Durbin Delivers Opening Statement During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Deaths of Incarcerated Individuals in Federal Prisons

Hearing features testimony from BOP Director Peters and DOJ Inspector General Horowitz following deeply disturbing report on deaths in BOP custody

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 “Examining and Preventing Deaths of Incarcerated Individuals in Federal Prisons.”  The hearing will examine myriad issues related to the operation and management of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that contributed to deaths in custody, such as the overuse of solitary confinement, BOP employee misconduct, inadequate medical care, poor facilities maintenance, and staffing shortages.

The hearing follows the shocking investigative report earlier this month from the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) into non-medical deaths of those in BOP care, which Durbin described as “deeply disturbing.” Last month, Durbin met with DOJ IG Horowitz to discuss this investigation.

Key Quotes:

“In recent years, more than 300 people have died of unnatural causes in custody of the Bureau of Prisons—deaths that too often have been the result of mismanagement and operational failures.”

“An investigation by the Marshall Project and National Public Radio three years ago found that the Thomson federal prison, in my home state of Illinois, had become one of the deadliest prisons in America because of the now-defunct Special Management Unit.  I was shaken by the allegations in that article and immediately asked Inspector General Horowitz to examine them.  We will discuss the results today.”

“After media reports late last year alleged that some adults in custody died while waiting for necessary medical care, I called on BOP to change its procedures, staff, and supply medical units so that incarcerated adults can receive the care they need.”

“The Inspector General’s report identified 344 non-medical deaths of adults in custody in its review period of 2014 to 2021. A number of trends emerged that demonstrate an increased risk to the safety of individuals in BOP’s care.”

“BOP’s lengthy and ineffective discipline process fails to bring accountability for staff misconduct. And BOP consistently fails to use post-death reviews and proper recordkeeping to identify corrective actions.  This failure to learn from past mistakes is most troubling when examining the role of restrictive housing in custodial deaths.”

“Suicides accounted for just over half of the 344 deaths that the IG reviewed.  Almost half of those suicides occurred in restrictive housing, which is more commonly known as solitary confinement.”

“In 2012, I held the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. At the time, nearly eight percent of federally incarcerated individuals were in restrictive housing.  After some progress under President Obama, we have returned to roughly the same percentage of people in solitary today.  We know that overuse of solitary confinement causes lasting, irreparable physical, emotional, and mental harm to incarcerated people.  Moreover, it threatens public safety and strains prison budgets.”

“Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office released a report, which I requested with Senator Coons.  It found that BOP has failed to implement 54 of the 87 recommendations from two prior studies on restrictive housing.  Let’s be clear.  The failure to decrease our overreliance on restrictive housing is deadly.  That is why I will hold a follow-up hearing on the dangers [of solitary confinement] this spring.”

“Director Peters, I understand that many of the issues we are discussing today have been problems for years, long before you arrived.  But it is time forsolutions and change.  The lives of hundreds of Americans in the Bureau of Prisons’ custody are at risk.”

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.

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. During this hearing, Durbin followed up on his letters pressing BOP to investigate allegations of abuse at United States Penitentiary (USP) Thomson in Illinois and Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) Hazelton in West Virginia by questioning Director Peters on the issue.