Articles Posted in Prison Reform

In 2002, the Bureau of Prisons, in response to an opinion by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, changed its halfway house policy, limiting placements to the final 10% of a prisoner’s sentence. As discussed here, this was a dramatic shift from the agency’s historic practices, which placed certain nonviolent offenders serving short sentences directly into halfway houses and made use of these prison facilities on the back-end of sentences to effectuate successful community re-integration. Following years of litigation, the Second Chance Act served to end the Bureau’s unlawful policy change, and, during the Obama administration, the Bureau began to make broader use of pre-release options, that is, both halfway houses and home confinement. (See here p. 38).

Over the last two years, there has been a growing body of anecdotal evidence that the Bureau has renewed efforts to restrict pre-release placements. Today, Justin George at The Marshal Project has published an excellent piece detailing the tensions between the President’s claimed interest in prison reform and the Attorney General’s interest in more severe penalties for criminal offenders:

Under the Obama administration, the number of federal prisoners in halfway houses and other transitional programs boomed. The federal government required the privately-run residences to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment, and the Department of Justice also increased access to ankle monitors so more prisoners could finish sentences in their own homes.

Earlier this Summer, Charles E. Samuels, Jr. issued a memorandum concerning his intention to retire from the Bureau of Prisons by year’s end, following 27 years of service — 3.5 of which were as Director. The announcement has led to conjecture and commentary regarding who should next helm the agency. In late July, a group of law professors wrote Attorney General Lynch encouraging “a national search focusing on identifying an experienced innovator who has a demonstrated commitment to reform—decarceration, improved conditions of confinement, education and rehabilitation, racial justice, and gender equity. The goal of the search should be a new director who can not only bring about substantial changes at the BOP but also lead American corrections more generally.” In a follow-up piece in the Washington Post, three of the professors expanded on their thinking:

The decision matters a lot. The BOP’s director runs one of the critical bureaucracies of the federal government. It houses more than 200,000 prisoners in more than 120 facilities across the United States. Under the leadership of some of its directors — such as James Bennett, who served from the late 1930s to the 1960s — the BOP set the nation’s benchmark for smart criminal justice administration. Bennett promoted the Youth Corrections Act and vocational and education training, he became president of the American Correctional Association and he led the U.S. delegation to the UN Crime Commission. Bennett led the BOP to the forefront of efforts to help prisoners gain skills to return to their communities and to treat juveniles differently than adults.

Since Bennett’s era, the BOP’s leadership role has eroded. The BOP has imposed unduly harsh conditions on prisoners, failed to prevent sexual abuse, and refused to exercise discretion to house prisoners in community facilities close to their homes. The largest prison system in America needs to do better.

More recently, former Senior OLC Counsel and U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love has offered a counterpoint to the professors’ proposal, questioning looking outside the agency–an idea she had previously supported–given the Bureau’s design and inherent mandate: Continue Reading ›

Over at, Cristina Costantini and Jorge Rivas offer a scathing critique of the Bureau of Prisons’ housing and management of non-U.S. citizens, which has largely been handed over to private prison corporations headed by individuals with ties to the BOP and the Department of Justice.

A Fusion investigation found that without a single vote in Congress, officials across three administrations: created a new classification of federal prisons only for immigrants; decided that private companies would run the facilities; and filled them by changing immigration enforcement practices.[…]  Most of the roughly 23,000 immigrants held each night in CAR prisons have committed immigration infractions — crimes that a decade ago would have resulted in little more than a bus trip back home. And now, some of the very same officials who oversaw agencies that created and fueled the system have gone on to work for the private prison companies that benefited most.

The low-security facilities are often squalid, rife with abuse, and use solitary confinement excessively, according to advocates.

Last week, Inspector General Michael Horowitz sent a memorandum to the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General concerning “Top Management and Performance Challenges Facing the Department of Justice.” The first identified challenge? Addressing the Persisting Crisis in the Federal Prison System,” namely the system’s ever escalating cost, which consumes a significant percent of DOJ’s budget, and safety and security issues stemming from chronic overcrowding.

Containing the Cost of the Federal Prison System

The costs to operate and maintain the federal prison system continue to grow, resulting in less funding being available for the Department’s other critical law enforcement missions. Although the size of the federal prison population decreased for the first time since 1980, from 219,298 inmates at the end of FY 2013 to 214,149 inmates at the end of FY 2014, and the Department now projects that the number of inmates will decrease by 10,000 in FY 2016, the downward trend has yet to result in a decrease in federal prison system costs. For example, in FY 2000, the budget for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) totaled $3.8 billion and accounted for about 18 percent of the Department’s discretionary budget. In comparison, in FY 2014, the BOP’s enacted budget totaled $6.9 billion and accounted for about 25 percent of the Department’s discretionary budget. During this same period, the rate of growth in the BOP’s budget was almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department. The BOP currently has more employees than any other Department component, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and has the second largest budget of any Department component, trailing only the FBI.  The Department’s leadership has acknowledged the dangers the rising costs of the federal prison system present to the Department’s ability to fulfill its mission in other areas. Nevertheless, federal prison spending continues to impact the Department’s ability to make other public safety investments, as the Department’s FY 2015 budget request for the BOP is a 0.5 percent increase from the enacted FY 2014 level.

