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FAMM submits testimony in advance of Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons
WASHINGTON – On Thursday, April 15, the Senate will hold a hearing on oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). In advance of this hearing, FAMM President Kevin Ring submitted testimony highlighting significant concerns about BOP operation, described below.
FAMM routinely hears about issues in the BOP from many of the nearly 40,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons and their loved ones who are FAMM members. Observations and vivid examples from family members were included throughout the testimony and in an addendum. We hope that BOP Director Michael Carvajal will be asked about these issues during the upcoming hearing.
Concerns about how the BOP Has Failed to Contain the Spread of COVID-19
Over the past year, families have been traumatized by seeing their loved ones receive inadequate healthcare, insufficient PPE and unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. Families wrote about COVID-positive loved ones receiving “no medical attention” whatsoever during their illness or while suffering long-term repercussions.
Many described their loved ones being forced into close quarters with COVID-positive prisoners or unmasked staff moving “between the units that were positive and in quarantine and those that were not.”
Over 37 percent of people currently in BOP facilities has tested positive for COVID-19 at one point, a rate four times higher than the general public. Simply put, BOP protocols did not work.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Prison Conditions
Altered BOP operations during the COVID-19 pandemic have dramatically affected the safety of prison conditions, including the most basic of sanitary conditions. Families describe their loved ones having to “walk in raw sewage for three days” or being told to “urinate and defecate in garbage bags” during a water outage.
Accounts about food safety were similarly appalling, with reports of “visible maggots,” “sandwiches with dead cockroaches,” and countless mentions of mold. Poor conditions combined with severe lockdown measures – in many facilities, the BOP confines people to their cells for 23½ hours per day – have been serious mental health threats.
Lack of Communication and Transparency
The BOP’s lack of transparency has made the situation worse for people who live and work in prison and their families. On multiple occasions, the BOP did not inform immediate family members of their loved one’s death, leaving them to learn through a news release. Confusion and inadequate communication regarding the use of release measures like home confinement have resulted in crushing anxiety and an incredible loss of trust.
Underutilization of Release Mechanisms
The BOP has grossly underutilized two major tools at its disposal to keep prisoners safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19. The BOP has authority to bring motions for prisoners to receive compassionate release, a sentence reduction triggered by extraordinary and compelling circumstances like vulnerability to COVID-19. Since February of last year, federal courts have ordered the release of over 3,100 people – nearly every one of those motions was filed by individuals rather than the BOP.
Using expanded home confinement from the CARES Act could be the most efficient way for the BOP to thin facility populations. Unfortunately, the BOP has used the measure restrictively and inconsistently, using stricter metrics than those proscribed by the DOJ. Notably, the Justice Department’s Inspector General found that very limited use of home confinement contributed to certain large outbreaks of COVID-19 in BOP facilities.
Implementation of the First Step Act
Many of the most significant prison condition reforms in the landmark First Step Act call on the BOP to proactively increase transparency, develop infrastructure regarding “earned time credits,” and expand programming opportunities for those in its custody. The BOP has fallen short in key areas of the law’s implementation.
More than two years after passage, the BOP has done little to communicate plans to affect a mandatory increase in programming and activities. Moreover, the BOP has missed reporting deadlines to Congress about the use of compassionate release and has proposed a rule that would harshly limit the use of a key reform from the First Step Act intended to incentivize prisoners to engage in recidivism-reducing activity.
For nearly three decades, FAMM has united the voices of affected families, the formerly incarcerated, and a range of stakeholders and advocates to fight for a more fair and effective justice system. FAMM’s focus on ending a one-size-fits-all punishment structure has led to reforms to sentencing and prison policies at the state and federal level and is paving the way to programs that support rehabilitation for the 94% of all prisoners who will return to our neighborhoods one day.
FAMM is a national nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice policies that safeguard taxpayer dollars and keep our communities safe. Founded in 1991, FAMM is helping transform America’s criminal justice system by uniting the voices of impacted families and individuals and elevating the issues all across the country.