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

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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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