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!