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Durbin Delivers Opening Statement During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Bureau of Prisons Oversight

Durbin: “Our federal prison system must fulfill its fundamental purpose: to provide safe and humane conditions of confinement and ensure the successful return of incarcerated individuals to the community.”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today delivered an opening statement during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”  Today’s oversight hearing is the third BOP oversight hearing in as many years under Chair Durbin’s leadership of the Committee.

Key Quotes:

“Director Peters, you have now led the Bureau for a little over a year.  We have seen some significant changes.”

“In February, you dissolved the Special Management Unit, or SMU, at the United States Penitentiary Thomson, located in my home state of Illinois.  When you abolished the SMU, you recognized that the program failed to meet the high standards that we should expect in our federal prisons. I applaud your decisive action, but let me be clear: closing that unit should only be the beginning.”

“I was stunned to hear about the shackling of people in custody in ways that left permanent scars on their bodies.  It became known within Thomson penitentiary as the ‘Thomson tattoo.’”

“A former Warden has reported that over 90 inmates were documented with these ‘Thomson tattoos,’ scars from excessively tight and punitive use of restraints, and the Director, I understand, personally observed some of this in her visit to Thomson.”

“The former Warden also advised us that Thomson is one of the most violent and abusive cultures he had seen at a prison in 30 years, and he worked for the Bureau of Prisons.  This is stunning and sickening.  I take it personally.”

“Recurring accounts of rampant, racist verbal abuse and extreme isolation at the facility are equally alarming.  Unfortunately, my staff continues to receive reports about misconduct that are, to put it mildly, unacceptable.  Accountability at Thomson and across the Bureau is absolutely necessary and overdue.”

“I know, and you do as well, that separation for safety is unavoidable in extreme cases.  But we both know that locking someone in a cell for more than 22 hours per day will not make them a good neighbor.”

“And yet, since our oversight hearing last September, we have seen no decrease in the number of people in solitary confinement in federal prisons.  In fact, the percentage of people in Bureau of Prisons restricted housing [now] is higher than when I held my first hearing on solitary confinement more than a decade ago.”

“We both know that the majority of women and men in incarceration today will be released at some point in the future.  If damage is done to them mentally or physically, they will carry those scars forward back into society, and the likelihood of their success in avoiding recidivism is diminished many times by the treatment that is accorded to these inmates while they are in prison.”

“I have said, and I don’t know that my colleagues have all joined me in thinking along these lines, but I believe every member of Congress every two years should be required to take a trip to a foreign country and required to visit a federal prison.  We talked casually about criminal sentencing here and what it means to America.  We ought to see it firsthand and have the courage to face it—where it succeeds and where it fails.”

“Making good neighbors also requires full implementation of the bipartisan First Step Act… Programming to prepare people to successfully return to their communities is critical to the First Step Act’s goal of rehabilitation.  Unfortunately, there are significant waitlists for programming and overreliance on staff augmentation that have made it more difficult for incarcerated people to access programming.”

“The Bureau’s 140,000 employees have the great responsibility of safely caring for adults in custody, but they cannot perform their jobs if they are overworked and undertrained.”

“More than two years ago, BOP awarded a contract to an independent consultant to assist the Bureau in making informed staffing decisions.  I want to hear about the results of that review and your plans to address the chronic understaffing.”

“With your leadership, the Bureau of Prisons is moving toward a new course.  You have shown you are adaptable to change and confronted some of BOP’s most pervasive and persistent issues, but recognize that there is much more to be done.”

“Our federal prison system must fulfill its fundamental purpose: to provide safe and humane conditions of confinement and ensure the successful return of incarcerated individuals to the community.”

Video of Durbin’s opening statement is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s opening statement is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s opening statement is available here for TV Stations.