I started to write this rant in late May but never finished my thoughts as they became a bit too judgmental as well as complicated encompassing two different reform themes. I set it aside until another trigger (i.e.: idiocy) would force it to the surface. Yesterday I was reading an article about the Biden administration’s agreement on the DOJ’s interpretation of the CARES ACT which will require people on home detention to eventually return to prison. While I highly doubt their return will ever come to fruition, it was the use of the term “non-violent” which set me off.
I am disgusted at advocates who frequently use the term “non-violent” especially because they make a living changing labels for what we call incarcerated people, yes people. Aside from the obvious legal and policy ambiguity of the term “violent”, a single act from decades ago can seal a person’s fate many ways once in prison (such as classification or a CARES Act denial) regardless of rehabilitation and the correctional treatment goals that been accomplished. Be mindful that a socio-pathic, white collar person who will steal the last penny from an elderly widow the day they release is “non-violent”. The justice community needs to drop the “non-violent” label every bit as much as demeaning words like “convict”. While there are people in prison who currently present a threat to public safety, I argue it is an extremely small percentage of people of those who have been labeled violent. Advocates are simply playing into the hands of politicians who use the term to make ill-conceived and discriminatory laws palatable. Watered down legislation which automatically excludes people is simply discriminatory. End of rant!
The blog I began in May, goes like this:
I feel the justice universe needs a few judgmental tidbits about the “theatrics” of prison reform taking place on the broader stage of the justice reform movement. Reform theatrics involve quite a unique cast of characters, personal agendas and exploitation by opportunists who fly under the radar of scrutiny of an audience who are more easily influenced by clever messaging and the perception of good intentions. My psyche is like that of the director who has become tainted over the decades by direct observation and exposure to the “system” watching the show in a surreal Ground Hog Day like experience. The story line never changes while memories surely forget the ending is always going to be the same. The broader justice reform movement is not much different than the prison industrial complex.
Reform is simply big business and lucrative to politicians seeking votes while NGO’s , think tanks and academics exploit grants, philanthropists, entertainers and athletes. In the end, financial resources line the pockets of individuals and organizations rather than direct programs and services for the incarcerated. Social media outlets are complicit in allowing the exploitation seldom considering the historical context of the movement’s deliverables, beneficiaries, gross costs and net results.
The endless re-cycling of congressional legislation and countless re-branding of bills attempting to re-event the wheel misses the proverbial log in the eye and/or the elephant in the room, mainly the Bureau of Prisons’ culture, specifically the lack of transparency, accountability, and oversight. “It’s the leadership stupid”. Major media outlets should put less emphasis on stories about teachers and other professional staff working as correctional officers and dig deeper into the root causes of agency culture and leadership. Legislators must also avoid passing ill-conceived legislation by having better educated staffers trained on federal prison policy but more importantly demand the transparency and accountability the taxpayers deserve and fund. Calling the Director “incompetent” at a congressional hearing was a good start, but it appears to have only been a soundbite which has had minimal follow up, if any.
The focus on the BOP’s handling of Covid-19 brought needed attention to the agency’s dysfunction which has been present for decades. I have difficulty accepting there has not been an upper-level management purge since the change in the administration given the documented incompetence. I hope the DOJ’s lack of accountability does not result in another Atlanta/Oakdale type of event and the AG needs to take decisive action to addresses the underlying cultural root causes which inhibit prison reform. Congress, blue ribbon commissions, think tanks and academics have shown their ineptness by allowing inferior “back-end” legislation such as creating ineffective and discriminatory tools like PATTERN without addressing the broader agency culture issue.
I am often contacted by journalists for my opinion about a “good story” on criminal justice reform. I have yet to get anyone with investigative resources to peel back the onion and put a price tag on the resources going into prison reform and orgs which I sometimes refer to as “The NGO Mafia”. Someone should follow the money and calculate the net gain to reform and identify the actual beneficiaries. Reform is big business and my hypothesis is the primary beneficiaries of the reform movement will be the friends and relatives of the think tanks, round tables, blue ribbon commissions, orgs and academics rather than the people, yes people who are imprisoned.
I will end with the sixty second version how prison reform can be accomplished practically overnight. First, we cleanse the BOP culture by giving another outsider a chance but this time with an entourage to have their back! Compare and contrast former Director General Mark Inch with Larry Krasner (aka: Philly DA). Director Inch was undermined by the BOP central office machine. His abrupt departure after a brief appointment is a testament to a dysfunctional management culture. Mr. Krasner’s first major action was a purge of staff clinging to the status quo and resistant to change. Second, financial resources for treatment must he on equal footing as incapacitation. The agency touts the number one mission of the agency is to protect society but they fail to see keeping people inside a fence or wall is a failed accomplishment without treatment and support. Here is the BOP mission statement :
“It is the mission of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.”
While I truly question the “safe” and “humane” aspects, how about this:
“It is the mission of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to protect society by assisting people in becoming law-abiding citizens by providing training, treatment, educational opportunities and work in a controlled and supportive environment.”
Think of the analogy that a person legally released to the community without proper treatment and training is every bit of danger to the community than the person who escapes. The agency prides itself over impressive escape statistics but mitigates the revolving door of recidivism and the façade of treatment.
Third, and most importantly, is the equal emphasis on correctional treatment and where financial resources are allocated. The concept of unit management has been bastardized and must be delivered as originally designed to include proper staffing and a return to manageable caseload quotas. Meaningful treatment relationships foster safe institutions and communities. The origins of the “unit team” concept involved an in-person, collaborative team meeting which included a correctional officer, counselor, case manager and even a clinician. The agency culture has allowed this concept to evolve into a one-on-one exercise, lasting less than a few minutes despite what the agency alleges and policy mandates. When people are given the proper respect, attention and opportunity for change, it is far easier to accept and follow the guidance of the treatment team rather than being asked to “sign the paper and don’t let the door hit you in ass” by a perceived adversary. The agency growth in the “get tough on crime era” has tainted the unit management concept while our prisons became only warehouses. The alleged First Step Act alleged reforms have become the next example of theatre within this culture.
Lastly, an Ombudsman type program must be developed by legislation to conduct the facility audits, train congressional staffers in BOP policy and process, but most importantly, be a neutral entity to investigative the complaints of staff, the incarcerated and their families. The onion is starting to be peeled back on the agency to expose the dysfunction and such as entity can hasten this process.
These three facets under the guidance of an outsider with leadership skills and a supportive management team can bring about the needed change rather quickly. Let us take a play out of General Inch’s playbook and close the six regional office bureaucracies. These six kingdoms along with the ten central office divisions need less chiefs and more foot soldiers. The bloated and fragmented upper-level bureaucracy is wasting taxpayer money and fosters inconsistency regarding policy implementation and disrespect from the rank and file that run the agency. A reallocation of financial resources can be used to hire more correctional officers and treatment staff. Maybe just then, the people occupying the executive positions created over the years would have a full day’s work but better yet, there just might be an immediate flow of upper- level staff to their “daddy’” private corporations holding a landing spot in the private prison industry.
As always, my two cents and humble opinion!