Our work has identified several funding categories where rising prison costs will present particularly significant challenges in future years. For example, inmate healthcare costs constitute a rapidly growing portion of the federal prison system budget. According to BOP data, the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013. The BOP spent over $1 billion on inmate healthcare services in FY 2013, which nearly equaled the entire budget of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Continue Reading ›

On Monday, via a video message posted on the Department of Justice’s Web site, Attorney General Holder announced changes to the Bureau of Prisons’ halfway house practices. As set forth in the accompanying press release:

Among the most significant changes Holder announced is the requirement for standardized Cognitive Behavioral Programming (CBP) to be offered at all federal halfway houses. This treatment will address behavior that places formerly incarcerated individuals at higher risk of recidivism. As part of this treatment requirement, BOP is setting guidelines for instructor qualifications, class size and length, and training for all staff at the halfway houses.

Several other modifications are being made to the standard contracts that apply to federal halfway houses in order to provide greater support to returning citizens. Examples include requiring halfway houses to provide public transportation vouchers or transportation assistance to help residents secure employment, requiring all federal halfway houses to allow residents to have cell phones to facilitate communication with potential employers and family, and improving and expanding home confinement by increasing the use of GPS monitoring.

This past Sunday’s New York Times featured a profile of the Cook County Jail (IL), “[t]he largest mental health center in America.” Writing separately, Nicholas Kristof offered “[a] few data snapshots:

• Nationwide in America, more than three times as many mentally ill people are housed in prisons and jails as in hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center.

• Mentally ill inmates are often preyed upon while incarcerated, or disciplined because of trouble following rules. They are much more likely than other prisoners, for example, to be injured in a fight in jail, the Justice Department says.

• Some 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses have been arrested at some point in their lives.

Against this backdrop comes another compelling story from Andrew Cohen, writing for The Atlantic. Cohen gives insight into the “High Security Mental Health Step-Down Unit” at USP Atlanta, “believed to be the first federal prison program ever designed and implemented to provide substantial long-term care and treatment for high-security mentally ill inmates.”

Continue Reading ›

Yesterday, the Urban Institute issued “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System,” an excellent, comprehensive report offering sensible solutions to the many problems that plague the Bureau of Prisons and the sentencing system that propels its unabated growth. From the report:

BOP facilities are currently operating at between 35 and 40 percent above their rated capacity; this overcrowding is greater in high-security facilities, which in FY 2012 were operating at 51 percent over capacity, with medium-security facilities 47 percent above capacity. The capacity of BOP facilities in 2012 was 128,359, but BOP-operated facilities housed 177,556 inmates in 2012. Since FY 2000, the inmate-to-staff ratio will have increased from about four to one to a projected five to one in FY 2014.

This untenable status quo will be the norm for the coming decade: BOP projects that, through 2020, federal prisons will be overcrowded by at least 33 percent, with the population exceeding system capacity by at least 50,000 people each year. The BOP anticipates adding over 25,000 beds by 2020, but most of these projects have not yet been approved, and would not substantially reduce overcrowding.[…]

Writing in the Washington Times last Friday, Cara Sullivan, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Justice Performance Project, advocates for “safety valve” relief from harsh mandatory minimum sentences. In doing so, Ms. Sullivan gives needed attention to the tangible benefits sentencing and correctional reforms have wrought on the state level:

Policymakers are correct to be concerned about the status of America’s criminal justice system. At the federal level, there has been a 700 percent increase in the number of federal prisoners over the past 30 years, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons is operating at levels nearly 40 percent over capacity. However, as federal incarceration rates climb, state rates have been declining as many states examine evidence-based and data-driven reforms to their criminal justice systems.[…]

Policymakers need to consider alternatives to the inefficient and often unjust status quo of sentencing nonviolent offenders to lengthy and expensive prison stays that do little to protect public safety. Although they differ in approach, these safety valves provide judges with discretion to depart from automatic, pre-established prison sentences for specific offenses — if the court finds the imposition of the mandatory-minimum sentence to be unnecessary or to be a miscarriage of justice. When applied to certain crimes, safety-valve legislation protects public safety by responsibly focusing resources on dangerous offenders who pose a real and clear threat to the community. Continue Reading ›

As various media outlets have reported, on Monday, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) issued a statement “announcing that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has agreed to a comprehensive and independent assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons.” According to Reuters:

A spokesman from the bureau confirmed that the National Institute of Corrections plans to retain an independent auditor “in the weeks ahead” to examine the use of solitary confinement, which is also known as restrictive housing.[…]
Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows for up to 23 hours a day. Durbin’s office said the practice can have a severe psychological impact on inmates and that more than half of all suicides committed in prisons occur in solitary confinement.

Appearing to build off last fall’s report from the General Accounting Office, The Congressional Research Service(a.k.a., “Congress’s think tank”) has issued an excellent new report, “The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Overview, Policy Changes, Issues, and Options,” the Summary of which reads:

Since the early 1980s, there has been a historically unprecedented increase in the federal prison population. Some of the growth is attributable to changes in federal criminal justice policy during the previous three decades. An issue before Congress is whether policymakers consider the rate of growth in the federal prison population sustainable, and if not, what changes could be made to federal criminal justice policy to reduce the prison population while maintaining public safety.


This report explores the issues related to the growing federal prison population. The number of inmates under the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) jurisdiction has increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to nearly 219,000 in FY2012. Since FY1980, the federal prison population has increased, on average, by approximately 6,100 inmates each year. Data show that a growing proportion of inmates are being incarcerated for immigration- and weapons-related offenses, but the largest portion of newly admitted inmates are being incarcerated for drug offenses. Data also show that approximately 7 in 10 inmates are sentenced for five years or less.


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