By Chandra Bozelko- The fact that the self-described law and order president has softened on a criminal justice issue should be cause for celebration, but the First Step Act — the prison/sentencing reform bill before the Senate right now — has been tainted with rancor and division.
There are many, but the main criticism of the First Step Act — a law that would include changes such as a ban on shackling pregnant women, individualized rehabilitation programming and greater opportunities for inmates to be released early for good behavior — is that it doesn’t go far enough. The United States Sentencing Commission estimates that less than 5,000 of the approximately 180,000 federal inmates will get any relief in the short run. That minimal effect may be outweighed by long-term harms, as the advocacy and leadership organization JustLeadership USA has pointed out.
Any decarceration of the federal prison system, if only a small amount, is a good thing, even if it’s just letting people live under supervision outside the facilities, under electronic monitoring or “e-carceration.” Federal prisons are unsafe, and they’re are poised to become even less so because of the Trump administration’s staffing cuts and plans to expand private facilities.
In January of this year, federal prison administrators were told on a conference call to prepare for even more unfilled positions within their prisons; many jobs were already open at the time. The FY 2019 budget plans to cut 6,000 DOJ positions including 1,800 correction officers.
Then a leaked memo from Frank Lara, the Bureau of Prisons’ assistant director of the Correctional Programs Division, revealed the Department of Justice’s solution to understaffing public federal prisons: moving inmates to private custody. The federal government is purposely understaffing its facilities to make the case that it’s necessary to move more inmates to private prisons.
Right now, 11 federal facilities are managed by private companies, but the Trump administration wants to expand that. While most of the Bureau of Prisons’ contracts with private management companies in the past concerned detention of immigrants, Trump’s plans for private prisons include housing citizens who’ve been convicted of federal crimes. This is a rare fulfilled promise to his donors by Trump, whose campaign and inauguration received $250,000 and $475,000 from private prison industry leaders CoreCivic and GEO Group, respectively.
It’s hard to believe that the federal government didn’t expect more violence from the plan. Understaffing prisons has fatal consequences for guards and inmates alike. In 2017, a Delaware prison riot ended with the death of correctional Lieutenant Steven Floyd. Eight inmates were killed in April 2018 at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. Investigators concluded that there simply weren’t enough guards to keep control of the facility.
More than that, even adequately staffed private prisons are more violent than public ones. The Department of Justice’s own Inspector General found that private prisons are significantly more violent than their public counterparts. No federal inmate who goes from public to private custody gets any safer.
There were 845 inmate homicides in state and federal prisons combined from 2001 to 2014, making an average of 65 per year nationwide. We don’t know the numbers for 2018 because the Bureau of Justice Statistics hasn’t calculated them yet.
What we know is that there were three murders in one federal facility this year, all within six months. No one would have paid any attention to the murders at USP Hazelton in West Virginia if one of the victims hadn’t been famed Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. Most people chalked up Whitey’s death to mob lore and revenge for snitching, but that romantic explanation ignores the burgeoning violence in that facility; the guards there had been complaining about staffing levels for months before Whitey got whacked. Bulger’s death is really the result of understaffing. Or, for the Trump presidency, it’s the result of a plan in motion.
People would be wise to wonder why the Trump administration would sign support for ostensible reform like the First Step Act with one hand and undo it with the other. It’s a great question, and it shows how the heated discussion about the contents of the First Step Act is misplaced. The real debate should be whether any bill can accomplish significant prison reform while this administration’s counterproductive policies and decisions remain in effect.
Chandra Bozelko published a book while incarcerated, “Up the River: An Anthology,” and after getting out of prison, published a blog called Prison Diaries.