Articles Posted in Prison Reform

Mohamed Huque, author of “Made In Prison: The Rise of America’s New Labour Class,” has given an interview in which he discusses the use of a federal prisoner workforce:

Let’s start at the beginning, Mohamed. Why is prison labor a bad thing? Shouldn’t the prisoners be doing something constructive with their time? What constitutes exploitation and how do we draw the line?
I don’t believe prison labour is inherently a bad thing. Those serving time behind bars should be given an opportunity to learn valuable skills, gain work experience, meet financial obligations, and potentially leave prison with a small amount saved to restart their lives. This was the intended purpose behind prison work programs and I can fully support that. However, it becomes problematic when inmates are subjected to abusive and unsafe work conditions, when inmates are hired to replace union and public sector workers, and most importantly when they are not given fair wages equivalent to non-inmates in the same locality. This is when it becomes exploitative.

Earlier this week, The Urban Institute issued a new report, The Growth & Increasing Cost of the Federal Prison System: Drivers and Potential Solutions, which, in terms of the Bureau of Prisons’ unrelenting growth, provides:

BOP has experienced an almost tenfold increase in its population since 1980. In FY 2011, the BOP population increased by 7,541 inmates, and will increase by an estimated 11,500 by the end of FY 2013.


Overall, BOP is operating at 39 percent above its rated capacity, with 55 percent crowding at high-security facilities and 51 percent at medium-security facilities. Since FY 2000, the inmate-to-staff ratio has increased from about 4:1 to a projected 5:1 in FY 2013. This degree of crowding threatens the safety of both inmates and correctional officers, and it undermines the ability to provide effective programming.

Today’s NY Times features a story by John Tierny, and corresponding profiles of four inmates, that addresses the growing shift away from the “lock ‘em and throw away the key” sentencing policies that came into vogue in the 1980s. Describing the story of a 27-year-old female, nonviolent, first-time federal drug offender who was sentenced to life imprisonment (without the possibility of parole, which the federal system discontinued in 1987), Tierney offers:

Her sentence reflected a revolution in public policy, often called mass incarceration, that appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.
Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.

Echoing the Heritage Foundation’s recent work concerning the over-federalization of crime (see here, hereand here), which follows on reports by the ABA’s Task Force on the Federalization of Criminal Law and The Federalist Society, USA Today features a column by Vikrant Reddy, an analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center of Effective Justice, that takes issue with the appropriateness and impact of perpetually growing federal prosecutions:

The Constitution originally included only three federal crimes: treason, piracy, and counterfeiting. Now, the number of federal crimes is approximately 4,500. From 2000-07, Congress created about 56 new crimes per year.
This is far from the vision of the Founders who wrote in the Federalist Papers that “[t]here is one transcendent advantage belonging to the province of the State governments…the ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice.”

From Guernica magazine comes a thoughtful article about the import of prison tourism. Writing about sight-seeing at the former Alcatraz federal prison, S.J. Culver notes how the tour reflects changes made in the face of objections from the federal Bureau of Prisons:

In the 1980s, the National Park Service attempted to develop some progressive exhibits addressing not only alternative histories, but also issues like human rights. Strange and Kempa write that lefty rangers developing and promoting these projects faced censure:
Bureaucrats in the Bureau of Prisons charged that [one] display was inaccurate and unduly critical. One exhibit featured barbed wire and electric chairs while another interactive exhibit allowed tourists to listen to former captives talk about corruption and brutality in contemporary prisons. This was an instance when one state agency (National Park Service) had invited outside players to participate in site interpretation, to the dismay of another government department (Bureau of Prisons) driven by its own image-management objectives.

As noted, on Wednesday the GAO issued a report concerning federal prison overcrowding and its impact. Yesterday, Michael McLaughlin at The Huffington Post posted a story about the report that offers additional insight into the nature and extent of the problem:

Wardens may see a spike in violence as more inmates are squeezed into tight living quarters, researchers warned. The overcrowding contributes “to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff,” according to the report.
“If you start cramming more and more people into a confined space, you’re going to create more tensions and problems,” said the GAO’s Director of Homeland Security and Justice David Mauer (sic). “It creates the possibility that someone’s going to snap and have a violent incident.”[…]

After a day of meetings with incarcerated clients, I returned to my computer to find news of a just issued report from the General Accounting Office, Bureau of Prisons: Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure. As set forth in the Highlights:

What GAO Found
The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) 9.5 percent population growth from fiscal years 2006 through 2011 exceeded the 7 percent increase in its rated capacity, and BOP projects continued population growth. Growth was most concentrated among male inmates, and in 2011, 48 percent of the inmates BOP housed were sentenced for drugs. From fiscal years 2006 through 2011, BOP increased its rated capacity by about 8,300 beds as a result of opening 5 new facilities and closing 4 minimum security camps, but because of the population expansion, crowding (or population in excess of rated capacity) increased from 36 to 39 percent. In 2011 crowding was most severe (55 percent) in highest security facilities. BOP’s 2020 long-range capacity plan projects continued growth in the federal prison population from fiscal years 2012 through 2020, with system-wide crowding exceeding 45 percent through 2018.
A Triple-Bunked Cell in a BOP Facility
According to BOP, the growth in the federal inmate population has negatively affected inmates, staff, and infrastructure, but BOP has acted within its authority to help mitigate the effects of this growth. BOP officials reported increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited meaningful work opportunities, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios. These factors, taken together, contribute to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff. BOP officials and union representatives voiced concerns about a serious incident occurring. To manage its growing population, BOP staggers meal times and segregates inmates involved in disciplinary infractions, among other things.
The five states in GAO’s review have taken more actions than BOP to reduce their prison populations, because these states have legislative authority that BOP does not have. These states have modified criminal statutes and sentencing, relocated inmates to local facilities, and provided inmates with additional opportunities for early release. BOP generally does not have similar authority. For example, BOP cannot shorten an inmate’s sentence or transfer inmates to local prisons. Efforts to address the crowding issue could include (1) reducing the inmate population by actions such as reforming sentencing laws, (2) increasing capacity by actions such as constructing new prisons, or (3) some combination of both.

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing concerning “Rising Prison Costs: Restricting Budgets and Crime Prevention Options,” a Webcast of which can be viewed here. In his statement, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), author of the Second Chance Act, offered:

At a time when our economy has been struggling to recover from the worst recession in the last 75 years and governments’ budgets are limited, we must look at the wasteful spending that occurs with over-incarceration on the Federal and state levels. There is mounting evidence that building more prisons and locking people up for longer and longer – especially nonviolent offenders – is not the best use of taxpayer money, and is in fact an ineffective means of keeping our communities safe.
Between 1970 and 2010, the number of people incarcerated grew by 700 percent. The United States incarcerates almost a quarter of the prisoners in the entire world, even though we only have 5 percent of the world’s population. There are currently more than 1.6 million people in state and Federal prisons and more than 700,000 more in local jails. That means we incarcerate roughly one in every 100 adults.
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