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Senate Judiciary Democrats Push Bureau of Prisons to Make Salaries Competitive for Critical Staff

A special pay rate for critical staff would help remedy issues exacerbated by understaffing, including otherwise preventable deaths in custody

CHICAGO – Led by U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats today pressed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to request a special pay rate for critical BOP staff, as well as share results of a study on staffing guidelines. A special pay rate would make salaries more competitive, which would help remedy issues exacerbated by understaffing, including otherwise preventable deaths in custody. 

In addition to Durbin, the letter is signed by U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-DE), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Peter Welch (D-VT), and Laphonza Butler (D-CA).

In the letter to BOP Director Colette Peters, the Senators invoked revelations from recent Committee oversight hearings that understaffing at facilities has led to unsafe conditions: “Recent Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearings have highlighted the fact that understaffed prisons cannot ensure the safety of, or necessary services for, those in their care, including critical medical and mental health care.  The practice of augmentation, where non-custody prison staff, like teachers, case managers, and medical staff, have to perform routine correctional officer duties, hinders the successful implementation of the First Step Act (FSA) and access to programming that is crucial for individuals’ rehabilitation and successful re-entry into society.” 

A recent Department of Justice Inspector General report emphasized that the ongoing prison staffing crisis is causing unsafe conditions. These conditions were also documented in several media reports.

The Senators urged BOP to request a special pay rate for critical BOP staff from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to help address the underlying understaffing issue, writing: “To address barriers to BOP’s recruitment and retention of critical employees and improve safety and security at BOP facilities, we urgently recommend that BOP send a special pay rate request to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Additionally, to address the staffing shortages contributing to deficient medical care and recidivism reduction programming, we recommend that you request that this special pay rate apply not only to correctional officers, but also to all non-supervisory staff, including nurses, teachers, doctors, and psychologists. A special pay rate will provide an additional tool for BOP to immediately address its staffing shortage within its current budget, while Congress works on long-term solutions to this crisis.”

The push for a special pay rate is supported by the Council of Prison Locals (CPL), the union representing more than 30,000 bargaining unit employees at various levels of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the United States.

“This pay adjustment is not only warranted but essential to ensuring the safety, security, and effectiveness of our federal correctional institutions. Bureau of Prisons Staff play a crucial role in maintaining order and security within our prisons, and their compensation should reflect the significant challenges and risks they face on a daily basis,” said Brandy Moore White, National President of CPL, in a letter of support.

In addition to the push for a special pay rate, the Senators are requesting information regarding the implementation of a tool to assess risks associated with staffing levels, writing: “The implementation of the first phase of the automated staffing tool was scheduled to be complete in July 2023. To date, however, no information regarding the tool’s implementation has been publicly released. Therefore, we request that you provide us with any information regarding the implementation of this staffing tool and any findings, including the data, reports, or tools relevant to this contract. Additionally, we ask that you commit to briefing the Senate Judiciary Committee on the contractor’s findings or making the contractor’s findings public.”

Full text of the letter is available here.

As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Durbin has prioritized oversight of BOP and established a new Committee practice of holding annual BOP oversight hearings.  In April 2021, the Committee held a BOP oversight hearing with then-Director Carvajal to address chronic understaffing issues and other concerns. Later, Durbin called for a new, reform-minded BOP Director after an Associated Press report that found that BOP is a “hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption, and has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct.” Then-Director Carvajal’s resignation was announced less than two months later.

In September 2022, the Committee held its second BOP oversight hearing under Durbin, which was BOP Director Peters’ first time testifying before Congress since taking over as head of the Bureau. At that hearing, Durbin pressed Director Peters about abuse in federal prisons. In September 2023, Durbin held his third BOP oversight hearing. 

In February, Durbin convened a hearing entitled “Examining and Preventing Deaths of Incarcerated Individuals in Federal Prisons” at which Director Peters and Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz testified regarding issues related to the operation and management of BOP, including staffing shortages, that contributed to deaths in custody.