It’s the Leadership, Stupid!

As the Federal Bureau of Prison’s Director testified to Congress last Tuesday, reports started to circulate about the indictments of two correctional officers regarding the falsification of records regarding the Jeffrey Epstein suicide. On November 4, the BOP Director warned staff that falsifying documents is “very serious misconduct” that could expose staff to criminal prosecution. Off of the radar was a press release from the District of New Jersey US Attorney from a few days earlier about a Fort Dix Correction Officer who pleaded guilty to accepting thousands of dollars of cash bribes to deliver contraband to inmates over a period of several years. While I have no issue with staff accountability or tolerance for misconduct; I think the director’s office must be missing a mirror.

Before the politicians, academics and pop culture icons plot their next step in federal justice reform; they first need to address the fundamental aspects of the BOP agency culture. What most “reformers” are missing is the concept that federal prison reform can only be accomplished with a fundamental change in leadership. There’s an expression, “The fish rots from the head down” and I’m sure people like Michael Cohen, Jared Kushner’s father and Bernie Kerick are in agreement regarding the leadership chaos having experienced it first-hand.

As far as upper level management, look no further than the September 24th press release from the Inspector General which outlines the misconduct of a high ranking BOP Official, (at pay rate of over $187,000 yearly) which the IG chose not to refer for prosecution.   and

I’m curious as to if any bonuses were paid out to that person like the other high BOP officials who have recently come under scrutiny for their management practices.

Aside from investigative disclosures in the public domain, let us not forget about the untold indiscretions one encounters when they are part of this culture.  If you’ve ever worked in the trenches of the BOP, I’m sure you’ve experienced administrators who find themselves in trouble and are quickly promoted, moved to another location or retire gracefully for that six figure landing spot with their Geo or Corr Civic predessors who have secured a retirement landing spot.  

It’s easy to cast blame on the hard working rank and file working with their hands cuffed behind their backs with augmentation and staff shortages but that concept is void of reality and circumspection is needed more than blame. Not long ago, I wrote about the sudden resignation of General Mark Inch, a true leader, who told me shortly before he resigned ( or should I say undermined) that he was soon to “begin taking out targets”. Rather than the reactionary hasty appointment of a former director from the “old guard” after the Epstein suicide; why would the attorney general not get to the root causes of the broader agency dysfunction. The severe understaffing has been going on for decades and was an intentional management decision. The arrests of staff, homicides and serious assaults within the system and gross negligence regarding incidents such as the failure to protect incarcerated witnesses like Whitey Bulger are simply unacceptable. How we got to this crisis is best understood by some profound quotes from two visionaries. The first perspective comes from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s congressional testimony when he states, “The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government,”  He then chastised the legal profession for being focused only on questions of guilt and innocence, and not what comes after. “We have no interest in corrections,” he said. “Nobody looks at it.”

An even more applicable analogy was spoken ten years ago when William Deresiewicz addressed the incoming plebes at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point by saying, “That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back”

These statements hit the nail on the head of why there is no transparency, accountability or even a basic understanding of federal prison policy and culture. So before our society’s self-proclaimed reform gate keepers attempt to legislate agency behavior by another prison reform bill or “Second Step”; they must first understand reform can only be accomplished by active oversite by the expansion of the duties of the Ombudsman Office and even micro-management by the DOJ Assistant AG.  Although it took decades for the slow deterioration in the leadership culture, the agency has a quasi-militaristic structure that can effectuate some of the necessary changes rather quickly even if it is for self-preservation and to appease the hierarchy as self-serving as it may be! Congress, as well, must better educate themselves on prison issues and demand more transparency and accountability.

Jack Donson is retiree of the Federal Bureau of Prisons who co-founded Prisonology. He has over three decades experience in federal prison issues and is a  reformer, advocate and consultant who testifies around the country and provides training to attorneys and justice professionals.         

Right Under Our Noses – Part 2

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.

General Inch and the half full glass!

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!

Lessons learned

I recently came to the realization the best way to take this blog was to periodically cover the lessons learned during my work in the trenches of the Federal justice system as an advocate, consultant and reform freak. Going forward, I will focus on prison and legislative reforms while keeping an eye on what I refer to as “The NGO Mafia” and the “private prison industrial complex”.

Here are some observations and lessons learned during an action packed week in the Federal justice system.

My week started out with a trip to Virginia to testify in a “Miller” re-sentencing. The Supreme Court case of Miller vs Alabama overturned mandatory Life sentences for Juveniles, and then Montgomery vs Louisiana made it retroactive.

