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DANBURY Costly mistakes in prison rebuild

September 20, 2018

WASHINGTON — Rebuilding the Danbury federal penitentiary cost needless expense and exposed female inmates to poor conditions and even danger while temporarily held in Brooklyn, two U.S. Department of Justice reports conclude.

The reports by the department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) cover the period between July 2013 when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons announced it would convert Danbury from a prison housing women to one housing men, and October 2017 when the construction project was finished.

Originally opened in 1940, FCI Danbury now houses 1,078 inmates — 778 male and 300 female — according to the Bureau of Prisons web site.

The original plan to turn it into an all-male prison drew criticism from advocates and 11 lawmakers, including U.S. senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal. They argued that closing the Northeast’s only federal prison for women would increase the distance between them and family visitors.

Authorities reconfigured the prison so it could house both men in a “low” security setting, and women in both “low” and “minimum” (with the difference being “low” has double-fenced perimeters, and “minimum” has “limited or no” fencing).

Construction began in 2015 and the original $10.5 million price tag ballooned to $28 million, the report noted. By itself this was not troubling, because the specifications had changed.

But, the report noted, the switching back and forth on security levels for the women’s side of the prison resulted in needless construction of an entry building for $1.7 million. Although the building ultimately was repurposed, it was “an unnecessary use of BOP resources that could have been avoided with better planning, coordination, and communication,” one of the reports stated.

The report also chastised the Bureau of Prisons for not originally planning a building for programs for female prisoners to the newly reconfigured prison. Such a building was hastily added nine months after the original contract award, at an extra cost of $12.2 million.

A second OIG report released Tuesday takes the BOP to task for jeopardizing the well-being and safety of Danbury women prisoners who were transferred during reconstruction to the federal prison in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Brooklyn detention center is mostly used to house prisoners under federal prosecution.

Because it was not set up to house prisoners long term, the prison space offered limited recreation and programming that female prisoners would have had in Danbury.

Life inside the prison also largely cut them off from sunlight and fresh air, which psychologists say is important to prisoner morale, the report said.

The report also noted that female prisoners were originally scheduled to spend no more than 18 months in Brooklyn. But the actual duration of women imprisoned in Brooklyn was just over two-and-a-half years.

The time period in which about 360 women prisoners from Danbury were housed in Brooklyn - March 2014 to December 2016 — coincided with arrests of male prison guards for sexual abuse.

The report did not say that the guards abused women from Danbury, or who would have been serving sentences in Danbury. But it reiterates the prosecutions of three guards for forcing women inmates into sex during that time frame.

Two were found guilty at trial and one pleaded guilty.

In response to the first report, BOP officials said they agreed with the OIG’s eight recommendations for improvement.

In the second report, BOP agreed to 10 recommendations.

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dan@hearstdc.com

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