Prison Stories

The Recidivism Trap

The Recidivism Trap by Jeremy Fontanez

The United States incarcerates more of it’s citizens than any other nation. With only 5% of the world’s population, our country houses 25% of the world’s prison population. In 1992, our federal prisons housed less than 93,000 prisoners, but today there are more than 197,000 prisoners in the federal system. Nationwide, state and federal, our prisons hold more than 2.2 million people. With so much money being funneled into the prison system, it is no wonder why our schools in this country are grossly under funded, or even closing down. The budget for the Bureau of Prisons for fiscal year 2016 was a bloated $7.5 billion dollars.

After years of work by advocacy groups, Congress has finally gotten the message that we can no longer maintain the status quo of our current federal prison system. Congress unveiled the S.A.F.E. Justice Act in 2015 and that bill was quickly and quietly rejected. Shortly thereafter, the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S.2123) was announced.

CrimestopperslogoS.2123 is intended to alleviate the serious overcrowding problem within our federal prisons. Through “sweeping” sentencing reforms, the major portion of the bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, amend mandatory minimum sentences for firearm offenses, and make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive for those defendants who were sentenced under a statutory drug sentence rather than under the Guidelines calculation.

Dissenters of the reform bill caution that retroactive application of major provisions of the bill would “jeopardize public safety”. Because the heart of the bill focuses on lowering sentences for certain drug offenses, former officials such as John Ashcroft who opposed the bill warn that “violent criminals will be released,” and recidivism rates will be high for those drug offenders who receive a reduction in their current sentences.

On December 10, 2015, former officials such as John Ashcroft, William Barr, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and many others, wrote a letter to Majority Leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid expressing concerns about the S.2123 reforms. In their letter, they stated that they know “firsthand the value of tough mandatory minimum sentences.” They expressed their view that, “Our system of justice is not broken,” and now is not the “time for Congress to disrupt a sentencing regime that strikes…” in their view “the right balance between all interests and has contributed to significant gains in reducing crime.”

In 2007, the United States Sentencing Commission reduced then existing sentences by amending the Sentencing Guidelines for crack cocaine. Over 24,000 offenders were affected by that amendment. According to Ashcroft and his supporters, those drug offenders who had their sentences reduced by the retroactive application of the law in 2007, the recidivism rate was 43.3%. For those drug offenders who served their full sentence before the 2007 amendment, the recidivism rate was 47.8%.

Now, the Sentencing Commission has again amended the Guidelines. In 2014, the Sentencing Commission amended the Guidelines for all drug offenses, and lowered the base offense level by 2 points for drug quantity. The retroactive application will cause the release of approximately 46,000 prisoners in the coming years. Over 14,000 prisoners will be granted early release in the next year.

These numbers have fueled the flames of dissent, and the “bipartisan” Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is now under fire by “partisan” debates. The push for sentencing reform has prompted coverage by the mainstream media. Everyone has their opinions, from the supporters to the dissenters.

Despite the concerns and different opinions, most people do agree that reforming our sentencing practices is a step in the right direction in overhauling a system that’s become nothing more that a human warehousing program. But there is an equally pressing issue that seems to be getting lost in all the advocacy discussions and opposition rhetoric.

What is happening with education and release preparation within our nation’s penitentiaries?

Inside our federal penitentiaries prisoners are packed tight in overcrowded conditions and restricted movements. In most penitentiaries, prisoners will spend the better part of 70% of the day on housing units with little or no opportunity for advanced education, job training or efforts to prepare for their eventual release.

At any one time, there is an average of 2000 prisoners in one institution. Penitentiary compounds are split into two sub-compounds to minimize interactions between prisoners on either side thus maximizing security measures.  In the past, the prisoners could spend an entire day in the Education Department or on a job assignment. Now, with compounds divided, prisoners are lucky if they get an hour and a half each day in education or on the job.

The overcrowding within the penitentiaries encourages correctional officers to focus more on “security,” and any notion of education gets lost in the fray. Such lack of educational programming or job training tends to be the leading cause for most prisoners who recidivate. Yet, no one is publicly having this discussion.

In November of 2015, 6,000 drug offenders were released due to the retroactive application of the recent amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines. That’s great! But how many of them were truly ready to face the challenges awaiting them in the “free world.”

Many prisoners have spent years in highly restrictive environments where they haven’t been given any opportunity to learn a new way of life. Suddenly, the laws change, and they are rushed out the door. Quickly drafted release plans and over populated Community Corrections Centers (half-way houses) with limited resources cannot compensate for the broken educational system within the penitentiaries.

Many prisoners will make a valiant attempt at reintegrating back into society. But without proper job training, educational pursuits, mental and emotional re-conditioning, and proper preparation, they’ll be ill equipped to face the harsh world outside. This is the “Recidivism Trap.”

Positive changes in the law are implemented, prisoners are cut loose to face the world alone, without any preparation and once released, they’re unable to cope with the riggers of life and responsibility because they’re not prepared. Circumstances of this nature are a recipe for failure, and give credence to the arguments of those who speak out against prison reform.

S.2123 does not just propose “Sentencing Reform.” The full title of the bill is, “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act”. The bill highlights the need for education and job skills training. If you log-on to the website of any federal penitentiary, you’ll find a “portfolio” of programming and training the institution claims to offer. However, most penitentiaries are advertising falsely.

They do not provide substantial education opportunities, and they certainly don’t provide job readiness training. Despite what an institution’s “portfolio” may claim, vocational training and apprenticeship programs are also unavailable. But aside from the overcrowding, there is another contributor to the education problem.

There is no oversight system in place holding prison officials accountable for failing to provide the much needed job training within the institutions. The internal B.O.P. oversight system that’s in place, Annual Program Review, is wholly ineffectual. The system is inundated with the “We look out for our own” culture amongst B.O.P officials. So, if there are serious lapses in the effectiveness of the Education Department, there are no real consequences. This renders the entire review process useless.

If the B.O.P. averaged $7 billion dollars in annual budgets over the past several years, and there are no real programs for job training or apprenticeship programs, then where is all that money being diverted? The public must be made aware that, although prison officials claim they are providing prisoners with education and job training, the harsh truth is, they’re not.

Thousands of prisoners are released each year. So when officials like John Ashcroft condemn S.2123 because the release of so many prisoners will threaten “public safety,” we must ask when prisoners have had no exposure to the education or job training needed to help change their attitude and perception of life, how much safer will the public really be?

Most penitentiaries are overcrowded and understaffed. They do not provide substantial education opportunities, job readiness training, vocational or apprenticeship training programs. What is offered is shallow, and without substance. The importance of having more substantial education within our penitentiaries must come to the forefront of our public discussions in regards to reforms.

The public must hold institutions accountable for their failure to help rehabilitate prisoners and make our communities safer. Sentencing Reform without education, job readiness training, and a more effective release preparation process amounts to  nothing more than the “Recidivism Trap.”

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1 Comment

  • Britany27 says:

    This is shocking. After reading the University of Solitude I thought that Iran was the country that can arrest you for any (or no) reason. Now I see it’s actually the US … and the reason isn’t just recidivism.

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