Durbin Questions Witnesses During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Deaths of Incarcerated Individuals in Federal Prisons

Hearing featured 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 questioned Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Colette Peters and Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Examining and Preventing Deaths of Incarcerated Individuals in Federal Prisons.”  The hearing examined myriad issues related to the operation and management of 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.

Today’s hearing followed the shocking investigative report earlier this month from the DOJ 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.

Durbin began by asking Director Peters about the use of restrictive housing, or solitary confinement, in BOP facilities. 

“I have voiced concerns over solitary confinement and pleaded with Directors now and before you to do something about it.  I’m going to reintroduce my legislation, the Solitary Confinement Reform Act, to limit the use of the practice.  Director Peters, the latest statistics show that despite the decrease in Bureau of Prisons total population since you were sworn in as Director in August of 2022, the percentage and total number of individuals in restrictive housing is actually higher than it was at that time,” Durbin said.  “As of this month, approximately 7.9 percent, or 11,179 people, are currently being held in some form of restrictive housing—an increase of .6 percent since September of 2022.  Director Peters, you previously pointed to your contract with the National Institute of Justice when asked about your plans to address restrictive housing.  What is the status of the study?”

Director Peters responded that the study is underway and that the individuals studying restrictive housing have actually been on site and are visiting facilities, looking at BOP policies and practices, and interviewing employees.  She also noted that, “currently we have plans to approve a new policy that will actually reduce the amount of time an individual can be sanctioned to restrictive housing fordisciplinary purposes. As I mentioned in my opening comments, we are adding additional resources to solve this problem.  And in the short-term, as you well know in your very own state, we shut down the Special Management Unit in quick order last year.”

Durbin then cited a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that, as of October 2023, BOP was housing about eight percent of its prison population in restrictive housing.  The report also noted BOP has not fully implemented 54 of the 87 recommendations from two prior studies on improving restrictive housing practices.  Racial disparities exist in restrictive housing as well.  GAO found that while Black individuals were less than half (38 percent) of the total federal prison population, they represented more than half (59 percent) of the population in one restrictive housing type.  Durbin led the congressional request for the GAO report.

“The time for studies is over.  The death rate in our prisons is unacceptable. Damage to mental health is unacceptable,” Durbin said.  “My question to you is, what steps can you commit to today to immediately reduce restrictive housing populations?”

Director Peters repeated that the new policy they have been working on will reduce the amount of time an individual can be sanctioned to restrictive housing fordisciplinary purposes.  She also noted, “As I mentioned in my opening remarks, we are creating positions who will work in restrictive housing and their sole responsibility will be working with those individuals who do not want to leave restrictive housing and help them transition into general population… We are also looking at best practices across the country and around the globe to implement changes.”

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here for TV Stations.

During a second round of questions, Durbin asked Director Peters about the difficulty of hiring and retaining health care professionals in BOP facilities across the country.

“We have talked about staffing in so many different respects… but I’d like to zero in on the health staff because it appears that this is one of the real deficiencies,” Durbin said.  “What has been your luck in recruiting people in those categories?”

Director Peters responded that it has been a “real challenge” to recruit and retain health care professionals.

Durbin proposed looking into the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) scholarship and loan repayment program to help address these health workforce shortages throughout BOP facilities.  Durbin secured a historic $1 billion in scholarship and loan repayment funding forNHSC and Nurse Corps in the American Rescue Plan to recruit more doctors, nurses, dentists, and behavioral health providers to underserved rural and urban areas.  Durbin has bipartisan legislation with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) that includes a three-year reauthorization that would double the mandatory funding, which will expire on September 30, from $310 million up to $625 million in Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24), and increasing up to $825 million in Fiscal Year 2026 (FY26).

Video of Durbin’s second round of questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s second round of questions in Committee is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s second round of questions in Committee 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.