Washington, DC, should follow Washington State's lead on prisons

Washington, DC, should follow Washington State's lead on prisons
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Recently, a prison administrator in Washington State suspended a woman’s visiting privileges indefinitely. Her offense? Wearing hair extensions and showing her husband a new tattoo in the prison visiting room. Fortunately, cooler heads at the state’s new Office of Corrections Ombuds were able to convince the prison to lift the overly harsh suspension. The office’s annual report provides numerous similar examples of how its intervention led to corrective and commonsense action, as with the wife being allowed to once again visit her husband. 

Washington, D.C., should take a page out of Washington State’s book. Families with loved ones in federal prison have been seeking greater oversight of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for decades, and the Washington Ombuds office report shows why oversight matters. People in federal prison and their families have many of the same legitimate complaints about how federal prisons are administered as the families in Washington State do, including concerns about safety, disciplinary rules and visitation.

The top two complaints the Washington Ombuds office received involved medical care and the misclassification of prisoners as a higher security risk than they should have been. These problems are rampant in the federal system, too. Everyone who’s been to federal prison or has a loved one there has heard horror stories about the lack of medical care. When I was in prison, for example, there was a two-year waiting list for a dentist to fill a tooth cavity. The prison would simply wait until the pain became so unbearable for people that they would ask to have their teeth pulled. There was no wait for that.

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For others, the lack of care is a matter of life and death: cancer undiagnosed and untreated, failure to provide the correct medicine, and so forth. A couple of years ago, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that persistent staff shortages have made it impossible for the BOP to provide adequate medical care to thousands of people. Some prisons have staff vacancy rates of 40 percent or higher.

The BOP also has failed to classify people correctly, sometimes with tragic results. Rick Turner, a Virginia man convicted of selling methamphetamine while in possession of a gun, was a first-time offender who had never hurt anyone but himself, yet mandatory minimum sentencing laws forced his judge to impose a 40-year sentence. The BOP had the freedom to send him to a facility for nonviolent offenders but shipped him instead to a maximum-security prison, where he was threatened by white supremacist gangs until he tragically took his own life in despair. He didn’t survive a year in prison, and his family is still seeking answers from the BOP. 

The sad truth is that families rarely get answers from the BOP. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and our federal prisons are some of the darkest places in our society. Congress should change that. Congress should create an independent oversight body with the authority to make announced or unannounced visits to prisons and the power to investigate and report on all aspects of a facility’s operations, including medical care, use of force, conditions of confinement, staffing practices, programming and reentry planning. 

Prison oversight experts Michele Deitch and Michael B. Mushlin argue that external oversight can produce safer prisons for people serving time and employees alike, more effective rehabilitation programs, a healthier prison culture that supports positive outcomes, and taxpayer savings from fewer lawsuits and reduced recidivism.

Joanna Carns agrees, and she is proving it. Carns is the director of the Washington Ombuds office. She told me that independent prison oversight is a “win-win for everyone involved.” She said her office is able to “proactively resolve complaints, reduce litigation and associated costs, and recommend systemic reforms that may never have otherwise come to the surface due to bureaucracy or internal politics.” 

Washington State is making taxpayers and families who are impacted by incarceration aware of how its prisons and jails are being managed. Taxpayers and the families of the 177,000 people in BOP custody deserve the same transparency and accountability from federal prison officials. Congress should follow Washington State’s lead and create an independent oversight agency for federal prisons.

Kevin Ring is the president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more fair and effective justice system. He served as counsel to the Senate Judiciary’s Constitution, Federalism and Property Rights Subcommittee under former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and was executive director for the Republican Study Committee in the U.S. House. A former lobbyist, he served time in prison because of his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Follow him on Twitter @KevinARing.