At a time when the nation's federal prisons are terribly overcrowded, and the focus of litigation alleging the most horrible brutality on the part of corrections officers, Committee members were content to spend much of their allotted time Wednesday morning asking Samuels softball questions about prison safety and praising him for tiny glories— like the BOP's recent decision, made amid significant political pressure from East Coast politicians, to keep female inmates at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, near their homes and families in the Northeast instead of transferring them to the South.
Only Senator Richard Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois, mustered up a serious question for the prisons chief. In fact, he asked one of the questions I had asked someone to ask of Samuels. Senator Durbin wanted to know: What had the Bureau of Prisons done since June 2012, the last time Samuels appeared before the Judiciary Committee, to study the relationship between solitary confinement and mental illness among federal inmates? It's a question that goes to the heart of the BOP's most controversial practice—as well as one that directly implicates the "cost" component of confinement.
Samuels told the Committee that there are approximately 4,000 fewer inmates in "restricted housing" today than there were then but, given the bureaucratic nature of prison-speak, it's hard to know precisely what that means. Samuels did not even mention mentally ill federal prisoners in his response to Senator Durbin's question about them. The senator, for his part, inexplicably did not press the BOP chief for such a response, and then the pair moved on to talk about the relative costs of confinement at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as opposed to confinement on the American mainland.
That was it. From this Committee, that single question and non-responsive answer was the extent of anything that could be remotely considered "oversight" in the classic sense of that word. Sure, they talked about how expensive it is to house federal prisoners—far more expensive than it is to house state prisoners. And they talked about how important it is to ensure the safety of correctional officers. And they talked about all the shiny programs the BOP says it employs to help inmates prepare themselves for their eventual release.
But true accountability and transparency? No. Your senators permitted Samuels to ramble through his answers—the testimonial equivalent of a filibuster—or used him as a mere prop to make their own points. For example, Senator Charles Grassley, the Republican from Iowa, warned that too much prison reform would lead to higher crime—and then he quickly left for another hearing. And senators from both parties talked about the need for sentencing reform as a way to reduce the BOP's budget—an excellent point that, alas, has absolutely nothing to do with Samuel's job performance or whether he is presiding over a Bureau of Prisons that is complying with federal law and constitutional norms.