It’s the Leadership, Stupid!

As the Federal Bureau of Prison’s Director testified to Congress last Tuesday, reports started to circulate about the indictments of two correctional officers regarding the falsification of records regarding the Jeffrey Epstein suicide. On November 4, the BOP Director warned staff that falsifying documents is “very serious misconduct” that could expose staff to criminal prosecution. Off of the radar was a press release from the District of New Jersey US Attorney from a few days earlier about a Fort Dix Correction Officer who pleaded guilty to accepting thousands of dollars of cash bribes to deliver contraband to inmates over a period of several years. While I have no issue with staff accountability or tolerance for misconduct; I think the director’s office must be missing a mirror.

Before the politicians, academics and pop culture icons plot their next step in federal justice reform; they first need to address the fundamental aspects of the BOP agency culture. What most “reformers” are missing is the concept that federal prison reform can only be accomplished with a fundamental change in leadership. There’s an expression, “The fish rots from the head down” and I’m sure people like Michael Cohen, Jared Kushner’s father and Bernie Kerick are in agreement regarding the leadership chaos having experienced it first-hand.

As far as upper level management, look no further than the September 24th press release from the Inspector General which outlines the misconduct of a high ranking BOP Official, (at pay rate of over $187,000 yearly) which the IG chose not to refer for prosecution. https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2019/f190924.pdf   and https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/09/24/federal-prison-official-had-sexual-relationship-former-union-prez/2432833001/

I’m curious as to if any bonuses were paid out to that person like the other high BOP officials who have recently come under scrutiny for their management practices. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/07/16/us-bureau-prisons-officials-got-thousands-bonuses-despite-staff-shortages/1708217001/

Aside from investigative disclosures in the public domain, let us not forget about the untold indiscretions one encounters when they are part of this culture. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/01/03/misconduct-prison-leaders-covered-up-regularly-report-finds/2472410002/  If you’ve ever worked in the trenches of the BOP, I’m sure you’ve experienced administrators who find themselves in trouble and are quickly promoted, moved to another location or retire gracefully for that six figure landing spot with their Geo or Corr Civic predessors who have secured a retirement landing spot.  https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5032153-FINAL-Schatz-Nadler-Letter-to-DOJ-OIG-Re-BOP.html  

It’s easy to cast blame on the hard working rank and file working with their hands cuffed behind their backs with augmentation and staff shortages but that concept is void of reality and circumspection is needed more than blame. Not long ago, I wrote about the sudden resignation of General Mark Inch, a true leader, who told me shortly before he resigned ( or should I say undermined) that he was soon to “begin taking out targets”. Rather than the reactionary hasty appointment of a former director from the “old guard” after the Epstein suicide; why would the attorney general not get to the root causes of the broader agency dysfunction. The severe understaffing has been going on for decades and was an intentional management decision. The arrests of staff, homicides and serious assaults within the system and gross negligence regarding incidents such as the failure to protect incarcerated witnesses like Whitey Bulger are simply unacceptable. How we got to this crisis is best understood by some profound quotes from two visionaries. The first perspective comes from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s congressional testimony when he states, “The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government,”  He then chastised the legal profession for being focused only on questions of guilt and innocence, and not what comes after. “We have no interest in corrections,” he said. “Nobody looks at it.”   https://thinkprogress.org/supreme-court-justices-blast-the-corrections-system-215f53363470/

An even more applicable analogy was spoken ten years ago when William Deresiewicz addressed the incoming plebes at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point by saying, “That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back”

These statements hit the nail on the head of why there is no transparency, accountability or even a basic understanding of federal prison policy and culture. So before our society’s self-proclaimed reform gate keepers attempt to legislate agency behavior by another prison reform bill or “Second Step”; they must first understand reform can only be accomplished by active oversite by the expansion of the duties of the Ombudsman Office and even micro-management by the DOJ Assistant AG.  Although it took decades for the slow deterioration in the leadership culture, the agency has a quasi-militaristic structure that can effectuate some of the necessary changes rather quickly even if it is for self-preservation and to appease the hierarchy as self-serving as it may be! Congress, as well, must better educate themselves on prison issues and demand more transparency and accountability.

Jack Donson is retiree of the Federal Bureau of Prisons who co-founded Prisonology. He has over three decades experience in federal prison issues and is a  reformer, advocate and consultant who testifies around the country and provides training to attorneys and justice professionals.