I was testifying in regards to the remarkable prison adjustment a now 34 year old had made since his confinement at the age of 15. In his adolescence he committed heinous crimes with mother and his adult brother, both who are serving Life sentences.

Given the evolution and study of brain development, the fact that this person was under the influence of his adult family members and his ability to excel as well as avoid assimilation into the prison subculture;, one would hope there would be redemption, compassion and common sense exercised in our federal judicial system. I am not an optimist when it comes to our justice system having served a career in federal prison environments involving daily interaction with thousands of people living in the system. That being said, I went to the hearing with the expectation of a positive outcome with the potential for a second chance. It was a 4 hour emotional hearing and many family members for two murdered victims provided the court with heart wrenching testimony about the impact the crime had on their lives. I have attended victim impact panels and victim trainings before but this was more intense than I had previously experienced. As each person gave their testimonial, my optimism waned. When it was all said and done, the judge imposed a 65 year sentence as recommended by the prosecutor. My perception was that the sentence was long determined before the hearing as the judge read from a prepared statement with a matter of fact demeanor.

You can call it a “second chance’ but this 32 year old will be 70 years old upon release. I have no problem with “punishment” but the mitigating factors warranted something more in the range of the defense attorney’s recommendation for 35 years.

Lesson: Punishment trumps mitigation in Virginia!

On Wednesday, I traveled to Connecticut to conduct prison related training for Federal Judges and United States Probation Officers. I was impressed with the progressive nature of the court staff and their focus on correctional treatment with a desire to better understand out Federal prison system. We travel all over the country to conduct this training and I am constantly reminded of the lack of understanding Federal prison culture, policy and nuances. A wall exists (no pun intended) between the courts, the prison system and the public. The frustration in this lack of accountability and transparency is apparent in my conversations with attorneys, court personnel, families and even law enforcement. It was refreshing to have a positive, upbeat dialogue with the court staff after the let- down suffered at Monday’s sentencing.

Lesson: Our Federal prison system needs to make a better effort on the education, responsiveness and transparency for court personnel and the public so people being sentenced can receive adequate correctional treatment and re-entry preparation.

At the end of the week, I came across an article in my daily reading that hit close to home and covered a point broader in nature which I had never given much consideration to. The Opioid and prescription drug epidemic has decimated both the urban and rural areas of our country where overdoses have skyrocketed. I worked in a Federal jail operation for many years and our saying was “3 hots and a cot”. It’s well known jail populations receive very little correctional treatment services which is a big issue when you consider the information contained in the following article:

Of course the downside to this is the further institutionalization of people with addiction issues; however, it is something to reconsider.

Lesson: More treatment options at the front end has the potential to be built upon during incarceration and could potentially create a safer environment and a reduction in recidivism.


Eureka – Outside the Box

Last week, I was invited by Kevin Ring to participate on a panel in the Capitol Building regarding the subject of “Compassionate Release”. FAMM was previewing a new video called 5 to Life” highlighting the many frustrations families feel while trying to navigate the Federal Bureau of Prisons for a terminally ill family member.

The video reinforces some of the more disturbing aspects of government bureaucracy and the BOP culture in general. The agency has very little compassion for people and families caught up in the American justice system. It was satisfying to participate in the panel discussion after the viewing to repeat my mantra about how many Federal prison reform initiatives can be accomplished internally, without legislation through leadership under the existing policy framework. It might sound simplistic; but leadership, accountability, transparency and a broader application of policy can lead to significant reforms.

It was delightful to hear Judge Gertner, who was interviewed in the video, speak about the “broadening” of policy. Though the BOP does hold all the cards, it’s when they decide to deal them which is fundamental to the equation. One of the points I made during the Q & A was about how the BOP historically tracks and set deadlines for all types of programs and paperwork activities. Going all the way back to the 80’s, I had to process and complete International Treaty Transfer applications (which include extensive paperwork) within 30 days of someone’s request. The BOP still does not mandate a processing time for Compassionate release requests and only recently developed computer tracking assignments after being pressured by Congressional hearings and reports like “The Answer is No” by FAMM and Human Rights Watch. Despite the public attention, pressure and policy changes, compassionate release approvals continue at a snail’s pace. In addition, the BOP continues to deny applications at various levels without providing a completed application to the sentencing court with their recommendation for the final determination. That means the sentencing Judge’s authority is usurped by the agency.

