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Congress passes a bill to bring new oversight to the troubled federal prison system


The Senate has overwhelmingly passed a landmark bill to bring more oversight to federal prisons. The legislation will soon head to the White House for a signature from President Biden. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia has been investigating abuse at federal prisons for a few years now.


JON OSSOFF: The human rights crisis behind bars in the United States is a stain on America's conscience.

JOHNSON: Ossoff uncovered widespread corruption and civil rights abuses at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, and he found that staff had sexually abused prisoners in two-thirds of facilities that house female inmates. In one notorious California prison, Ossoff says...


OSSOFF: Sexual assault and abuse of federal inmates by the warden, by the Chaplain.

JOHNSON: His Federal Prison Oversight Act aims to change that. The new law will pave the way for a justice department watchdog to conduct regular inspections of every federal prison. The inspector general will report his findings, and prison officials will need to respond with corrective action. The law also creates a hotline for people in prison and their families to use to report wrongdoing, and it creates a new job for an ombudsman to investigate the health and safety of incarcerated people and staff. Kevin Ring advocates for people in prison. Ring says he's thrilled with the new law.

KEVIN RING: The thing that made this so special was that you had organizations representing prisoners and their families working with the correctional officers' union to come together and say, we live and work in these institutions, and they're not safe. They're not humane. We can do better.

JOHNSON: The oversight will shine a light into prisons that are notoriously dark, and Ring says that has the potential to change the culture. Inspector General Michael Horowitz said he's already investigated staff shortages, crumbling prison buildings and rotten food for inmates. He says he looks forward to working with Congress to expand the inspection program. Colette Peters, the head of the Bureau of Prisons, says she welcomes the oversight, but she says Congress needs to provide more resources so she can respond.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. 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.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.