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.