I have been reading many stories about the recent appointment of retired General Mark Inch as the new FBOP Director. Anyone who listens to my reform mantra knows I have been calling for an outside director for over a decade. The more common group think of advocates is to sound the alarm bells in a “sky is falling” mindset with the administration’s appointment of another general while I view the glass as half full!
Working for decades in the trenches of our prison system, my perspective is simply different than the average reformer. I witnessed a slow deterioration in the agency since the late 1980’s related to the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. This law which also included the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) & The Armed Criminal Act (ACC) abolished federal parole, created the U.S. Sentencing Commission and guidelines which had a profound impact on the growth of the Federal prison population and included longer terms of imprisonment.
This growth in the federal prison population created unprecedented crowding; but equally impactful was the reduction in correctional treatment resources and case management staffing . More importantly, this growth created a void in seasoned correctional leadership.
I vividly remember the caliber of wardens at that time who walked the compound like Gods, commanding as well as earning, the respect from both staff and the incarcerated. Wardens were simply a different animal and a cut above the rest. They ordinarily spent many years in the trenches as case managers and understood policy, classification and treatment concepts but most of all respect. In those days, prisons actually had a recruiter position as well as a $300 monetary incentive award for staff to refer candidates to work in the prison. I was a parole officer at the time and had applied for a job as a correctional treatment specialist after being recruited by an officer who had made $3000.00 that year alone in incentives. The facility recruiter contacted me and talked me into coming on board as a correctional officer which actually paid over$7,000 more than I was making at the time. My logic was that I would accept the position then quickly promote given my credentials. After working as an officer for a few months, I made an appointment to speak with the Warden whose name was Jesse James. We had a nice conversation and at the end he said, “Son, come back and see me in about 5 years. I was a case manager for 10 years and I believe you need to learn and pay your dues in the trenches before you’re ready to promote”. Although I was a bit taken back at the time, even Warden James was not in tune to the agency growth because within 18 months, I was not only promoted twice, but offered a Case Management Coordinator job in the mid-west in which I declined.
On a broader, organizational scale, my point is that the agency growth and rapid promotion of ill prepared managers slowly tore at the fabric of the agency culture and resulted in the weakening of the agency in many vital areas, mainly, treatment, accountability, transparency and leadership. What was once the premier correctional agency emulated by the states, has morphed into an agency that has difficulty following progressive state initiatives while being scorned by Congress in public hearings and criticized in DOJ-Inspector General reports for inefficiencies.
My point in this blog is that the upside risk of a general far outweighs the status quo. This week, I was contacted by a writer at the Marshal Project for a comment on the General’s appointment. One of my quotes related to what I referred to as a leadership void which actually caused a call to my cell from the BOP Central office who read the article.
When speaking about the leadership void, I pointed them to the 5 “vacant” Assistant Director Positons in DC. When you have 12 divisions and only 7 leadership positions filled, it’s hard to overlook such a void. However, I also pointed out I was not actually referring to the vacant AD positions but the lack of seasoned correctional leaders who are not afraid to step outside the box and address the obvious deficiencies in the agency’s transparency, responsiveness, accountability and organizational culture. Let’s take the issue of Compassionate Release. The agency continues to deny terminally ill and elderly offender candidates a referral to the sentencing court for a final decision which usurps judicial authority.
A person who is a true leader from outside the organizational culture might just be able to realize the numerous prison reforms which can be accomplished under the existing statutory and policy framework. General Inch can singlehandedly, without the need of any legislation, can accomplish more reforms going forward than all his predecessors by exercising the leadership which is missing to effectuate change. Reform can begin almost immediately by reducing bureaucracy, broadening the application of policy, holding staff and contractors accountable and increasing the “foot soldiers” at the institutional level to provide not only greater security but correctional treatment as well.
The agency which has traditionally pointed out their primary mission is to “protect the public” by incapacitation (measured by number of escapes) needs to understand the need to place effective correctional treatment programs on equal footing. The allocation of resources and greater emphasis on incapacitation over treatment only places the public at risk by recidivism and makes our communities less safe in the long run.
Let’s hope Director Inch is up to the task and we find the glass is truly half full!