One of the more salient points I made was the Bureau of Prisons is a top/down, quasi-like militaristic agency which operates by internal memoranda via the chain of command. If the BOP Director made the decision to accelerate the process and make CR requests a priority; it would literally happen overnight. In one computer transaction, the BOP can even run a national roster of terminally ill people and take an even more proactive stance on the issue to better facilitate requests. With the shortage of Federal medical center beds, statements by a former BOP Director about medical staffing at crisis levels and yearly cost estimates at upwards of $60,000 a year at taxpayer expense, why would the agency not better facilitate the ability of people to die at home with dignity? Most incarcerated, terminally ill people are NOT a public safety risk given their medical condition and fact the CR program requires they are confined to home detention by electronic monitoring technology under the supervision of a United States Probation officer.

This leads to my “eureka” moment. During the panel, an audience member asked why the BOP is such an obstructionist agency when it comes to this process. I found myself answering the question from a BOP mentality having worked for decades in that culture.  I basically replied the BOP’s primary mission is to “protect the public”. That is the very first thing agency administrators espouse at internal training sessions, staff orientation and the public. Correctional treatment and to a lesser extent, “compassion”, are simply second fiddle. Bureaucrats err on the side of caution and seldom think or act outside the box because they are afraid of a Willie Horton type event. That night I woke in the middle of the night and a thought came to me which is probably too far outside the box for most to comprehend, especially BOP administrators.

What if the BOP culture put correctional treatment and human dignity on equal footings with security? What if their training not only put equal emphasis on these concepts but also allocated equal resources as well? BOP Wardens and other administrators use the example of success by the number of escapes because an escaped person is a public safety risk. So I argue (tongue in cheek but just to make the point) that even if diminished resources for custodial/security purposes resulted in the increase of an escape now and then; it would dwarf the current public risk and costs we currently have by releasing people to communities without providing adequate correctional treatment by way of education, vocation, counseling and humane treatment.

In my humble opinion, issues like CR will not change until outside leadership prioritizes correctional treatment and is held more accountable to the tax paying public by responsiveness and transparency. Changes need to be made within the agency culture and it can start with the better education and involvement of House Judiciary members who control the purse strings for the agency budget. While the BOP has grown more immune to the press, they jump through hoops when they feel their budget is in jeopardy.




















Footnote:  I was able to write this article without using the word “inmate”. Rather than spending time and resources deciding and changing what we call the incarcerated, I find the word “people” can be substituted in virtually every situation given the context!  Try it next time!



Let’s have the DOJ re-create the wheel on Federal prison reform! “NOT”!!

I felt it was time for a 2017 blog and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates’s remarks at Harvard’s Law School were the catalyst to set me in motion.

My mantra has consistently been that many Federal prison reform initiatives can be accomplished under the existing policy framework through leadership, accountability and thinking outside the box. There is no need to re-create the wheel of bureaucracy which takes years to implement and in many cases requires new legislation. The academics, administrators and lawyers driving the reform bus have a limited understanding of BOP policy, culture and nuance. A perspective from the trenches is missing from the dialogue and that also includes the constructive feedback from justice involved people!

Two aspects of the deputy’s speech were troubling to me from a prison reform perspective.  The first quote is from the above DOJ link: (bolded for emphasis)

there were no uniform standards for the operation of these facilities, and BOP was not collecting good data about which halfway houses were performing well and which ones were not.  So last month, we took a number of steps to fix these problems, leveraging BOP’s purchasing power to impose standards, improve outcomes, and strengthen this private market.”

Having held assignments in the New York City Community Corrections office, the above statement floored me. The BOP has had extensive, uniform community corrections standards and policy for decades. There is also a “Statement of Work”, Operational and program review audit guidelines and a full time BOP contract oversight specialist.  Just refer to the below links and you can see the myriad of regulations:

You get my point.

So I wonder if the people who attended the Harvard speech think the BOP is just developing residential re-entry standards?  I’d also like to know if the Deputy AG is under this false impression from what someone at the BOP told her or did she come to that conclusion internally?

This boils down to my points on leadership, transparency and accountability. How could a person with such high stature not realize there are standards? I think it would be better if someone at the DOJ came to the realization that if the they just decided to disengage from private corrections companies then why are we contracting out halfway houses to the private sector? At upwards of $100 per bed, per day, I suggest we re-group on this entire concept of private contracting and come up with a better solution.

I can go on for hours with personal stories about companies like Esmore, Community First and facility scandals like the “The Le Marquis” in lower Manhattan.  Equally troubling is how the prison industrial complex has been pivoting to re-entry services. Bit I digress……….

The second concern from the speech was relative to the following quote: (also bolded for emphasis)

Last month, we announced that we are building a semi-autonomous school district within the federal prison system – one that will offer programs for adult literacy, high school diplomas, postsecondary education and expanded opportunities for individuals with learning disabilities.  Today, I’m issuing a memo to the director of BOP implementing these changes and laying the groundwork for expanded efforts in coming years.  Among other things, we’re launching a pilot project at two BOP facilities that will blend in-classroom instruction with online education, using tablets customized for the prison environment.”

