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.

https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/08/23/can-a-general-conquer-the-federal-prison-system?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=share-tools&utm_source=email&utm_content=post-top#.wxt6KtyTq

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.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z929XbFeoCw&feature=youtu.be

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!

 

 

Just what we need! Another national crime commission. NOT

Once again, another “bi-partisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill last week to create a “National Criminal Justice Commission” to review every aspect of the nation’s justice system from policing to prisons.  It’s my opinion the national justice reform movement has become just as dysfunctional as our political system. It is time to stop the studies, blue ribbon commissions  and right left coalitions and get something accomplished.

I testified to the Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections a while back. In hindsight, I feel it was just another example of politicians, academics and lawyers making non-binding recommendations on the prison reform road to nowhere. These commissions do nothing more than feed egos and drain resources away from tangible reform efforts. It’s frustrating to experience this beltway dysfunction year after year when the answers are right under our noses.

My mantra is, and always has been, many positive reform efforts in all areas of our justice system can be accomplished under the existing policy framework by leadership. The groups driving the reform movement, who I refer to as the “Beltway NGO Mafia”  seem to be more concerned with raising money, sponsoring events  patting each other on the back about accomplishments when the reality is there has been very little Federal reform attributed to their efforts over the past few decades.  I realize this blog is a bit confrontational and has a repetitive theme to previous blogs but I’m hoping someone will eventually listen to the message.

I would like to challenge someone to calculate how much money is spent on justice reform by way of DC organization budgets and lobbying for crime bills going nowhere. Philanthropists and our citizens in general are being taken advantage of given their return on investment especially when it comes to federal prison reform.

The answer in not in the creation of another commission to study the issues from a beltway perspective. The answer is to identify what is already working at the national level and putting resources into evidenced based programs. Diversionary courts, justice education at the elementary level, ombudsman type programs and addressing the myriad of collateral consequences of a conviction are a good start.

At this point you may think “where’s the beef” so I’ll tell you where we can start at the Federal level:

Lets’ form a public/private partnership for a pilot “Comprehensive Community Justice and Treatment Center” (CCJTC).  This would be a model, urban center which would include diversionary courts on site, day treatment  for drug and mental health issues, educational and vocational training, residential and non residential units not only for re-entry (half way in/halfway out) but for justice involved people who have demonstrated the responsibility to serve their sentences securely within their community.

One of the biggest impediments to correctional treatment is the warehousing of people far from community resources and the family. Correctional treatment can be better accomplished when the stakeholders have more involvement in not only delivering services but obtaining services from our correctional population. Educational institutions, faith based organizations, NGO’s and individual volunteers can also take a more collaborative and active role in our prisons once they are located in or near urban areas. This urban, community and restorative justice approach can result in more effective correctional treatment to lower recidivism.

It’s the formulation of a coalition with a concreate goal like this concept is what is needed not another blue ribbon commission to study the problem Ad Nauseam!

 

 

 

 

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.

https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/deputy-attorney-general-sally-q-yates-delivers-remarks-harvard-law-school-sentencing-and

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:

https://www.bop.gov/business/docs/res_reentry_ctr_sow_2012.pdf

https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/7300_009_CN-3.pdf

https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/7030_001.pdf

https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/1210_023.pdf

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.

https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5353_001.pdf

https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5354_003.pdf

https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5350_028.pdf

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.

The sky is not falling and the glass just might be half full!

I consider myself a passionate prison reformer from outside the beltway. I’m not an academic or lawyer; just someone who worked for decades in the trenches of the Federal prison system. I feel I have a pulse on the agency with insights regarding prison policy, nuances and organizational culture. My bottom line is there can be many proactive prison reforms accomplished under existing BOP policy through leadership.

My experiences in participating in the national reform dialogue often gives me pause for reflection on the state of prison reform.  Despite the NGO complex, right/left coalitions and tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars pouring into reform; very little Federal progress has been made in the past several decades.

In steps Donald Trump! Is the sky falling?

During the past few days, the reform world has been upside down because their strategy and agenda was contingent on a Clinton victory. The numerous articles I read have been skeptical of a Trump administration. What they tend to forget is the Clinton Administration was responsible for the Prison Litigation Reform Act, references to “super-predators” as well as the inertia of recent reform efforts. I have a different take on the potential for meaningful prison reform which just might be able to be accomplished outside the beltway’s special interest mentality.

First, unlike the right/left coalition, President elect Trump is not in bed with the special interests. Though GEO allegedly contributed to the campaign, it doesn’t rise to the degree of the control special interests have on the beltway by the likes of Soros, the Koch brothers and organizations like ALEC. Let’s hope President elect Trump can put his money where his mouth is and step outside the box in the reform venue.

