Search About Newsletters Donate
Closing Argument

How Federal Prisons Are Getting Worse

Government watchdog agencies found hundreds of preventable deaths and excessive use of solitary confinement.

Colette Peters, a White woman in a red suit jacket and short brown hair, speaks, as Michael Horowitz, a White man in a navy suit jacket and white hair, looks on.
Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters testifies as Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz listens during a U.S. Senate hearing about deaths in federal prisons, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

This is The Marshall Project’s Closing Argument newsletter, a weekly deep dive into a key criminal justice issue. Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to future newsletters here.

On Wednesday, federal prisons’ director Colette Peters once again found herself facing tough questions over an agency in crisis. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated Peters over two February reports that found hundreds of preventable deaths of people in federal custody, and the persistent overuse of solitary confinement.

The two issues are intricately linked. Although about 8% of the population is in restrictive housing at any given time, 39% of homicides and 46% of suicides in federal prisons occurred in such settings, according to a report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

Despite numerous studies, reviews and initiatives, “the problems at the BOP have generally increased over the years,” Horowitz told senators Wednesday. The number of federal prisoners dying by suicide has been increasing, according to his report, as has the number of people placed in restrictive housing. His investigation found that prison staff often failed to respond adequately to medical emergencies due to a lack of clear communication, urgency or proper equipment.

The inspector general’s report also found that a shortage of employees for psychiatric services “strained the ability of staff” in facilities where prisoners died “to provide adequate care to mentally ill inmates.” This has been a chronic problem at the Bureau of Prisons, where a dearth of mental health resources has led to many people being underdiagnosed, a previous Marshall Project investigation found. In the Senate hearing, Horowitz noted that over 60% of people who died by suicide in federal prisons had been on the lowest mental health care level, meaning their facility had determined that they did not need regular care.

Peters and Horowitz both pointed to staffing shortages as a key driver of the problems. A lack of clinical staff like psychologists and corrections officers has been an endemic challenge in many BOP facilities.

The Thomson prison in Illinois, where a 2022 Marshall Project investigation uncovered a pattern of abuse and brutality, is one facility where union officials say they’re seriously understaffed. The facility has 111 staff vacancies, according to Jon Zumkehr, president of the corrections officers union there. “We are going to have to cut services for the inmates because we don’t have staff to provide,” he told Iowa TV station WHBF after attending the hearing, noting that Peters had recently ended retention bonuses for Thomson employees.

In previous interviews with The Marshall Project, Thomson’s former warden said the claim of a “staffing crisis” at that facility was overblown. And understaffing only goes so far in explaining mistreatment uncovered at Thomson and other federal prisons. At Thomson, over 100 incarcerated people reported serious abuse, including beatings and frequent shacklings. (Horowitz testified that his office is currently investigating the use of restraints in federal prisons.) In the hearing, Horowitz spoke of the need to hold staff accountable for criminal misconduct, before it “spirals and poisons the culture at an institution.”

Still, understaffing can create plenty of problems and exacerbate others. During the hearing, Peters repeatedly noted that her agency was struggling to compete with both state and local corrections departments that pay more — sometimes double when overtime is factored in — as well as non-correctional work in retail and food services.

Staffing issues are plaguing many state and local agencies as well. In a recent survey of 400 people incarcerated in Colorado, 93% said their facility was understaffed, and a large majority agreed that shortages had negatively impacted their health, safety and well-being. In Wisconsin, The New York Times and Wisconsin Watch found that nearly 50% of corrections jobs were unfilled, according to a January investigation. Reporters also found that this had led to extended lockdowns — in at least one case, for over a year.

In Georgia, the state correctional population is at its highest in 15 years, while its number of corrections officers is the lowest in a century, reported Georgia Public Broadcasting this week. And in Maryland, The Baltimore Banner reported that a longstanding staffing shortage in prisons there is now made worse by a growing prison population. A recent legislative analysis found that even if the Maryland corrections division filled all of its vacancies, it would still need more officers to safely manage the current prison population and cut down on mandatory overtime, in part because of a 4% increase in the number of people incarcerated this fiscal year.

Prison populations across the country are creeping back up after years of slow decline, and a brief dramatic decrease tied to the pandemic. Last week, Axios reported that the U.S. prison population increased by just over 2% between 2021 and 2022, the first increase in over a decade.

The number of incarcerated people could grow at an even faster pace as some state legislatures — including in Louisiana, Ohio and Maryland — pursue bills that could funnel more people into prisons, or limit the possible pathways out of them. In next week’s newsletter, we plan to take a detailed look at how these efforts, fueled by fears of crime, are gathering steam.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.

Christie Thompson Twitter Email is a staff writer reporting on mental health, solitary confinement, and prison conditions. Her investigative series with NPR examining violence in double-celled “solitary confinement” won a George Polk Award for Justice Reporting and was a finalist for an IRE Award and the John Bartlow Martin Award.