Charles Samuels Takes Over U.S. Bureau Of Prisons

Charles Samuels is the first African American to run the U.S.l Bureau of Prisons that supervises more than 200,000 inmates nationwide. Samuels faces multiple challenges — from overcrowding in prisons to budget pressure in Congress.

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As of today, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has a new leader. His name is Charles Samuels, and he is the first African American to run the bureau which supervises more than 200,000 inmates across the country. Samuels faces multiple challenges, right from the start - from overcrowding in the prisons to budget pressure from Congress. Here's NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Federal Bureau of Prisons has long had a reputation for operating in the dark. Its culture has been as locked up as the criminals confined in more than 100 facilities all over the country. That's one reason prisoners' rights advocates have implored the Justice Department to choose a new prison leader from outside the system. Advocates like Philip Fornaci, a lawyer who has sued the prisons over mistreatment and bad conditions.

PHILIP FORNACI: We certainly advocated for an outside candidate because we believe there's a lot of housecleaning that needs to be done at the Bureau of Prisons, which is simply not achievable with someone from the inside.

JOHNSON: But the Justice Department, which oversees the prison bureau, turned instead, to Charles Samuels, a 23 year veteran of the system.

FORNACI: I'm encouraged that he's an African American man given the disproportionate number of African Americans in that system.

JOHNSON: But Fornaci says Samuels's professional background worries him.

FORNACI: His background, from what I understand, it has to do with security issues and the use of private prisons contracting. Those are two of the major weak points in the bureau right now, so that concerns me quite a bit.

JOHNSON: Activists and experts who work on criminal justice issues say they don't know Samuels well, if at all. Like the system he'll run, he mostly operates under the radar. Dale DesHotel who leads a union for 20,000 corrections officers, says Samuels has agreed to meet with his group next week. A good start, DesHotel says, but no help in reducing the severe overcrowding in the federal prisons where his members work.

DALE DESHOTEL: It's a trap. It's a trap. It's a death trap for somebody.

JOHNSON: DesHotel counted 130 incidents of inmate violence in the federal prison system last year, and nearly 100 more episodes where inmates assaulted prison staff. He says it's gotten so bad that authorities use almost every square foot in prisons to squeeze in a few more inmates.

The administration has tried to buy more prison space. But Congress tossed a wrench in the effort to buy an empty state prison in Thomson, Illinois. Lawmakers did so noting that the administration had once considered using that facility for detainees moved from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The irony is that the Bureau of Prisons already holds far more people convicted of terrorism charges than U.S. military prisons do. Martin Horn, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says these inmates can be dangerous, whether in prison or not.

MARTIN HORN: God forbid they let down their guard and one of these guys was able to, you know, engineer another terrorist act from, you know, within the prison.

JOHNSON: Attorney General Eric Holder, who picked Samuels to lead the bureau, says he has no fears about public safety. And in a statement, the Attorney General says Samuels will spend a lot of his time figuring out how to prepare inmates for life on the outside. In this economy, that won't be easy. Brenda Smith teaches law at American University. She's followed the prisons for years as an expert on women behind bars.

BRENDA SMITH: They have really good programs for inmate inside. And so inmates are gainfully employed, they gain skills, but what I've certainly heard is that they can't get jobs once they get out.

JOHNSON: Martin Horn, who ran the corrections system for New York City and the State of Pennsylvania, says investing more in those efforts will pay off by shrinking the number of prisoners who return after release. But he says those savings will come over a 10 year horizon - not within a single congressional budget year.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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