A quick read of this sounds impressive for the average reform supporter but consider this. What is the definition of “semi-autonomous”? Does she really think a non-transparent, non- accountable agency like the BOP is going to relinquish control?

There is currently extensive educational policy and practices that can be expanded right now without this “school district within the federal prison”. It’s just another re-creation of the bureaucratic wheel where a majority of the money will go to staff positions. Of equal concerns is the “coming years” statement because everything mentioned regarding the educational goals is obtainable within the current policy framework already and who can predict what a future administration will do.

When I began working for the system in the 1980’ there were several universities with BOP partnerships delivering programing funded by Pell Grants.  I found it to be a great outlet for the population and the empirical data of educational programming in relation to recidivism speaks for itself. Check out some of the policies, the first of which was a focus on one of my recommendations to the Colson Task Force on Federal Correction.

While it’s usually fashionable to re-create the wheel and spend millions for consultants to tell you so;  (Hence the Colson Task Force, Boston Consulting Group, etc.), I argue for strong leaders who can think outside the box while prioritizing education and re-entry to an equal footing with institutional security. In fact, public safety, staff safety and institutional security benefit by meaningful education and re-entry programs which occupy idle time, give people a sense of self- worth and help combat recidivism.

While the right/left coalition lick their wounds from the election, let’s hope President Trump can walk the walk and immediately implement change in the Federal prison system by selecting a new director who is a true leader outside the BOP culture who will consider expanding the possibilities under the existing policy framework.

Surprise, surprise. NOT!

Terminating private prison contracts should not come as a surprise to anyone. It is simply “The Perfect Storm” of events.

First, The advocacy world understands future trends were already pivoting away from mass incarceration. It actually started at the state level and the Feds are simply late to the table.  For many years we have been hearing about the “Right/Left” coalition on justice reform specifically partially focused on prison population reduction.

Second,  the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget is over 6 billion dollars and consumes a very large percentage of the entire DOJ budget. The status quo was simply unsustainable.

Lastly, look no farther than the many scandalous stories about riots, medical care and the recent Mother Jones expose with Shane Bauer.

There is no doubt  that the hiring practices, lack of transparency and profit motive of private entities negatively impact facility operations, programs and services. I’ve worked in the prison industry for 30 years and have heard horrendous privatization stories from justice involved individuals going back almost two decades.

Before we start celebrating, we need to stay focused in reality.  Though this is a positive first step and set back for the Prison Industrial Complex, (PIC) I have some concerns regarding this development.

One: The federal government has not gone far enough to abolish private re-entry center (aka: halfway house) contracts which have also failed to provide adequate  re-entry services which have negatively impacted public safety and recidivism.

Two: As they terminate contracts, my fear is that the already overcrowded federal prisons will absorb that excess capacity to the detriment of those same programs and services. Though this process will be incremental, it will inhibit the reduction of current rated capacities.

This privatization experiment has roots back to the Reagan administration and came to fruition during the Clinton Administration.  It seemed well intended to  allow the private sector to accomplish correctional goals without the restraint of dysfunctional bureaucracy; however, the extreme opposite and centric goal of “profit” was equally dysfunctional. It’s been many years since the “Taft Demonstration Project” report that found there was not much(if any) cost savings to privatize in the first place.

What we need going forward for true reform is what I refer to as a comprehensive, urban “Restorative Treatment Center” concept which is a public/private collaboration with government, industry, academia and the various community based NGO’s. This multi-faceted prototype would include diversionary courts, treatment and training  both residential and non-residential. It would be based in the urban areas near the resources and families rather than on top of some mountain in a politicians depressed back yard.

I truly hope the news today is a catalyst for evolving from a third world justice system rather than a future power struggle with the PIC, Lobby groups and politicians who have vested interest in profiting from justice initiatives.

On a lighter note, I am just going to lay back and think about the potential consulting opportunities from the ex-BOP administrators who retired to the private prison sector and received this insider information from their cronies prior to todays market!


Two for Tuesday and the Quote of the Day

The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy. ~Woodrow Wilson

Anyone who knows me understands I am not a fan of the prison reform bills circulating in Congress. I’m probably a bit tainted from decades of watching organizations and politicians benefit from bills which are not only poorly, written, but have no chance of even being voted out of committee. The flavor of the week (and for the past several weeks) is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Yesterday Dick Durbin said lawmakers are “negotiating” changes to this bill to win more support. Interpretation: This bill is being further watered down to appease conservative special interests. What ever happened to the chatter about the Smarter Sentencing Act and The Reauthorization of the Second Chance Act? maybe that will be next week!

