Ninety-four percent of all prisoners are eventually going to leave prison and rejoin society. Those of us concerned about protecting public safety should support policies and programs that are proven to reduce the likelihood that returning citizens will reoffend. FAMM supports federal and state policies that provide incarcerated individuals with access to meaningful work and educational opportunities, as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment. Further, we believe that all corrections facilities should be safe and that individuals who are incarcerated should remain close to their homes in order to maintain and strengthen important family bonds.
Current Legislation on Prison Reform
The Dignity Act was introduced by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey in the U.S. Senate in 2017. The bill seeks to improve the treatment of incarcerated women and primary care taker parents who are in federal prisons. The bill includes initiatives to strengthen family ties between prisoners who are parents and their loved ones by requiring closer placement of prisoners to their children, increased access to visitation, and free phone and video communication. The bill also limits the use of segregated housing and shackling on pregnant women and women in their first eight weeks of postpartum recovery. Parenting classes, trauma-informed care, mentoring of prisoners by former prisoners, and access to health care products and services are also among the reforms this bill seeks to enact.
This bill is a much needed piece of legislation to address the health and safety of some of the Bureau of Prisons’ most vulnerable prisoners. The bill would:
- Severely limit the use of restraints and restrictive housing on women who are pregnant, in labor, or in postpartum recovery;
- Create a minimum standard of healthcare and training to ensure that pregnant women and newborns are receiving the quality of pre- and post-natal care required for a healthy mother and child;
- Fund technical assistance and training to state and local agencies to ensure that restraints and restrictive housing are used legally and correctly; and
- Require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a survey of services and protections for pregnant prisoners in local and state correctional facilities.
The FIRST STEP Act would require the BOP to adopt a risk assessment tool, assess all federal prisoners for their risk of recidivism, and categorize them as minimum, low, medium, or high risk. Some federal prisoners would be able to earn time credits for completing rehabilitative programs, which minimum- and low-risk prisoners would be allowed to redeem for more time in a halfway house or home confinement at the end of a person’s sentence, so long as their warden does not object in writing. Medium- and high-risk prisoners would have to petition to redeem the time credits they earn, but would only redeem credits with approval of the warden and a determination that they are not likely to reoffend and not a public safety threat. Prisoners who cash in their time credits for time on home confinement or a halfway house would be sent back to prison for violating the conditions of their release.
Report: Using Time to Reduce Crime
In June 2017, FAMM released a first-of-its-kind report on the need to improve federal prison programs. The report was based on a survey we conducted of federal prisoners to learn as much as we could about the frequency, type, and quality of programs and education they were offered. More than 2,000 individuals responded, offering extensive details about the programs, jobs, and educational opportunities available to them in prison. The survey results provide policymakers a better understanding of what federal prisons currently provide and what reforms are needed to advance the goal of reducing recidivism.
What We Found and What We Recommend
Finding: Nearly every prisoner has a job, but many jobs are part-time or “make work” jobs whose impact on a person’s risk of recidivism has not been studied or measured.
Recommendation: Congress and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) should invest resources to provide meaningful jobs similar to those that a person may be able to attain outside of prison.
Finding: Just 2 percent of survey respondents had access to computers to complete educational coursework or learn up-to-date computer technology.
Recommendation: BOP should allow prisoners greater access to computers and the internet and consider allowing prisoners to purchase tablet computers.
Finding: The quality and availability of educational programs vary greatly. The most widely attended classes, which are usually taught by other prisoners, lack rigor and substance. Attaining a college degree in federal prison is difficult, if not impossible, for most prisoners.
Recommendation: Policymakers should ensure that quality educational programming is consistent across federal institutions, provided by educational professionals, and offered to all prisoners regardless of their offense or release date. Congress should also eliminate the ban on federal prisoners receiving Pell Grants.
Finding: A government-funded study found that vocational training makes prisoners 28 percent more likely to obtain post-release employment than prisoners who simply took academic programs. Survey respondents told us that vocational training is popular and coveted, but is limited and offered only to prisoners who are close to their release dates.
Recommendation: Vocational training should be expanded, provided by certified professionals, and offered to all prisoners, regardless of their offense or release date. BOP should partner with public and private employers to ensure that training is current for today’s job market.
Finding: The Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), which is offered to a limited number of prisoners, has been found to lessen the likelihood of recidivism, relapse, and even prison misconduct. The overwhelming majority of respondents who participated in RDAP found the program beneficial.
Recommendation: BOP should ease the program’s current restrictions on eligibility so that all prisoners who have a diagnosed substance abuse problem are incentivized to participate. Other non-residential drug treatment programs should also be incentivized as the RDAP is, by allowing prisoners to earn sentence reductions for program completion.
Finding: Many federal prisoners have histories of mental illness, trauma, poor decision-making and impulse control, or inability to manage anger and other emotions. Studies show that cognitive behavioral therapy can reduce recidivism, but more than two-thirds of prisoners who responded to our survey said they had not received mental or behavioral health treatment.
Recommendation: Mental health treatment and behavioral counseling, including faith-based programs, should be expanded until they are available to all prisoners who wish to participate in them. In addition, the BOP should hire more trained and licensed mental health professionals.
Finding: The vast majority of prisoners would respond to incentives to participate in recidivism-reducing programs, especially if they could earn sentence reductions. Other incentives, such as additional halfway house and home confinement time and extra visiting and phone privileges would increase participation as well.
Recommendation: Policymakers should utilize all of these incentives, including sentence reductions, based on their value to each prisoner.
Finding: Half of respondents told us they were incarcerated more than 500 air miles from home, despite a BOP policy that seeks to keep prisoners within that distance.
Recommendation: BOP should place prisoners within 500 driving miles of their families and relocate prisoners closer to home whenever possible, except in limited cases.
Finding: Most prisoners are aware that under the Second Chance Act they could receive up to 12 months of halfway house time, but expect to get only three to six months. Many prisoners have concerns about staying at halfway houses.
Recommendation: The Justice Department, with funding from Congress, should increase halfway house capacity so that all prisoners who need a full year can live a full year in a halfway house, and study the efficacy of halfway houses. Finally, Congress should expand use of home confinement by removing its current limitation to six months/10 percent of the sentence.
For more information, see our resources below: