Watchdog: Prisons Bureau Could Do a Better Job Using Data to Help With Hiring, Retention

February 25, 2021
In The News

The Federal Bureau of Prisons should develop more reliable and consistent methods of using workforce data to help with hiring and retention and to improve employee well-being, a watchdog reported on Wednesday. 

The Government Accountability Office issued a report about data collection and analysis methods at BOP, which has about 151,735 inmates and 37,402 employees nationwide. Staff recruitment and retention challenges have persisted during the coronavirus pandemic and despite the fact that the federal inmate population has decreased by 29% from 2013 to 2020, as the Justice Department inspector general reported in November.

“BOP assesses its staffing levels, including identifying the extent of staffing shortfalls, through three methods—comparing data on filled and authorized positions, utilizing staffing guidelines to compute the amount of required staff, and utilizing data on inmate-to-staff ratios,” said the report. However, “each method contains inconsistencies in either terminology or methodology and we found reliability concerns with the methods and data used.”

The watchdog said the agency collects several varieties of data from staff about their jobs and why they leave––which “may reflect additional or different causes and impacts of staffing challenges”––but the agency hasn’t analyzed it specifically to look at possible causes or impacts of staffing shortages. Some sources of data BOP “is not currently leveraging” are from BOP exit surveys, the annual prison climate survey and the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Among the other data related issues, GAO said that while BOP has undertaken several efforts to improve employees’ mental health, including suicide prevention, it could do more to learn from the data it collects on this. In particular, there were some errors in data from the employee assistance program, which gives counseling and referral services to staff.

Additionally, the report said that GAO tracked the number of staff deaths by suicide (either on or off duty) from fiscal 1997 to 2019 (there were 149, of which 86 were correctional officers), but “as of September 2020, BOP officials responsible for collecting and maintaining these data told us that they do not calculate the suicide rate across the bureau, or compare this rate to the nationwide average for context.”

Also, the agency does not collect information on deaths of employees who have left the bureau. Using data on suicide rates, in addition to the agency’s programs, could better help high-risk groups, the GAO noted.

Shane Fausey, national president of the Council of Prison Locals C-33, a division of the American Federation of Government Employees, previously told Government Executive that the staffing levels could have been a contributing factor to the high number of suicides among correctional officers in 2019.

The Justice Department, which houses BOP, agreed with GAO’s recommendations about developing and using reliable data collection methods and analysis.

This comes shortly after BOP launched a new hiring effort as it has had to rely heavily on augmentation (in which non-custody employees are assigned to custody roles, such as those of correctional officers) and mandatory overtime to compensate for low staffing levels.

The report was issued the same day that Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., reintroduced the bipartisan Bureau of Prisons Reform Caucus for the 117th Congress, which was first launched last August.

“As the chair of the BOP Reform Caucus, my priority is to ensure the health and safety of the heroes who operate and secure our federal prisons every day, as well as the inmates housed in these facilities, and the communities across our nation impacted by BOP policies,” said Keller, in a statement.

Other members of the bipartisan caucus include Reps. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.; Matt Cartwright, D-Pa.; Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.; Rodney Davis, R-Ill.; Andy Kim, D-N.J.; Mike Bost, R-Ill.; Pete Stauber, R-Minn.; Larry Bucshon, R-Ind.; Glenn Grothman, R-Wis.; and Randy Weber, R-Texas.

Based on GAO’s findings, the caucus “is needed now more than ever,” Keller said. “Moreover, addressing the BOP’s failed policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, which put our corrections officers and the communities they serve at risk, is just the beginning of this caucus’ important work to increase accountability and transparency within the BOP and hold its leadership in Washington, D.C., accountable,” he said.

Despite efforts from BOP, there have been issues and concerns during the pandemic over COVID-19 testing, “imminent danger” of contracting coronavirus in facilities, inmate transfers and the reopening of social visitations in October.