Though it is unlikely he will bring a “soft on crime” approach to the table, his skill set and inner circle could potentially identify practical prison reforms with a greater focus on evidenced based treatment, population reduction and the potential for public/private collaboration. There are many win/win scenarios which can be accomplished to enhance public safety and reduce recidivism without appearing soft on crime. True reform can best accomplished through strong leadership and executive pressure on the BOP rather than raising money for NGO’s, Blue Ribbon commissions, endless meetings, luncheons and panels were justice involved individuals are used as props for fund raising.

Below are three areas which I believe can be implemented rather quickly through leadership and an outside the box mentality.

1)    Agency Culture: There is a profound need to appoint a BOP director who is from outside the agency culture. This person would require the skill to identify and correct the issues of non- transparency, agency responsiveness to the public, hiring/promotion practices and the way employees are trained. There is not enough emphasis on evidenced based treatment programs, the utilization of community resources in private/public partnerships or agency accountability. New and fresh leadership can almost immediately impact these deficiencies.

2) Bureaucracy: The BOP’s population is only slightly larger than the correctional population of Texas yet operates 6 Regional Offices and 10 Divisions in DC. There are literally several thousand administrative positions who do work directly with inmates. This bureaucracy of high paid government workers can be better served by reallocating positions to the institutions working directly with incarcerated people (yes people). What you have now are 6 bureaucracies within one organization headed by 6 directors and their executive staff.  This is simply an issue of a business analysis and re-allocation of staff resources.  There are nearly 40, 000 BOP related positions!

3)  Pilot: The development of an Urban, Comprehensive Treatment Center by a private/public partnership which includes diversionary drug, mental health and veterans courts, day reporting for educational/vocational treatment, and residential and re-entry (halfway in/out) units is needed. The government incarcerates individuals far from the family, community resources (NGO’s & faith based) and Universities which inhibit effective treatment to combat recidivism and include many “hidden costs” of incarceration. Once implemented, this facility concept can be a model for the country.

What better person could run with this concept than Mr. Trump? Let me be clear that I am NOT a fan of privatization but believe there can be a productive synergy in delivering private services with adequate governmental involvement and oversight. This is an expansion of the “Comprehensive Sanction Center” which is currently in BOP policy and studied by the organization in the 1990’s.

Let’s start seeing the glass as half full and realize the potential that President elect Trump can have for a positive impact on prison reform.

For a more comprehensive look at additional practical reforms, please refer to one of my earlier blogs which includes the testimony I provided to the Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.

 

Crunch Time for Federal Prison Reform

I listened in on the Washington Post Criminal Justice forum yesterday. One of the panels involved Congressman Goodlatte of the House Judiciary who seemed a bit pessimistic about movement on criminal justice reform during this lame duck session of Congress.

What was telling is rather than speak of an upcoming vote, he mentioned there was a member “briefing” last week and there would be one again this week.   Kevin Ring of FAMM was equally sullen and it seemed like the only person on the panel with passion was Steve Cook of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys who oppose reform as articulated in their September 8 letter to House members.  http://www.naausa.org/site/index.php

I pull no punches with my take on reform that it is big business within the beltway and profitable like the Prison Industrial Complex. It’s great for lobbyists, politicians, egos and what I refer to as the Beltway “NGO Mafia”. I am a bit tainted having worked with people within the system for 30 years but; like the Aerosmith song, “it’s the same old song and dance”. (In my humble opinion). I truly hope I’m wrong this time because the media campaigns attached to the current lobbying efforts have even me wondering if this time is different.   

This morning, I read a National Review article from Grover Norquist about how it’s time to pass reform. These articles and the references to this “Right/Left” coalition are becoming passe. From a procedural standpoint, none of the 11 reform related bills have passed the full house or senate. Though the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (aka: SRACA) gets the most hype as of late, it still needs to come to a full vote then be reconciled, etc.

I’m deeply disappointed in the Corrections related provisions of SACRA which penalize our more marginalized populations by unequally awarding extra good time and allowing the Bureau of Prisons too much discretion and time regarding program implementation. My mantra is there are many more practical solutions to reform which can be implemented within the current policy and statutory framework.

Long ago, I wrote about our squandering of the perfect storm of prison reform and have been in many heated discussions because of my skepticism. I’ve watched clients and families give hundreds of thousands of dollars towards this hype for decades and it appears the end game is no different this time. I am looking forward to both the House and Senate to prove me wrong but I’m not holding my breath in doing so.  

On the bright side, companies like Google have recognized the need for reform and the societal impacts of the carceral state. Let’s just hope their resources; like that of philanthropist billionaires, doesn’t go to lobbyists, politicians and organizational budgets. Federal prison reform does not need to be some massive legislative undertaking. It starts with leadership, vision and a field perspective all missing from the reform table.   

