Why should I care about the federal prison system?

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post entitled "We treat everyone the same, right?" arguing that the American prison system is inherently flawed. Our current criminal justice system is not as just as Americans believe it is - in 2017, America incarcerated 693 of every 100,000 people. If you do not think that is a lot, think about it this way: that is five times Britain's, six times Canada's, and 15 times Japan's (The Economist, 2017). America incarcerates a lot of people, but, today, let's focus solely on the federal prison system.

First and foremost: What is the federal prison system?

The American federal prison system, also known as the federal bureau of prisons (BOP), is a subdivision of the Department of Justice. This prison system specifically deals with people who have violated federal law. Federal offenses include: Banking and Insurance, Counterfeit, Embezzlement; Burglary, Larceny, Property Offenses; Continuing Criminal Enterprise; Courts or Corrections; Drug Offenses; Extortion, Fraud, Bribery; Homicide, Aggravated Assault, and Kidnapping; Immigration; Miscellaneous; National Security; Robbery; Sex Offenses; and Weapons, Explosives, Arson.

Let me give you 5 quick facts about our federal prison system (straight from the BOP site):

1) Its motto is "Correctional Excellence. Respect. Integrity"

2) They currently are responsible for 181,282 inmates (as of current 2018 reports)

3) The recidivism rate is 34%

4) This department employs 36,015 people

5) The Fiscal Year budget request for BOP is a whopping $7,141.3 million (an added $54.4 million from the previous year)

At a glance, you may think that this department is just in its actions. It has a good number of employees, low number of inmates, and a low recidivism rate. So what is my problem with this?

1) Of the 181,282 federal inmates, 18,276 are in "privately managed facilities" aka contract prisons. The BOP claims that this helps "manage our inmate population" aka the BOP cannot properly manage their abundance of inmates and uses federal funds to pay for these contracts (Retrieved from BOP).

2) According to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) Booker Report, disparities between Black and White criminal sentences have been increasing in recent years. In a 2014 study conducted by the University of Michigan Law School, researchers found that Black people receive criminal sentences that are "almost 10% longer than those of comparable Whites arrested for the same crimes" (Rehavi & Starr, 2014, p. 1320). Moreover, the same University of Michigan Law School study determined that if the sentencing disparity on the federal level alone were eliminated, the number of Black men in federal prisons wound be reduced by around 9%!

Take a look at these reports from the BOP:

Reported percentages of inmate race (as of October 27, 2018):

Reported percentages of inmate gender (as of October 27, 2018):

Reported percentages of inmate ethnicity (as of October 27, 2018):

Based on what I have described earlier, understand that these demographics are only a small part of the larger story (keep in mind that the percentage of White inmates, compared to inmates of color, will serve significantly less time in federal prison for the same exact crime).

3) Drug Offenses make up 46.1% of inmate offenses, while the second highest offense is Weapons, Explosives, Arson at 17.9%. While there are no statistics on how many of these crimes were violent versus non-violent, it is safe to say that the high percentage of Drug Offenses in the federal prison system is shocking enough. But we will come back to this part later on.

4) As of August 31 2018, 15,705 inmates were enrolled in a General Education Development (GED), of those inmates only 2,519 GED credentials were earned. Other than that, I could not find ANY up-to-date statistics on education attainment level of the federally incarcerated population, post-secondary or college educational programming, or a budget for educational programming in federal prisons. The one thing I did find is a report from 2003 that reported 76% of inmates have not received any post-secondary of college education. From my last blog post, post-secondary educational programs in prisons have proven effective in lowering recidivism rates, increasing confidence among inmates, and creating safer environments for inmates and staff. Yet, the US Department of Education received a 13% reduction in its 2018 budget...but I digress.

At the beginning of President Trump's presidency, there were 192,170 people in federal prison. As of today, there are 181,282. For the past two years, there has been little to nothing done about our prison system until May 2018.

The First Step Act is a bipartisan criminal justice legislation that is currently moving through the US Senate. The Act was introduced in May 2018 by Representatives Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Doug Collins (R-GA), and Karen Bass (D-CA). In short, the First Step Act asks for a bipartisan approach to prison reform and sentencing reform.

