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To fix our prison system, we need far more than a change in leadership

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When news broke recently that some workers in the federal prison system are committing serious crimes, a senior U.S. senator was quick with his response: Fire the guy in charge.

Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) demand for the removal of U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Michael Carvajal is not surprising — but it masks the much larger problems that plague our nation’s correctional system.

U.S. prisons are in crisis, riddled with deep and systemic ills that won’t be cured by simply replacing the BOP chief. In fact, we’ve already tried that. Carvajal, appointed last year, became the sixth director or acting director in just five years. 

The reality is that one person can only do so much. I should know. I was one of those six.

The news that sparked Durbin’s ire was an Associated Press report revealing that numerous federal prison workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019. Sadly, corruption and other malfeasance within prison systems are not uncommon. But as Durbin rightly noted, “it’s clear that there is much going wrong in our federal prisons, and we urgently need to fix it.”

Approximately 1.8 million people are incarcerated across the U.S. The BOP population accounts for just 156,000 of that total, having decreased from its peak of 220,000 in 2013. Despite recent declines, these numbers continue to strain staff, infrastructure, healthcare, drug treatment and other services for those inside. We also continue to over-incarcerate people with mental health disorders, and troubling racial disparities in the system persist.

How do we move forward? We must rethink our overall approach to incarceration to ensure that only the right people — those who need to be separated from society or require intensive reentry programming — are confined for the appropriate amount of time. 

Common-sense sentencing reforms are a good place to start. These include mandating a greater reliance on drug courts, community service and other alternatives to prison, such as halfway houses. It also means eliminating mandatory minimum penalties for drug crimes, which, among other problems, result in long sentences that drive prison populations up.

On the back end of the system, we need more intensive reentry programs to ensure that the more than 650,000 people leaving prison annually find the jobs, housing and healthcare they need to lead stable lives — and remain crime-free. Congress started this effort with bipartisan passage of the First Step Act of 2018 (co-sponsored by Durbin), but BOP needs sufficient resources to fully implement this law.

We also must invest in the recruitment, retention and training of correctional officers, while paying them on par with what other law enforcement officers earn. While the conduct spotlighted in recent news reports was reprehensible, it does not reflect the majority of BOP officers who put their lives on the line every day, and suffer disproportionately high rates of PTSD and suicide. They deserve to lead healthy lives, and their mental health has a direct impact on the orderly functioning of our prisons. It must be our concern.

Beyond such measures, Congress must tackle what should be the easiest, but may be the most divisive, piece of the debate: closing some of America’s oldest and costliest federal prisons. Shuttering these aging lock-ups, some of which are more than a century old, would allow the BOP to reallocate staff and resources to the remaining facilities, improving safety and security while strengthening programs and services.

Closing prisons may be a hard sell to some, particularly to those in Congress. But it has been done recently, at least at the state level. South Carolina, for example, has closed six correctional centers in the past decade, as its prison population declined following bipartisan passage of sentencing and corrections reforms in 2010.

One step the Attorney General and Congress should quickly consider is a recommendation from the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Federal Priorities, which called for creation of an independent oversight board for BOP. This would bring outside expertise to bear on the agency’s multiple challenges while retaining the career leadership that historically has served the agency well. The board would also provide political cover for harder choices that agency leaders and elected officials are sometimes reluctant or unable to make.

While the recent news about the BOP is disturbing, I hope it serves as a reminder of the need to rebuild our criminal justice system so that it is smaller, less punitive, more humane and safer for all. With political will, independent oversight and an unwavering commitment, we can make holistic change to a system long in need of it.

Hugh Hurwitz held multiple positions in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, including Acting Director and Assistant Director for Reentry Services. Currently, he provides consulting services in prison management, reentry and reform, organizational change, and other areas. He is a member of the Council on Criminal Justice.

Tags Criminal justice reform in the United States Dick Durbin Federal Bureau of Prisons Federal prison FIRST STEP Act Incarceration in the United States Penology Prison reform

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