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GAO Finds Room for Improvement in Disaster Preparedness at the Bureau of Prisons

Over the past few years, the U.S. has experienced some of the most destructive natural disasters in its history. Extreme weather events that may result in natural disasters are becoming more frequent and intense.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is responsible for the care and custody of over 150,000 federal inmates and the maintenance and repair of 122 institutions. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, can present a specific danger to inmates and staff who may not be able to evacuate, due to security measures.

BOP tracks data on its facility maintenance and repair projects, including those stemming from disasters. But a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review has found that BOP hasn’t defined “disasters”, which makes it harder to plan for disaster risks.

GAO selected six BOP institutions that experienced a disaster from calendar years 2017 through 2020 and interviewed officials at each location from February through March 2021. According to BOP central office officials, from calendar years 2017 through 2020, disasters affected 15 BOP institutions. An adverse weather event, such as a hurricane, a tropical storm, or a tornado, affected all 15 institutions.

BOP requires its institutions to develop contingency plans outlining steps to prepare and respond to disasters and requires staff to complete related training. GAO reported that BOP has two data systems to collect information on maintenance and repair projects, including those related to disasters. However, the watchdog found that BOP has not defined “disaster” for the purposes of tracking it in these data systems. The review also found that these data systems do not include analytic features that could position BOP to identify trends in the type, timeliness, and cost of its projects. According to GAO, the data systems that BOP uses cannot perform the analysis to identify trends in the types, timeliness, or costs of its projects. 

BOP has various processes for managing disaster response, including using a standardized Incident Command Structure approach and documenting and responding to the impacts of disasters on inmates and staff. For example, when a hurricane hit one BOP institution, the institution converted the visiting room and training center into staff living quarters and supplied cots, sheets, blankets, showers, and food until staff could return to their homes.

But GAO found that BOP lacks approaches for sharing lessons learned from all disasters and assessing institutions’ disaster vulnerability. According to BOP, it identifies and shares disaster-related lessons learned through after-action reports; however, these reports are not required, and their content varies. Further, officials at all six institutions that GAO spoke with said they identified and shared lessons in other ways, such as conference calls. 

The government watchdog said that by implementing a systematic approach for identifying and sharing all the lessons learned and taking steps to routinely collect feedback from institutions on their application, BOP could have greater assurance that institutions are leveraging lessons to prepare for future disasters. 

GAO found that BOP’s approach for assessing institutions’ vulnerability focuses on security-related risks, not disaster-related risks, such as building damage. By expanding assessments to include disaster-related risks, GAO believes BOP could leverage opportunities to build resilience and reduce institutions’ risk of damage from future disasters.

GAO’s report makes eight recommendations to BOP, including establishing in policy a clear definition of disaster for tracking projects, incorporating analytic features into its data systems, systematically sharing lessons learned from disasters, and including disaster-related risks in its vulnerability assessments. 

BOP concurred with five of the eight recommendations. BOP did not concur with the three recommendations to incorporate analytic features into its data systems, citing among other things, questions about cost and feasibility. First, BOP stated that incorporating the recommended features into a system that is not designed for this type of analysis could require additional funding. As an alternative, BOP stated it believed a cost-benefit analysis should be conducted prior to implementation to determine if analytical features, such as milestones and cost indicators, as well as queries and alerts, can be achieved. With respect to incorporating the analytic features into plans to make its financial and property management systems interoperable and using those features once implemented to analyze trends, BOP stated that it is not able to commit to such an initiative prior to assessing feasibility and cost. 

During the review, BOP officials told GAO that they were uncertain about the costs and feasibility of establishing and incorporating such features. BOP is currently in the process of integrating its data systems—a process that is expected to last through October 2022 and includes developing a list of new requirements and capabilities for the integrated systems. GAO noted that the timing presents an opportunity for BOP to consider the costs and feasibility of establishing and incorporating the analytic features. The watchdog added that BOP could then use this information to determine which features would be most feasible and cost-effective and take steps to incorporate these features as the systems are being integrated.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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