Interior Secretary temporarily halts use of prison labor at national parks after internal probe

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Thursday temporarily halted the use of prison labor in national parks after an internal watchdog investigation called on the National Park Service (NPS) to develop standardized policies for its use of prison labor. 

“I hereby order and direct NPS to immediately cease the use of prison labor. Any agreements in place regarding the same are hereby rendered null and void,” he said in a memo. 

A department official told The Hill that the prison work program would only be stopped until proper policies and protocols are established. Bernhardt has given officials 60 days to come up with such policies. 

Earlier on Thursday, Interior Department’s inspector general’s office released a management advisory which said that NPS, “has no policies or formal procedures in place for the management of inmates while they are under the supervision of the NPS and working in national parks.” 

It found that prison work detail agreements differed from park to park and that two national parks used prison labor without “any written agreement in place at all.”

“The absence of NPS policies and oversight regarding prison work details at NPS properties creates risks to NPS employees, park visitors, and the prison community, and may expose the U.S. Department of the Interior to liability,” the advisory said. 

Bernhardt, in the memo, said that the inspector general brought to his attention “disturbing information regarding questionable practices” by NPS and national park superintendents.

“These agreements have led to instances of prisoners (including those convicted of firearms and drug-related offenses) working unsupervised in national parks and have allowed prisoners to gain access to contraband,” he added. “The agreements have obligated NPS employees, who have had no training or guidance, to oversee the prisoners.”

Bernhardt also said that NPS had been aware of the matter for more than a year, but did not have formal policies in place to manage inmates. 

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