency to provide leadership in the coming years through much needed reform. It is uncommon that a view so penetrating is stated so succintly. It is even more rare that accurate observation is coupled with sound policy recommendations. Thank you, Ms. Love, for sharing your perspective. We can only hope that the administration has the wisdom and courage to act on this sage advice.

Posted by Jess
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 11:00

Who makes Ms. Love qualified to speak about prison management and growth? Because she is an attorney? Please………….

Posted by Jo Correct
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 01:09

This is the most uniformed article I have read. I’ve read better and more accurate articles in the enquirer.

Posted by DNCCM
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 01:02

This is an interesting perspective, particularly since it comes from someone who worked with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in some capacity. However, it could be a more informed opinion. I am sure BOP staff are looking forward to hearing who the next director will be. Historically, the past few directors have started out as line staff which has given them an informed perspective and a better pulse on the effects of new policy. If it would result in an increased budget, more staff, and not have a negative impact on the agency, I might agree on a leader with more political clout. However, we have been able to do this the traditional way and we don’t have to worry about having a new director every four years.
The BOP actually has 116 active institutions, not 180. There are three institutions that are close to coming online, pending the budget.
The BOP is not static, in fact, the agency has been innovative in the way it has made more happen with less, eliminating programs that don’t work, facilities that were not cost effective, and restructuring key departments nationally. Although this could not have been an easy decision for the executive staff to make, since thousands of staff members were displaced, it was best for the agency and necessary due to budget restraints.
There is a little more to the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) than you think, especially from a correctional perspective. Decisions about how inmates are searched could be limited, making it harder for correctional workers to ensure a safe and secure environment for themselves and inmates.
When you state the director has been criticized for allowing inmates to serve short sentences in halfway houses, which are now referred to as Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), it sounds like you think that is a negative thing. The time inmates get in RRCs is critical for them to reestablish family ties, gain employment, training, and securing a residence. Every inmate has different needs, so some receive more RRC time than others.
Correctional administration at the director level is very complex. I have faith the current Executive Staff and the Attorney General will do what is best for the agency.
The BOP continues to be a respected agency with a rich history of correctional policy development and professionalism.

Posted by beth
Monday, April 18, 2011 07:49

Thank you for this very informative article. The politics of the BOP and Justice are a mystery to most of us. Popular opinion suggests that the BOP is independent and makes decisions that are divorced from the Prosecutors office. This has always seemed to me to be very improbable, although any connection is denied. Anyway Thanks.

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