Moldy bread, rodent droppings and leaky roofs: An inspector general offered a vivid and at times nauseating glimpse of a vast, dysfunctional system.
When inspectors with the Justice Department’s internal watchdog appeared unannounced at a federal women’s prison in Tallahassee, Fla., in May, they expected to find serious problems endemic to other crumbling, understaffed facilities run by the Bureau of Prisons.
What they encountered shocked them: Moldy bread on lunch trays, rotting vegetables, breakfast cereal and other foods crawling with insects or rodents, cracked or missing bathroom and ceiling tiles, mold and rot almost everywhere, leaky roofs stoppered with plastic bags, windows blocked with feminine hygiene products to keep out the rain, loose ventilation covers that created perfect hiding places for contraband and weapons.
The inspection identified “serious operational deficiencies” at the Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security complex in Tallahassee that houses about 750 women — “the most concerning were the alarming conditions of its food service and storage operations,” according to a report by the department’s inspector general made public on Wednesday.
The conditions are both extreme and emblematic of the worsening crisis at the prisons bureau, which operates more than 120 facilities. Almost all need serious repairs and are struggling to hire and retain employees when jobs in the private sector offer higher pay and less stress.
But the report also offered a rare, vivid and at times nauseating glimpse of a vast, dysfunctional system that is supposed to guarantee safe and sanitary conditions.
“It was stunning,” Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, said in an interview.
The assessment was part of a new program of intensive spot inspections that will cover three to four prisons a year, a small but telling snapshot of conditions endured by 160,000 inmates and about 40,000 workers. In January and February, Mr. Horowitz’s team found serious structural problems at the federal women’s prison in Waseca, Minn.
“We do our regular reviews of broad systemic issues, but we have begun using this unannounced inspection program to see with our own eyes what’s really going on, day to day, for the inmates and staff,” Mr. Horowitz said.
The initial goal of the inspections, he added, was to improve conditions at individual facilities. At Tallahassee, the warden filled a vacant supervisory position in the food preparation division, which began cleaning up the kitchen and storage areas during the week the inspector general’s team was on site.
But the larger objective, Mr. Horowitz said, is to marshal support among lawmakers for a huge increase in the prison bureau’s budget. That money would go toward structural repairs as well as an increase in compensation for workers who are often compelled to take mandatory overtime or to neglect administrative duties to cover shifts because there are not enough corrections officers.
In testimony this week before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, Colette S. Peters, heralded recent gains in retaining employees. But she said that in some of the system’s 120 facilities, staffing levels in some key departments, especially in medical units, were still half of what they needed to be.
The bureau’s unmet infrastructure needs are just as dire. Ms. Peters said her team was surveying the 300-plus prison buildings operated by the bureau, but she estimated that $2 billion was needed to clear the backlog of repairs and renovations identified as urgent.
“Over the last 10 years, the bureau has received an average of approximately $100 million per year in appropriations for necessary repairs and alterations,” she told the subcommittee.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Peters said the bureau would “carefully evaluate and implement any necessary corrective actions to ensure that our mission of operating safe, secure and humane facilities continues to be fulfilled.”
One of the most alarming issues at Tallahassee, Mr. Horowitz said, was that fixing the prison’s ramshackle 1930s-era buildings was not included on the bureau’s $2 billion repair wish list. The inspector general’s investigators found that all five buildings housing prisoners needed new roofs, and that many of the window, shower and bathroom fixtures were leaking so badly that staff members and inmates stuffed what textiles or paper products were at hand to keep living areas dry.
But the problems took on an outsize proportion in the kitchen, dining areas and food storage warehouse.
Investigators found haphazardly heaped bags of food staples, like soy and pasta, stored near a large wall opening which allowed rats, mice and insects to roam freely. Boxes and bags had been gnawed open, with rodent feces scattered on and among provisions destined for food trays. Insects were found inside plastic bags containing cereal.
Cans and jars were warped or leaking their contents. And the cafeteria itself was in a state of disrepair, with many of the plastic stools attached to tables broken into jagged stumps that made sitting uncomfortable — and possibly providing a source for sharpened weapons. A windowsill in the dining hall was covered with hundreds of dead bugs no one had bothered to clean.
The problems were widely known, but not addressed. In a June 2022 survey conducted by the bureau, 55 percent of inmates at the prison rated their meals as “poor” and complained that “outdated” food was served to them.
The bathrooms and ventilation systems in Tallahassee were also in shambles. Many of the grilles covering ventilation shafts had either fallen off or been pried free from cinder block walls, creating a potential hazard and doubling as convenient cubbies for contraband, according to the inspector general’s team.
And the contraband — mostly cigarettes, vapes and phones — flowed easily and brazenly into the facility, according to the report, which cited interviews with the staff.
One of the main conduits was also one of the most obvious: Inmate sanitation crews that collected trash in garbage bags from publicly accessible areas in front of the female prison and an adjacent male detention center were screened before re-entering the prison.
Their bags often were not.
“During our inspection, we saw inmates enter through the front gate without having their garbage bags screened,” the investigators wrote.