Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies at a congressional hearing in Washington on June 19. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Columnist

It’s easy to overlook prisoners.

Their families might disown them. Politicians ignore them.

Too often, corrections officials don’t have the training or the staffing to do the job.

These problems are worse for women in prison.

Consider a report that broke Tuesday morning on the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) management of female inmates.

The study by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General reveals a system that fails to meet certain basic needs of prisoners in ways large and small.

Three main issues were identified by Inspector General Michael Horowitz:

“First, we found that low staffing limits BOP’s ability to provide all eligible female inmates with trauma treatment, even though a study relied upon by BOP shows that approximately 90 percent of female inmates are affected by sexual, physical, or emotional trauma at some point in their lives.

“Second, we found that only 37 percent of sentenced pregnant inmates participated in BOP’s pregnancy programs.

“Third, not all prisons ensured that female inmates had sufficient access to feminine hygiene products.”

The bottom line: “Overall,” Horowitz said, “we concluded that BOP has not managed female inmates strategically.”

This is not a recent issue, nor one that a single political party owns.

What’s particularly distressing is that this is not a new problem,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said in an interview. “The proportion of women in prison has more or less doubled since the mid-80s. … Both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to put in place just regular procedures that would provide better corrections supervision and outcomes.”

The inspector general’s report will be cited by advocates, including those in Congress, to help improve conditions for incarcerated females.

We will take this report and we will use it,” said Andrea James, who was released in 2011 after two years of federal incarceration.

After getting out, James founded the Boston-based National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. She welcomed the report for the same reason she formed the organization.

“There are gender-specific needs that nobody was paying attention to,” she said, “and now they are.”

No one thinks prisoners should be coddled. But there are certain basic needs a just society provides for those it locks up. Despite agency efforts, BOP has not fully met some of those needs for the more than 10,000 federal female prisoners, about 7 percent of the total.

The agency has a “Women and Special Populations Branch,” but females are just one group among a half-dozen it covers. Even calling it a branch is an exaggeration because it only has four staffers.

It’s no wonder, then, that the report “identified instances in which BOP ’s programming and policy has not fully considered the needs of female inmates, which has made it difficult for inmates to access certain key programs and supplies.”

Inadequate staffing also impedes access to trauma treatment. BOP has assigned only one staffer at each institution to offer it.

All staffers assigned to BOP’s female correctional facilities are required to be trained in female inmate management and “trauma-informed correctional care.” But that does not include the agency’s national executive staff. As a result, the report says, top officials “may develop policy and make decisions that affect female inmates without awareness of their needs.”

In a memorandum responding to the report, Hugh Hurwitz, BOP’s acting director, agreed with all 10 of the inspector general’s recommendations, which included improvements in training, staffing and management. Hurwitz was named to his post in May, following Mark Inch, who abruptly resigned as director after eight months on the job.

BOP issued an unnamed, emailed statement saying the “recommendations support an already robust, proactive effort by BOP to develop policy and programs to meet the unique needs of female inmates in BOP's care. BOP will build upon this foundation and continue to look for ways to improve gender responsive services.”

Eric Young, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, complained the report didn’t “really highlight or give credit to our staff who perform essential functions for female offenders in our custody control and care in BOP.” The union, he added, “fully intends to work collaboratively with agency heads to improve programming for all offenders in our care, even female offenders.”

Many people who disagree with BOP’s “robust, proactive” characterization are promoting two bills designed to turn that self-serving declaration into action. One, the Pregnant Women in Custody Act of 2018, would create a national standard of care for pregnant women in federal prisons. The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act of 2017 would require changes in several areas including visitation, treatment, health care and communications.

“In general, women are treated as an afterthought in the criminal justice system,” said Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “They have needs that are unique to women. They should not be treated like smaller, more docile men.”

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