Justice Dept. to Seek Stiffer Sentences in Prisoner Abuse Cases

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is finalizing long-awaited plans to overhaul the troubled Federal Bureau of Prisons, which include a recommendation to increase sentences for prison employees found guilty of sexual abuse against inmates, according to people familiar with the situation.

For the past year, several working groups in the department, under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco, have been hammering out potential fixes in a sprawling system long plagued by health and safety problems, corruption, staff turnover and physical and sexual abuse that has disproportionately targeted female inmates and prison workers.

Ms. Monaco has been pushing federal prosecutors to crack down on sexual abuse at federal facilities, even though such crimes are often time-consuming and difficult to prove. She made a point of flagging prison abuse cases as a top priority in a video call last month with 90-plus U.S. attorneys across the country, in which she introduced the bureau’s new director, Colette S. Peters.

But prosecutors — limited by federal guidelines that often result in lower sentences for people convicted of sexual abuse against prisoners than against nonprisoners — say more is needed. In response, the department has filed requested changes with the federal commission that sets sentencing guidelines, people familiar with the situation said.

While details of that proposal are not clear, prosecutors have recently been asking judges to increase sentences in prison abuse cases whenever they have the flexibility under federal law to do so.

In August, the department secured a seven-year prison term for a former chaplain at the notorious Federal Correctional Institute, Dublin, a low-security facility for women near Oakland, Calif., after he was convicted of coercing female inmates to have sex with him. Such a conviction would typically carry a two-year term.

Ms. Monaco, speaking in a brief interview, would not comment on the specific steps the department was taking to overhaul the bureau, which oversees a network of 122 facilities that house about 158,000 inmates, with an annual budget of around $10 billion. But she did say the conditions at Dublin, whose former warden stands charged with sexual abuse, had been a particular area of focus.

“We convened senior officials from across the department to look at the particular issue of sexual abuse in the prison system, and that comes out of the horrific conduct that we’ve seen, and we have now prosecuted at senior levels, at the Dublin correctional facility,” Ms. Monaco said.

“We are saying, ‘What more should we and can we be doing to address what we saw in Dublin?’”

The Federal Correctional Institute, Dublin, in California has seen “horrific conduct” by employees, Ms. Monaco said. Credit…Ben Margot/Associated Press

Ms. Peters, a former director of the Oregon Department of Corrections who was named to her current post this summer, replaced Michael Carvajal, a career corrections official criticized for his reluctance to hold prison officials accountable. She is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, where she is expected to discuss some of the changes the department will propose.

Ms. Monaco said she selected Ms. Peters, in part, because she once had served as the inspector general of Oregon’s prison system, which made her more inclined to scrutinize, rather than merely run, the federal prison bureau.

“Look, she’s a former I.G. — she takes very, very seriously the importance of accountability in the correction system,” Ms. Monaco said. “It’s a new leadership that is focused on accountability and reform.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Peters inherits an agency that has suffered from chronic underfunding, and an acute labor shortage that has often left federal prisons competing against better-funded local and state systems for a relatively small pool of qualified, veteran corrections workers.

Mr. Carvajal, a longtime department official who began his career in 1992 as a corrections officer in Texas, was tapped to run the bureau in February 2020 by the attorney general at the time, William P. Barr. Mr. Carvajal took over just as the coronavirus began to sweep through the nation’s prisons, and drew criticism from lawmakers in both parties.

But the system was in crisis long before his tenure. In 2019, the House Subcommittee on National Security found that widespread misconduct in the federal prison system was tolerated and routinely covered up or ignored, including among senior officials. The report also found that a permissive environment often made lower-ranking employees targets of abuse — including sexual assault and harassment — by prisoners and staff members.

That report followed a 2018 investigation by The New York Times that documented the harsh treatment endured by female employees, and a pattern of retaliation, professional sabotage and firings faced by female whistle-blowers.

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