On July 23, 42 law professors wrote a letter to the Attorney General, raising concerns about various policies and practices of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and urging her to select BOP's next Director from outside the agency in order to facilitate change. A few days later, three of the signatories to the July 23 letter published an op ed in the Washington Post making much the same argument, boldly predicting that with this one decision the Attorney General and the President could "reshape the future of the entire federal prison system."
I wish I were as optimistic as the professors who signed the letter. The fundamental flaw in their position, discussed further below, is that it assumes BOP has more control over how it operates than it actually does.
But there are also practical reasons why it would be hard to find the right outsider to lead BOP as long as the job remains a career position.
I made the same argument about the benefits of recruiting from outside four years ago, the last time a new BOP director was selected, in this very space. I subsequently worked with several like-minded individuals to try to identify likely candidates for the job from state corrections departments. Despite beating the bushes, we had a hard time persuading the brightest stars of the profession to apply through the tedious process by which high-level federal career managers are selected. We concluded they probably didn't want to put themselves forward in a semi-public competition they might lose.
...The bottom line is this: Appointing an outsider by itself is not going to solve any of the institutional problems that in recent years have limited BOP's capacity and will to innovate. As long as BOP is housed in an agency whose criminal justice agenda is influenced if not determined by prosecutors, these problems will persist no matter how stellar the individual selected as its leader.