The Commissioned Corps and the Federal Bureau of Prisons: Partners In Public Health Since 1930

Nurse Officer

The United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (Commissioned Corps) is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The Commissioned Corps dates to the establishment of the Marine Hospital Fund in 1798 and its successor, the Marine Hospital Service, which was created in 1871. The Commissioned Corps was formalized along military lines as a uniformed service by Congress in 1889.

The original mission of the Commissioned Corps was to provide “care and maintenance” to merchant sailors. However, as the country and the field of public health grew, the mission of the Commissioned Corps expanded as well. The Commissioned Corps was originally comprised solely of physicians, but its ranks grew to include engineers, dentists, nurses, scientists, and other health care specialists beginning in 1930.

Nineteen thirty was also the year that Congress created the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Prior to the passage of the BOP’s enabling legislation, federal prisons operated fairly autonomously, under the auspices of a Superintendent of Prisons who was responsible for the Federal Prison System.

The goals of the BOP’s first Director, Sanford Bates, were to “promote a unified professional approach to management by centralizing administration and creating a consistent BOP-wide system policy.” This approach also included a significant change in the provision of medical care to federal inmates, as the enabling legislation also included a provision for the U.S. Public Health Service to assume control of medical care in the BOP. The BOP Annual Report for 1930-1931 said the following about this change:

“Pursuant to legislation enacted in 1930, the United States Public Health Service has taken charge of the medical work in the Federal penal and correctional institutions. There has been installed in each of our penitentiaries and reformatories a staff of full-time medical officers, surgeons, psychiatrists, psychologists, dentists, nurses, etc. with consulting specialists on a part-time basis. The federal institutions now have adequate medical staffs with a high standard of professional training.”

At that time, the BOP consisted of seven penitentiaries and reformatories with a total inmate population of 12,398 (plus an additional 705 inmates in four camps). Approximately 50 Public Health Service staff provided all medical and psychological care for the entire BOP.

Today, the BOP is a much different organization than it was 80 years ago, with approximately 210,000 inmates, 116 institutions, 6 regional offices, a central office, 2 staff training centers, and 22 community corrections centers. Health care is provided by approximately 3,600 Health Services staff, including more than 800 Commissioned Corps officers. Clinical direction is provided by the Medical Director of the BOP, a position that was established in 1937 and has been traditionally filled by a Rear Admiral in the Commissioned Corps.

The Commissioned Corps is also a much different organization today as compared to 1930. There are now more than 6,500 well-trained and highly-qualified Commissioned Corps officers who are assigned to over 20 different federal agencies. And, what was once an all physician Commissioned Corps, now utilizes almost 25 different professions. The mission of the Commissioned Corps is “to protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of our Nation.” The Surgeon Generals of the United States have maintained that addressing the health needs of incarcerated populations, to include those with addiction disorders, mental illness, and chronic infectious diseases, is a key aspect of the mission of the Commissioned Corps because nearly all inmates eventually return to their communities.

While the provision of health care in the BOP is no longer exclusively the responsibility of the U.S. Public Health Service, the mutually beneficial partnership between the BOP and the Commissioned Corps is just as important today as it was 80 years ago. This is also true for the Commissioned Corps officers who serve in the BOP on a daily basis, as these highly-skilled professionals are a vital part of meeting the BOP’s mission.

Many thanks to all of our Public Health Service officers for their commitment to excellence in correctional health care. They stand alongside our civil servants as valued members of the BOP family.

Mission of the Bureau of Prisons
It is the mission of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.