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Bureau Of Prisons Changes In Works To Comply With First Step Act

By Walter Pavlo - Forbes

June 23, 2023

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has faced many challenges in implementing the 2018 law called the First Step Act. While the law allowed minimum and low-security prisoners an opportunity to earn credits toward reducing their sentences, there was also a provision to move prisoners closer to their post-incarceration homes. Now, BOP Director Colette Peters is taking decisive action to implement change to help comply with that provision.

Director Peters stated in a BOP internal memorandum to staff, “In support of the First Step Act, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has identified locations to undergo mission changes to better afford an opportunity for individuals in our custody to be housed within 500 miles of their release residence.” The BOP has 122 institutions across the country but still individuals, most all of whom will return to society, are scattered across those institutions. The purpose of moving people closer to their place of eventual release is to put them closer to a support network of family and friends who can visit them in prison in advance of release. That support network is often the key to successful reintegration into society and greatly reduces recidivism.

Visitation is important and the financial burden on families can be costly. Airfare, hotel and rental cars are a luxury for few prisoners whose families can afford them. Many in prison, 90% of whom are indigent and relied on court-appointed counsel in their criminal case, can hardly afford those types of travel costs and relationships are strained or non-existent over long periods of time. This is a particular problem for female prisoners since there were only 27 female prison facilities in the BOP. In Director Peters’ announcement, she stated that the mission of the satellite camp at FCI Estill will transition from male prisoners to females. FCI Estill camp, now renovated, was destroyed and the main facility was heavily damaged in April 2020 when an EF-4 tornado ripped through the campus.

FCI Estill, which has housed few prisoners since the damage in April 2020, has been used as a training site and housed minimum security prisoners in the higher security prison while repairs were made to the camp. That medium-security prison will now also be reclassified as a low as will FCI Oxford (Wisconsin) and FCI Memphis (Tennessee).

The BOP, under a directive from then-newly elected President Joe Biden, chose not to renew contracts for controversial private prisons. The unintended consequence of a move that had popular support with the public, was that it pushed those prisoners in private prisons into BOP low-security prisons across the country. The largest of the private prisons, Moshannon Valley, closed in March 2021 and over 1,800 low-security prisoners, many non-US citizens, needed to find a facility to complete their sentences. Prisoners were displaced all over the country and some incoming prisoners had to serve their time far from home where bed space was available. The reclassification of these prisons to low security, have the intended purpose of getting more people closer to home.

Memphis and Estill join USP Atlanta, one of the oldest prisons in the United States, who have shifted their mission to low security. There has not been a low-security prison built by the BOP in over 20 years.

Director Peters put out a statement saying, “As we move forward with our core public safety mission of preparing individuals for successful reentry into our communities, we will continue to make necessary changes to further our success in implementing the First Step Act.” This was just one more step in the right direction.