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Justice Department watchdog finds alarming conditions inside Florida federal prison

The entrance to the Federal Correctional Institution Tallahassee in Florida.
Office of the Inspector General
/
Department of Justice
The entrance to the Federal Correctional Institution Tallahassee in Florida.

Inside a federal prison in Florida, inmates are served moldy bread. Containers of food are covered by what appear to be rodent droppings and bags of cereal contain insects. Water frequently leaks from ceilings and windows.

These are some of the conditions the Justice Department inspector general's office found during an unannounced inspection of the Federal Correctional Institution Tallahassee in Florida this year.

The findings are detailed in a new report released Wednesday, and follow a series of other investigations by the watchdog that have documented major challenges in the federal prison system, which currently houses some 150,000 inmates across more than 120 facilities.

"The two biggest issues facing the BOP are the crumbling infrastructure and staffing challenges," Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in an interview with NPR.

Those two fundamental issues have contributed to a host of other problems across the sprawling federal prison system, including physical and sexual abuse against inmates, neglect and corruption.

What the watchdog found

The watchdog's new report on the Tallahassee prison, a low-security, female facility with a satellite male detention center, provides a window into some of those problems.

The inspector general's office found "several serious operational deficiencies" during an unannounced inspection at the lockup in May, particularly with food services and staffing problems.

Inspectors found inmates were being served moldy bread; spoiled food in the warehouses, including rotting vegetables; rodent droppings on bags of food; bugs crawling in bags of cereal.

Left: Moldy bread is served during lunch. Right: rotting cucumbers are seen in a refrigerator.
Office of the Inspector General / Department of Justice
/
Department of Justice
Left: Moldy bread is served during lunch. Right: rotting cucumbers are seen in a refrigerator.

Due to the severity of the issues and the health risks, the watchdog informed the prison management, which then removed large quantities of food from the warehouse within 24 hours, according to the report.

The inspector general's office also found the prison was in bad physical condition, including water leaking from ceilings and windows; sinks coming off walls; paint and plaster falling off the walls.

"When we go to Tallahassee and we see windows leaking and ceilings leaking on to inmate living space, and we see female inmates having to use feminine hygiene products to keep the water from coming into their space, that's something you should never have to deal with," Horowitz said.

The roofs over all five housing units need to be replaced, according to the report. At the time of the inspection, the prison had not requested or received funding to replace those roofs.

The issues identified at the Tallahassee prison are symptoms of a broader problem

The report says the issues identified at the prison, FCI Tallahassee, are largely consistent with findings in its other oversight work of the Bureau of Prisons.

For example, the watchdog's earlier inspection of the lockup in Waseca, a low security female prison in southern Minnesota, also identified a leaky roof in need of replacement.

Both facilities also suffer from staffing shortages that routinely force guards to to work overtime, which the report says can leave staff less attentive and negatively affect security at the facilities.

Feminine hygiene products are used to absorb water entering a single-level housing unit through an insufficiently sealed exterior window.
Office of the Inspector General / Department of Justice
/
Department of Justice
Feminine hygiene products are used to absorb water entering a single-level housing unit through an insufficiently sealed exterior window.

It also frequently means that health care workers, facilities management workers and education workers at the prisons are pulled from their regular jobs to work shifts as guards.

That has a ripple effect, Horowitz said. It causes educational and training courses to be neglected — things that are supposed to help inmates and prepare them to return to their communities. It also means that health care gets short shrift.

"You can't have the health care coverage that you need because the professionals who are health care professionals are augmenting the correctional staff," Horowitz said.

As for infrastructure problems, the inspector general said that is one of the bureau's "most basic problems."

"Most of their facilities are aging. They need to be fixed. Repairs have been neglected for years," he said. "The failure to fix crumbling infrastructure simply creates exponential causes as the problems continue to grow."

This is a problem that didn't happen overnight. This has happened for years. The BOP has not had an infrastructure strategy that's effective for years.

The Bureau of Prisons has said it needs $2 billion for infrastructure, but the inspector general's office has noted that the BOP has been asking Congress for only $100-$200 million a year for it.

"This is a problem that didn't happen overnight. This has happened for years," Horowitz said. "The BOP has not had an infrastructure strategy that's effective for years."

He said one reason this has happened for so long is a lack of sustained leadership at the Bureau of Prisons. He noted that in his 11 years as inspector general, the BOP has had eight different leaders.

Left: A sink is seen detached from the wall in an inmate's cell. Right: insects are seen on a windowsill in the inmate cafeteria.
Office of the Inspector General / Department of Justice
/
Department of Justice
Left: A sink is seen detached from the wall in an inmate's cell. Right: insects are seen on a windowsill in the inmate cafeteria.

He says the current director, Colette Peters, is aware of these problems, and has said that coming up with strategies to address them is one of her priorities. He also said the Justice Department's is focused on the bureau, and that there's bipartisan support on Capitol Hill to tackle the issue.

And it matters whether the Bureau of Prison succeeds, he said.

"It's often been said that you judge a society by how it treats its inmates. By that standard, we're not doing great. Just look at the pictures. Look at the report," he said.

Everybody, he said, should want prisons educating inmates, treating them humanely and supporting them so they can successfully reenter their communities and not return to crime.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.