Prison Funding Fight on Capitol Hill – – Updated

A previous post touched on the dispute between the Illinois congressional delegation and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, over the BOP’s proposed purchase of a shuttered Illinois state prison, as well as controversy surrounding a new federal prison for female offenders slated to open in rural Alabama. Recent media accounts reveal an intersection of the issues centered on money.

On July 27, “Democrats Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn sent letters () urging a veteran Republican congressman from Virginia to lift his opposition to the federal purchase of the unused Thomson prison in western Illinois,” a request that came on the heels of a Justice Department request to appropriate funds:
Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement that Wolf was allowing “tortured logic and his personal feelings” to get in the way.
“Congressman Wolf is prepared to sacrifice over 1,000 jobs, which we desperately need, to flex his political muscle,” Durbin said.
The senator said he would continue to work with President Obama on the matter.
Reps. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., and Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, also issued a joint statement. They called Wolf’s rejection a “disappointing setback” and said they would work together to try to resolve the matter.
The administration’s reprogramming request is the latest in a long effort by the Obama administration to buy the prison. Its initial plan to move foreign detainees to Illinois from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was met with fierce resistance, leading the administration to back off.
Since then, the Justice Department has tried to buy the facility as a maximum-security prison to ease overcrowding in the federal prison system. But because Congress has not appropriated new money, the administration has sought to use existing funds.
Rep. Wolf responded through a “stinging” letter to the Attorney General:
“Frankly, I do not trust the Department or the Administration to enforce the law forbidding the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States,” Wolf said in his Friday letter to Holder.
The congressman referred to a 2009 incident in which he said the administration tried to transfer Chinese Uighurs, whom he termed “foreign terrorists,” into his Virginia district. Wolf said Holder, at the time, pledged in congressional testimony that the department would not release terrorists into the U.S., yet it wanted to send the Uighurs, an ethnic group, to his district anyway.
The incident prompted an uproar in the state and the transfer never occurred.[…]
Wolf’s response also cited several other grievances against Holder, including the congressional investigation into the Fast and Furious gun-smuggling operation, its decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and its recent ruling on stopping deportations of younger illegal immigrants who had met certain conditions.[…]
In his letter Friday, Wolf did not object to the asking price. However, he did question Justice Department priorities in seeking to use existing asset forfeiture and balances for the purchase.
He also called the request an “earmark” for Durbin, and he pointed to a Justice Department website where it posts earmark requests.
Rep. Wolf also reportedly wrote “that he did not want the disagreement to develop into a ‘Durbin vs. Wolf battle.’  ‘I have been repeatedly singled out as the sole objector to this request,’ Wolf wrote. ‘That is not accurate.’[…]  Wolf said others in Congress and more than 100 relatives of Sept. 11 victims oppose the prison sale to the federal government.[…]  Wolf noted that there are other federal prisons that need money to open.  ‘The request to purchase Thomson unfairly “jumps the line” of the prisons in Alabama, New Hampshire and West Virginia that are ready to be opened, pending funding,’ he wrote. ‘Each of these facilities would create hundreds of new jobs in these states.’”
Soon after, the Alabama congressional delegation voiced opposition to the Thompson purchase:
Redirecting about $165 million toward the Illinois prison goes against the spending laws Congress already has approved and shortchanges Aliceville and three other prisons that are getting ready to open, the Alabama delegates wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice late last week. The Aliceville Federal Correctional Institution west of Tuscaloosa is expected to employ 378 people when it reaches full capacity.
“The Aliceville prison facility was a welcome announcement to the entire community in a rural area that has been hit especially hard by the current economic slump,” stated the letter signed by all seven members from Alabama, including the lone Democrat, who represents Pickens County, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham.[…] Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., was a major Capitol Hill proponent of the Aliceville prison project, and he is rounding up allies from other states to oppose the Justice Department’s request.
The Bureau of Prisons “should use scarce funding to activate new prisons that it built but currently sit idle, such as the Aliceville Women’s Prison — not to carry out a senseless plot that would waste taxpayer money,” Shelby said Tuesday.
Yes, build more than prisons instead of purchase and re-mission existing ones, especially where those new prisons are in your district. Better yet, federal lawmakers might consider engaging in serious discussion about ways to reduce the federal prison population similar to what Texas, the nation’s largest correctional system before the BOP outgrew it in 2003, and other states have done in recent years when confronted with the fiscal realities surrounding mass incarceration:
In July, Texas’ prison system posted its lowest head count in five years, even as the state’s overall population continued to grow at a fast clip.[…]
Instead of sending more and more lawbreakers to prison, judges in Texas and other states are increasingly sentencing them to alternative treatment and rehabilitation programs that have proven more effective — and that cost much less.
For taxpayers, that could mean safer communities and fewer expensive prisons to operate. For criminals, that could mean more effective programs to help them escape drug and other addictions and become law-abiding citizens again.

Texas as an example of progressive criminal justice reform speaks volumes about congressional infighting over the Bureau of Prisons’ unending expansion.

**Update:  Just after completing the above post, I came across this story about New Hampshire congressional leaders joining in the appropriation fight relative to the opening of the Berlin federal prison, which will reportedly house 60 prison camp inmates by August 30.

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