I’m distrustful of the belt-way NGO Mafia and the inquisitive side of me would love to know how much soft money is pouring in to candidates and organizations from the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) to simply maintain the status quo.

Think about this. If the PIC would pour tens of millions of dollars into candidates and lobbying efforts when prisons were extremely crowded, they must be in panic mode as that trend seems to be reversing? I would think the 10K Reports of The GEO Group and CCA would be a bit telling.  Question: What happens to a company’s share price when future earnings estimates are adjusted downward?

As disturbing as it is to think about resources being expended to stifle reform, it’s equally disturbing to see the PIC pivoting to deliver correctional treatment and re-entry services. Something flying under the radar is the seeds are also being planted in federal legislation to open up program funding to other than state and local government entities. I’m no big fan of government but the responsibility of correctional treatment and re-entry should remain a government responsibility within the infrastructure. After all, we are spending over 6 Billion Dollars annually on our prison system.

Not enough focus is being placed on the true impediments of criminal justice reform and the farming out of law enforcement and treatment functions to the private sector. As this presidential cycle evolves, there is a good chance the reform issue will be punted to the next administration. Ted Cruz is allegedly against the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and Marko Rubio is said to have ties to The GEO Group who have a considerable amount of privatized facilities in the state of Florida. To be honest, punting reform may be the best course of action given the shortfalls of what is circulating in congress.

The second issue is the recent focus on Solitary Confinement. I had to scratch my head when I heard the president banned solitary confinement for juveniles. Having retired from the Federal Prison system I am aware the Federal government does not house juveniles. It’s also a head scratcher when the term “solitary confinement” is thrown about. First, I am totally opposed to Solitary Confinement and feel it is only necessary in the most extreme cases. The other side of that coin is the Federal government doesn’t practice widespread “solitary confinement” aside from the Florence ADX which is actually a smaller number than one may think from the population statistics on the website. In an attempt to clear up the Federal use of what the government now coins as “Restrictive Housing”, I wrote a brief White paper in 2014, which can be accessed at the below link:

Yet another Crime Bill!

Last week, I attended the United States Sentencing Commission Annual National Training Seminar on the Sentencing Guidelines which was held in New Orleans.

One thing I came away with was a different take on pending Federal Criminal Justice reform legislation than one would perceive given the recently (and constantly) hyped media coverage. In the past year, the coverage has the incarcerated and their families believing legislation approval is imminent and the prison doors are about to open.

I correspond with dozens of incarcerated people throughout the country and the emails have been non- stop since the 113th Congress convened back in January of 2013. But to be quite honest, this optimism has circulated through the Federal prison grapevine since the early 1990’s.

One of the conference plenary sessions involved a panel of 5 Attorneys plus the Honorable Patti Saris as moderator. Judge Saris is the Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Each panel member spoke about specific bills and current legislative efforts. Although Judge Saris had the passion and glean in her eye like a reformer from within the beltway, I found the information presented by the panel members less than upbeat.

For instance, there are currently several bills in committee often talked about including The   Smarter Sentencing Act, SAFE ACT, CORRECTIONS ACT, Reauthorization of the Second Chance Act, Justice Safety Valve Act and The Redeem Act, with a variety of front end and back end focus all competing for passage in this allegedly united “Right/Left Coalition”. Even the panel members admitted things are changing daily and there is yet more legislation on the way to add to the mix. In fact, as I type this, Politico just released a story about a Senate Compromise which will be announced tomorrow morning.

Listening to the panel, I reflected back to day one of the conference when one of the commission members said something that truly resonated with my mantra. He spoke about “Reformers within the beltway” and “The Trenches”.

Though I am not from within the beltway; I consider myself a “reformer” in that regard who not only has the passion for change, but a pulse on the Federal system from the perspective of the “trenches”.  I believe this type of practical feedback is lacking in the dialogue and legislative development. In my humble opinion and after working directly with the incarcerated for 25 years; current legislative efforts fall short from a practical prison policy perspective. Since my retirement from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), I’ve also come to notice  some of the best legislative feedback is from pro bono, passionate “reformers” and our citizens who have served time in the system.

Sometimes I feel, we are squandering the perfect storm of a reform climate and it’s time to pass one comprehensive Omnibus Crime Bill focusing on both front end (expanding diversionary courts, addressing collateral consequences, reducing mandatory minimums) and back end (good time credit expansion and a build out of the community corrections infrastructure) reforms. We are just around the corner of the presidential election cycle and I hope Mr. Goodlatte and Mr. Grassley hear my prayers!