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!

 

Who do I pay for early release? (When it sounds too good to be true; it is!)

I wrote this blog at the request of Jeff Grant over at Prisonist.org. I thought I would re-post it on my site because I’m seeing more and more people getting into the consulting arena and it’s not just the white collar people who fall prey to consultants. The bottom line is beware when someone directly solicits by aggressive telemarketing, scare tactics and things that sound just too good to be true.  Here it is and I hope you enjoy:

I’ve worked with white collar individuals in various Federal prison settings off and on for almost three decades. One common theme that has remained a constant is how highly educated professionals seem to lose all sense of discernment when indicted by the government. Savy business People who are ordinarily in control of their affairs often become victims of profiteers, mainly prison “consultants”.

Probably the most prevalent issues are people being solicited to “pay” for a transfer, designation, longer halfway house placement or my favorite “early release”.  There is  a growing cottage industry of RDAP “Consultants” promising early release  and others selling extended halfway house under the “Second Chance Act”.  RUN and HIDE!

What most people don’t realize until after they become incarcerated is that paying for RDAP, a transfer, designation and more halfway house is basically a scam. Very troubling to me is that spouses, children and parents often fall victim to these solicitations even after someone reports to prison. It seems all sense of rationality disappears when the fear, anxiety and nativity take hold when a person is facing a prison term.

I once had someone on my caseload who paid $7,500 to be designated to a specific location. Unfortunately, the facility I worked at was not the place they wanted to go to! One thing profiteers realize is that when the court recommends a specific location, the Bureau of Prison’s compliance rate is approximately 74% because it is policy for them to accommodate judicial recommendations. The non-compliance rate would be higher, however, many times the recommendation is not commensurate with the individuals classification and/or program needs.

In the case I referred to above, the “consultant” missed a very basic policy issue which prevented the desired location which could have been proactively managed prior to sentencing. I often hear attorneys and others comment how the BOP does not follow the recommendation but I beg to differ. I monitored the incoming pipeline (thousands of inmates) of both a camp and medium facility for many years and when the recommendation is commensurate with the level and program needs, it closer to 90%.

I recently had a client who hired me because he said I was the only one who told him it was easy to get into the RDAP. He had contacted many people which he found on line who had a song and a dance about how they would “get him into RDAP” and “get him early release”. For people with a legitimate and documented substance abuse issue, it is extremely easy to get into the RDAP. The BOP automatically identifies, then transfers participants into the program even if the RDAP is not at the initially designated facility. No judicial recommendation is even needed. Recently, an attorney I frequently work with in Baltimore sent me a copy of an email he sent to a consulting company which instructed them to cease and desist contacting his client about getting them into RDAP.  He also forwarded the solicitation materials to me which told the person how a “judicial recommendation wasn’t enough” to get them into RDAP and how they were going to “get them 18 months off the sentence”.  This is quite comical from my perspective but to someone facing a sentence, it’s just what they want to hear.

As I mentioned before; no court recommendation is needed to get into the RDAP plus the BOP policy on early release is clear about how long one receives off the sentence as well as the mandatory amount of halfway house placement (aka: RRC) which is required for the community transitional phase of the RDAP program.  That leads me to my final common area of concern which is regarding the “Second Chance Act” (SCA).

The Second Chance Act of 2007 is simply a law that was passed in 2008, which the Bureau of Prisons operates under. It does NOT mandate the BOP to place people for any specific time period nor did it take away any of the discretion the BOP had prior to its implementation. Most people do not realize the SCA had the most impact on state prison populations, funding and re-entry programs. All it did from a Federal prison standpoint was establish the “Elderly Offender Pilot Program”, (long since closed) and gave the BOP discretion in placing people up to 12 months in the halfway house under 18 USC 3624. You do NOT apply for the SCA!

In summary, I’d like to be clear the victimization of white collar people I refer to is not illegal nor is it limited to white collar people. It’s basically buyer beware that you’re paying for things which will ordinarily occur within the framework of the prison system.  Private outside entities have little control or impact because of the statutory discretion given to the BOP. Though it is practical to be as prepared as much as possible prior to the prison experience; one should carefully reconsider engaging entities who direct market and/or have that magic bullet that sounds too good to be true.

My next blog is going to focus on the issue of “friendly extortion” many white collar individuals face in prison which is not only prevalent in the higher security level facilities but also present in federal prison camps.

 

 

 

Its all about the back end!

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.

https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/11/30/answer-no/too-little-compassionate-release-us-federal-prisons#dcb18f

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.