Congress

Attorney general installs new leadership at Federal Bureau of Prisons

Moves follow suicide of Jeffrey Epstein in prison custody

Attorney General William  Barr has installed new leaders at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Attorney General William Barr has replaced the leadership of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Barr is appointing Kathleen Hawk Sawyer to the position of director. Barr previously appointed her to the same post in 1992, when he was last the attorney general.

The move comes as the federal prison system is under scrutiny over the hanging death of Jeffrey Epstein, the alleged sex trafficker, who was determined to have committed suicide at a federal prison in New York City.

“Under Dr. Hawk Sawyer’s previous tenure at the bureau, she led the agency with excellence, innovation, and efficiency, receiving numerous awards for her outstanding leadership,” Barr said in a statement.

The bureau has been working with acting leadership since May 2018, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed Hugh J. Hurwitz. 

Barr’s announcement said Hurwitz would return to his post as assistant secretary of the bureau’s reentry division, where he would focus on implementing a law President Donald Trump signed that gives federal drug offenders a chance to seek early release.

Hurwitz “will work closely with me in overseeing the implementation of one of the department’s highest priorities, the First Step Act,” Barr said.

The statement from Barr announcing those personnel moves, as well as the appointment of Thomas R. Kane as deputy director, did not reference Epstein’s death at the Manhattan Correctional Center, an FBOP facility.

Trump has often used the appointment of acting leaders of agencies to get around the Senate confirmation process, but that is not the case with this position. The director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons is not currently subject to Senate confirmation, though there have been efforts over the years to change that.

In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell teamed up with fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker on a bill that would have required the position be Senate-confirmed.

It also would have designated that the director serve a single, 10-year term.

The senators had a variety of concerns about the operations of federal prisons, ranging from the safety of inmates and correctional officers to more parochial issues such as the effects of prison manufacturing businesses on local industry.

“No agency as large as the Bureau of Prisons should have so little accountability. Our bill will ensure the concerns of those who work in the prisons are heard and acted upon,” Paul said in a 2016 statement.

It was not immediately clear whether the Epstein suicide would prompt renewed calls for structural changes, but Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse said in a statement that the personnel moves were not enough. Sasse encouraged the Justice Department to fully prosecute Epstein-related crimes.

“This is a good start, but it’s not the end,” Sasse said. “Jeffrey Epstein should still be in a padded cell and under constant surveillance, but the justice system has failed Epstein’s victims at every turn. The case against this international child sex trafficking ring can’t die with Epstein.”

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