The Justice Department and its Bureau of Prisons (BOP) late last week quietly began to close halfway houses, those for-profit entities where nearly all federal prisoners go before they are permitted to go home near the formal end of their sentences. The move, which has gone largely unnoticed, means several things in the near term: fewer federal prisoners will get access to classes and programs to help them reintegrate into society, prison sentences effectively will be longer, and federal prisons will remain grossly overcrowded. An even more important point is that the Obama administration's efforts to reform the criminal justice system are now dead under Donald Trump.
The move comes in the wake of Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions III's insistence that mandatory minimum sentences be lengthened and his appointment of Army General Mark Inch, the former head of U.S. military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the notorious Abu Ghraib, as the new director of the BOP.
Most Americans really don't have a clear idea of what a halfway house is. I'll give you a personal example. When I was released from prison in early 2015, I was assigned to report to the Hope Village halfway house in Washington, DC. Hope Village is notorious for its well-documented failures. Many of us called it "Hopeless Village" or "Abandon All Hope Village." But the truth is that, even with its problems, it taught many soon-to-be-released prisoners valuable skills as they sought to reenter society, including how to write a resume, how to balance a checkbook, and how to get through a job interview. There were classes on parenting, suicide prevention, and domestic violence prevention. I didn't need any those classes, but many prisoners do.
Even more crucially, all federal prisoners are eligible to spend between one and 12 months in a halfway house. Those who need more of a helping hand to become productive citizens get more time. (I got one day. Thanks a lot.) All prisoners must finish a dozen "life skills" classes, get a job, and undergo drug testing. Once they prove to their case managers that they can keep a job and follow the rules, they are sent home to be with their family, and the remainder of their sentence is converted to home confinement, with provisions to leave home to go to work, to the doctor, and to "family events" on the weekends.
The Justice Department claims that the halfway house closures will affect only underutilized facilities in small towns. That's nonsense. The BOP already has closed the only halfway houses in cities like Dayton, Ohio, and Columbia, Missouri, cities where the venues were full of recently released prisoners.
Protestations that halfway houses are too much of a drain on the federal budget are also patently false. As I mentioned, halfway houses are for-profit entities. Again, let's look at Hope Village as an example. Even though I never spent a single night there, I had to "rent" a bed. My rent was 25 percent of my gross pay, and I had to pay it every Friday. Hope Village makes a profit by renting the bed out to four, five, or even 10 men at the same time, all but one of whom are already home. It also uses the money to fund the re-entry programs I mentioned above. There is no aid coming from the Justice Department. So closing halfway houses doesn't save the American taxpayer a single dollar. It's just a way to keep more people locked up for longer periods of time.
If Sessions were serious about saving taxpayer money, he would instead close the BOP's minimum-security work camps. The camps are sometimes called "Club Fed," although I can attest that there is nothing about prison at any level that resembles a country club. With that said, camp prisoners are classified by the Justice Department as "out custody" prisoners. That means that they are free to come and go as they please so long as they do not abscond, there are no bars on the windows, the facility doors remain unlocked, and most prisoners work in town or for private contractors. If you get sick, it's no problem. Another prisoner will drive you to the doctor's office, drop you off, and pick you up when you're done. It's the honor system. Most of the prisoners there are crooked lawyers, bankers, and politicians, or drug offenders who have worked their way down from higher-custody prisons through good behavior.
My question, then, is that if your crime is so minor and you are at such a low risk of running away or of committing another crime, why are you in prison in the first place? Minimum-security camps should be closed immediately and all of the prisoners there should be sent either to halfway houses or to home confinement. It would save the government millions of dollars annually, it would reunite families, and it would put prisoners back to work when they otherwise would be drains on the federal system.
This isn't a very complicated issue. There's a clear-cut right way and a clear-cut wrong way to reform the system. Unfortunately, Jeff Sessions is wrong. He's clearly and obviously wrong. His wrongness is more than just stubbornness or ideology. His wrongness is breaking up families and contributing mightily to criminal recidivism. If somebody is getting out of prison, which nearly every federal prisoner eventually will, and he has no education, no job training, and no life skills, he's going to do the only thing he knows how to do. He's going to commit crimes again. The next time it'll be on Jeff Sessions.
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