It’s been too long since I ranted on Federal prison reform but reading the March 26, 2018, letter from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer sparked unpleasant memories and inspired me to sit down to write this little ditty!
Anyone who has followed my blogs understands my frustration is often directed at what I call “The DC NGO Mafia” rather than the actual prison system itself. Tens of millions of dollars are funneled into hundreds of organizations by the public and philanthropists in the name of reform while the stark reality is there has historically been minimal federal prison reform for those efforts. Most of the financial resources solicited are allocated on organizational infrastructure such as staffing and rent rather than tangible direct prison related programs and services.
Meanwhile, the answer to federal prison reform is far less complicated but practical solutions do little to generate income or stroke egos within the beltway. Before we squander resources once again to re-invent the wheel by another academic study or blue ribbon commission, let’s focus on what’s right under our noses. Reform begins with changing organizational culture by treating people with dignity along with agency leadership, transparency and accountability to the public. But the most profound impact can be realized by broadening the interpretation of existing policy in the areas of vocational/education training, study/work release, compassionate release, mentoring and expanding the Level 2 volunteer system. New evidenced based programs and risk assessment tools are all fine and dandy but they can only be properly implemented once the BOP has their house in order. Most advocates and politicians are not even aware the BOP already has a risk assessment tool and had viable work and study release programs going back to the late 1980’s. The organization has simply lost sight of treatment principles and focus in the era of truth in sentencing laws. They are fostering people to become better criminals in our prison environments while turning a blind eye to subtle outcry of the incarcerated and their families. At one time the agency was a model for imitation but it has slowly and progressively taken steps backward in the area of correctional treatment.
Last October, I met with BOP Director General Mark Inch in a one on one meeting in DC to discuss reform. I had been advocating for an outside director since the Clinton administration and had hoped his selection and leadership experience was what the BOP needed so he could identify the targets and reform the agency’s culture. While it is too early to cast judgement, his preliminary move to reduce staff and his silence on Compassionate Release is a concern. I’m fully supportive of reducing the administrative bureaucracy and closing more regional offices but most of the administrative positions cut should be re-allocated to the trenches of the system to better focus on staff safety and correctional treatment. I contend that inadequate treatment creates an equal public safety risk, more subtle than, but NO different to an escape. Director Inch has a lot on the table. I’m sure he has experienced a considerable learning curve as well and the spin from his underlings attempting to perpetuate the status quo, some of which have never even worked inside a federal prison.
Watching federal prison reform legislation is like the movie Ground Hog Day. I’ve been following reform legislation since the early 1990’s while working in the trenches of the prison system. It’s a cruel and vicious cycle from a prison perspective, as each Congress circulates new bills and recirculates old ones, causing rumors to spread among people in prison and their families as if everyone was going to receive a get out of jail early card! Organizations directly solicit the marginalized populations around these bills and events with mailings asking for money. The seediest aspect, aside from ill- conceived content like S.1994, is regarding the exploitation by the politicians and lobby groups involved with the legislative process itself.
Let’s face the reality that any significant impacts on federal justice reform since the catastrophic Sentencing Reform Act of 1987; have been effectuated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
War story time: In 2008, at the request of someone on my caseload, I reviewed the working papers from a lobby group for a bill which was eventually entered into Congress. The strategy was to draw upon the State of Texas prison reforms and get assistance from the right/left coalition. Sound familiar? What took me back was it listed the people and money they received monthly. I reviewed the content and explained to them it was “pure garbage” from a prison perspective. I still have the working papers in a manila folder which I marked “Project Garbage”. Some of the people who were getting big payouts are still roaming around Capitol Hill with different organizations while sitting at the reform table. Obviously that bill never passed but did make it to committee where 100% of these bills have died. Some of the content did morph into other subsequent bills and elements of the “work product” are actually in S.1994. The lesson learned from this was that reform is big business.
I need to be clear that I am a “lone wolf” with a passion for federal prison reform rather than a beltway insider. My passion results from the experiences of a career working inside the trenches of our Federal prison system directly with incarcerated people. The word “people” is a hot button for me when it comes to reform because the beltway types put a lot of effort into furthering the stigma by naming and renaming what is the politically correct terminology for “inmates”. My philosophy is you can simply use the word “people” in basically every scenario and reference to the incarcerated given the context of the conversation. Try it sometime! But I digress and need to get to the point of this rant.
As the right/left coalition approaches the second decade and the reformers stake out their territory, a rift has developed between the back end and front end reformers. Front end reforms are pre-sentence focused and involve issues like abolishing mandatory minimums while back end reforms are post-sentence or prison related such as correctional treatment, increased good time and re-entry programing. In the current administration, we have the contrast of Jared Kushner who is reportedly reform minded and AG Sessions who is undoubtedly anti-front end reform. While this all appears like the cyclical hype of the past few decades, there appears to be a slight possibility of back end reform only. However, the Beltway types have drawn a line and they would rather have no reform if they can’t have their way to include front end measures. Hence, the opposition letter from the Leadership Conference draws attention to all the obvious faults of S. 1994, the CORRECTIONS Act of 2017. What’s ironic is many of these deficits have been in several previous bills for at least the last two congresses so I can only assume the front end lobby has defeated the weaker back end lobby while people continue to languish in prison.
I support the opposite position and feel back end reform is better than no reform especially if it is palatable with the current administration. Although I do not support the poorly written and conceived S.1994, I view this as an opportunity to develop a better bill of practical back end reforms which may also draw attention to the numerous practical reforms which can be implemented almost immediately without legislation.
I’ve decided to name my book, Right Under Our Noses and hope to include an entire chapter on the NGO Mafia.