Time for Congress to get tough on prison reform
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A new report by the U.S. Justice Department’s Inspector General (IG) found that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does a poor job of identifying and helping mentally ill prisoners.

The IG also noted that the number of prisoners receiving mental health treatment since 2014 has decreased roughly 30 percent due to a lack of staffing and resources.

Most troubling, the IG found that the BOP throws some mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement for years.

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Given that nearly all of these mentally ill prisoners will be released someday, how are these BOP practices making the public safer? They aren’t, of course, and that is one of the many reasons Congress must immediately step up its oversight of the BOP.

 

The IG’s report is no surprise to anyone concerned with reforming the federal criminal justice system. The paucity of meaningful programs to help prisoners leave prison better than when they arrived is no great secret.

In May, FAMM published a report containing the results of a first-of-its-kind survey of federal prisoners. The survey asked prisoners what substance abuse and mental and behavioral health treatment were available in the facilities in which they were serving, as well as educational and vocational training programs. We found:

  • Two-thirds of respondents said they entered prison with a drug or alcohol addiction. Current program rules deny some prisoners from benefiting from the federal residential drug treatment program.
  • More than two-thirds of prisoners said they had not received mental or behavioral health treatment in prison.
  • Most prisoners are housed too far away from their families to maintain connections. Family connections have been proven to reduce recidivism and improve mental health, yet many prisoners are housed more than 500 miles away from home. Some prisoners reported that they had not seen their children in years.
  • Access to quality education is scarce. Most classes lack rigor and substance and are taught by other prisoners. Attaining a college degree is difficult, if not impossible, for most prisoners. Most cannot afford higher education courses, but even those who can are stymied because federal prisons deny them computer access.

Our survey results show that the BOP does not provide the kind of programming and treatment that are crucial to reducing recidivism and thereby reducing crime.

Improving those offerings will be even more difficult if recently proposed budget cuts at the Justice Department are implemented.

In FY 2018, Attorney General Sessions has proposed reducing the number of corrections officers by 9 percent and reduce other BOP staff by 14 percent. These cutbacks would take effect at a time when Justice Department officials are expecting an increase in the number of federal prisoners.

Filling the prisons while cutting the number of guards and staff creates "a scary situation," according to the president of the prison employees’ union, and undermines Attorney General Sessions’ oft-expressed commitment to increasing public safety. Moreover, eliminating so many staff positions could make it impossible to correct the problems the IG identified in the BOP’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners. These staff cuts also would make it impossible to expand educational and vocational training programs, as FAMM recommended in its report.

Ninety-four percent of federal prisoners are coming home one day. If they leave smarter, sober, and job-ready, they will be much more likely to thrive — and our country will be safer and more prosperous. But, as the IG’s new report and FAMM’s survey show, the quality of programming, education, and mental health treatment that inmates are receiving now is not getting us any closer to that goal.

Congress can and must be part of the solution. More vigorous oversight of the BOP could help to ensure that every prisoner who seeks to better himself and reduce his likelihood of reoffending gets that chance.

Just last month, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard testimony about programs designed to help prisoners successfully reenter society. The hearing was an encouraging step in the right direction. Those of us concerned about public safety hope it’s the first of many.

Kevin Ring is the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and editor of Scalia’s Court: A Legacy of Landmark Opinions and Dissents (Regnery).


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.