Unlike the push from organizations like FAMM who place a greater emphasis on “Front End reforms”, my reform mantra focuses on getting people in the community sooner. Aside from helping individuals, I try to educate professionals on the prison system and how meaningful prison reform can be accomplished within the existing Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) policy framework. Though I understand legislation is a necessary component of any comprehensive reform movement, there is NOT enough focus and pressure on the Bureau of Prisons to broaden policy applications.
If you’re not a “Johnny Come Lately” in the reform movement, you are aware of the dozens if not hundreds of crime bills that have died in the House and Senate over the past few decades. These bills are a great sound bite, meeting topic and conversation starter for the NGO world but they do little more than raise hopes for people and their families while raising money for special interests.
When I speak about broadening policy applications, a less technical analogy is the Compassionate Release provisions known by the government as Reduction in Sentence Initiatives (aka “RIS”). The BOP was recently shamed into broadening their authority by reports like “The Answer is NO”. I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch in my New York Office when she was working on the report.
But even after the BOP policy change, there is still more the agency can be doing when it comes to further broadening this initiative. https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5050_049_CN-1.pdf
Now let’s get technical! The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates under two laws when placing people (yes people) in Residential Re-entry Centers (aka halfway houses). Lay people are fixated on the increase of halfway house placement to 12 months under the Second Chance Act of 2007 in accordance with 18 USC 3624 (c). The BOP actually had the statutory authority to place people over 6 months even before the SCA provided it was approved by the regional office. This blog is not about how the agency has NOT honored the spirit of these SCA changes. I’ll save that for a future story. I am here to explain a more intricate part of the puzzle.
Under 18USC 3621(b), the BOP has the authority to directly designate people to halfway houses or transfer them at any time provided they meet certain criteria. I vividly remember when the SCA was passed when I worked in a Medium facility in New York. I was/am a BOP policy freak, so I immediately read the bill and took notes. Aside from the increase to 12 months eligibility under 3624(c); the biggest thing I took away was the language was broad enough to allow placement in the halfway house at any time which was also the case in the 1990’s. The BOP later affirmed such via internal memoranda. (Stay with me)
In the early 90’s, I transferred people to what were referred to as “Urban Work Cadres”. These interagency agreements between the BOP and various Federal agencies allowed for community placement up to 18 months prior to release. I remember placing people in Philadelphia, San Diego and Florida but the Cadres were all over the country. The contracts were similar to work release programs common at the state and local levels but have long disappeared from BOP policy language which at one time did include “work and study release”.
To bring this full circle, under current law and policy, the BOP can immediately implement formal work and study release programs. It would require a build out of the RRC infrastructure which I believe could be less costly with partnerships with NGO’s, (ie: faith based groups) or Interagency Agreements like in the Urban Work Cadre era. People in prison simply need to have demonstrated the ability to be assigned to “Community Custody” in accordance with the classification manual. https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5100_008.pdf The benefits of such a program, aside from bringing the US into the 21st Century, is to allow people to serve time near their family and support from the vast array of community resources. With the slightly decreasing federal prison population, the government could expand Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) work cadre populations to accommodate such programs.
I encourage the philanthropists of the world, to consider allocating resources towards tangible reform program initiatives rather than beltway organizational bureaucracies and lobby groups. There are better solutions to many of these problems and money to study them would be better spent on direct services to impact the incarcerated people and their families.
This is one of many examples I will be writing about over the course of the next few weeks.