Here are some of the prison reforms this Act proposes (taken from the First Step Act website):

1) Ban shackling of pregnant and postpartum women

2) Ensures that people are places in facilities within 500 driving miles from their families

3) Brings 4,000 people home immediately

4) Asks the BOP to match individual needs to programs, training, and services (like education!!)

As for sentencing reforms:

1) Lower lifetime mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior nonviolent drug felony convictions to 25 years

2) Apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to reduce disparities between cocaine- and crack-related offenses

3) Free judges from handing down disproportionate sentencing

The First Step Act also authorizes $250 million over five years for development and expansion of prison programs, as well as allows formerly incarcerated people to serve as volunteers and mentors, both of which promote social justice reform in the prison system.

On November 15, 2018, President Trump endorsed the First Step Act and urged the Senate to pass this bipartisan bill on prison and sentencing reformation.

The First Step Act is the (literal) first step towards prison and sentencing reform in 2018. While the piece of legislation is still in the hands of the Senate, we can expect to hear more about it since President Trump's formal endorsement. Even if prison and sentencing reform is not your political passion, I urge you to seek out information regarding the issues plaguing our system (I have provided some sources at the bottom of this post). Also, if you haven't already, please read my previous blog post titled "We treat everyone the same, right?" to learn more about educational programming in the American prison system.

Ways you can get involved to help change our system:

Gain Knowledge:

Check out the First Step Act's website

Learn more about prison reformation in America

Learn more about life in prison with NPR's podcast 'Ear Hustle'

Learn about education initiatives going on today

Reach out to Local Organizations:

Chicagoland Prison Outreach

The Prison Arts Coalition

Update (12/20/18):

On Tuesday, December 18, the Senate passed the First Step Act 87-12. The bill is expected to be passed by the House and move on to the President, who has publicly endorsed the First Step Act, before the session ends. Measures to adjust the bill were debated, as well. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senator James Lankford (R-OK) successfully added a package that excluded categories of crimes for sentencing reductions, as well as allows faith-based groups to continue to having freedom and involvement in the federal prison system.

It is important to note that while the First Step Act is a bill that was brought to Congress by Representatives Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Doug Collins (R-GA), and Karen Bass (D-CA) in 2018, this is not the first bipartisan effort to reform prison. The First Step Act derives from the minds of Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa (R-IA), who both put forth a very similar piece of legislation under the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, the efforts of the two Senators were blocked by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who was adamantly against anything the Obama Administration supported. Senator McConnell voted in favor of the First Step Act on Tuesday.

There have been arguments on both sides regarding this piece of legislation. For example, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) tweeted both her support and criticism of the First Step Act. Senator Harris specifically tweeted, "But, to be clear, the FIRST STEP Act is very much just that – a first step. It is a compromise of a compromise, and we ultimately need to make far greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system." Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has been a vocal opponent of the First Step Act, claiming that it does nothing for the victims of federal crimes. Senator Cotton, speaking to Fox News, said "You’re releasing thousands of serious, repeat, [and] in some cases, violent offenders within weeks or months of this bill being passed...it’s almost certain that they’re going to commit terrible crimes.” In the end, Senator Harris voted in favor of the First Step Act, whereas Senator Cotton was one of twelve Republican naysayers.

Finally, I would like to reiterate that the First Step Act only affects the FEDERAL prison system, not the state. The federal prison system only incarcerates 10% of inmates in America. There is a larger problem at hand, but, for now, we should focus on the positives and work towards a brighter future for the American prison system.

Here's who voted against the First Step Act: Senators John Barrasso (R-WY, elected 2007), Richard Burr (R-NC, elected 2005), Tom Cotton (R-AR, elected 2015), Mike Enzi (R-WY, elected 1997), John Kennedy (R-LA, elected 2017), Jon Kyl (R-AZ, retiring December 31, 2018), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK, elected 2002), Jim Risch (R-ID, elected 2009), Ben Sasse (R-NE, elected 2015), Dan Sullivan (R-AK, elected 2015), Mike Rounds (R-SD, elected 2015) and Pat Toomey (R-PA, elected 2011).

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