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Regulators are alarmed by conditions inside a federal prison in Florida

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A federal watchdog says they're alarmed by conditions inside a federal prison in Tallahassee, Fla. The Justice Department's inspector general's office conducted an unannounced inspection at the facility in May. Inside, they found what they call serious operational deficiencies. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas sat down with the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, who said the findings signify much bigger problems within the Bureau of Prisons. And Ryan joins us now. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what did inspectors find at this federal prison in Tallahassee?

LUCAS: So they published a report on the Federal Correctional Institution, Tallahassee in Florida, as you said. It's a low security female facility with a lockup for men as well. The inspector general's office did an unannounced inspection there, as you said, in May. And Horowitz told me they found very disturbing problems with the prison's food services.

MICHAEL HOROWITZ: Serving bread with mold on it in the kitchen facility, spoiled food in the warehouses, food with bugs crawling in it, evidence of what appeared to be rodent droppings.

LUCAS: And there are photographs in the report that document all of those problems. Horowitz says they also found that Tallahassee has serious understaffing problems, and the inspector general also found that the prison itself was just in bad physical shape. They found roofs that leak, sinks coming off of walls, paint and plaster falling off the walls. Here's Horowitz again.

HOROWITZ: When we go to Tallahassee and we see windows leaking and ceilings leaking onto 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.

FADEL: So he's saying that's something you should never have to deal with, but how common is this problem in the federal prison system?

LUCAS: Well, Horowitz says these sorts of problems are pretty consistent across federal prisons. His office, for example, did another unannounced inspection at a federal lockup in Minnesota. There were some of the same issues there. Both facilities have roofs that leak and need to be replaced, neither prison has taken any steps to make that happen. Both facilities are also understaffed. That means guards are working overtime a lot. That means health care workers, education workers are being forced to work shifts as guards. And that, of course, affects basic security.

FADEL: Now, I imagine there have to be ripple effects from that, too.

LUCAS: There are, there are. Horowitz says staffing shortages mean educational and training courses get short shrift, things that are supposed to help inmates when they return to their communities. Health care coverage also gets short shrift. And this points to a bigger issue. Horowitz's office has found that the Bureau of Prisons doesn't know how many people or how much money it even needs. BOP says it needs $2 billion for upkeep, but it's only been asking Congress for 100 to $200 million a year for that.

FADEL: The Bureau of Prisons' job is to provide a humane, secure environment so inmates are prepared to return to their communities. Is the agency doing that?

LUCAS: Well, so just on the fundamental issue of inmate security, there have been massive failures in recent years. Jeffrey Epstein's suicide, Whitey Bulger's murder, both of those happened in federal lockups. The former warden, the former chaplain and several guards at a federal prison in California have been convicted of sexually abusing female inmates. But as for your question, Horowitz told me the BOP is not fulfilling its mission across the board. Some prisons are, some are not. He also had this to say.

HOROWITZ: 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.

LUCAS: He says everybody should want to have prisons that are educating inmates, treating them humanely, with dignity, supporting them so that they don't commit crimes once they're out of prison.

FADEL: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.