In an attempt to reduce overcrowding in federal prisons and compensate for recently reduced sentences for drug offenses, the government is preparing for the largest one-time release of federal prisoners in history.
Stories about the release of nearly 6,000 prisoners began circulating after The Washington Post published a story ahead of the staggered release set for Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, but the news of the early releases is nothing new.
In fact, they were approved by both the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Congress over a year ago — the result of a two-point reduction in federal sentencing guidelines applied to drug sentences after Nov. 1, 2014.
A retroactive application, also approved last year, meant that two-point reduction in sentence would be applied to 46,000 offenders in the prison system, an estimated 6,000 of whom are now scheduled to be released over the next month.
On average, the reduction equates to about two years off a prisoner’s original sentence, but according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), it may be more in some cases.
The 6,000 figure is only an estimate, and a spokesperson with the BOP said slightly more than 5,700 prisoners had been approved for early release as of press deadline, but they also said that number will continue to increase as the release dates get closer.
More than 1,000 of those scheduled for release include non-U.S. citizens who will be released into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and most likely deported to their country of citizenship.
The U.S citizens, about 4,131 of them so far, will be returned to their home states, including 107 to Alabama. The vast majority of those, according to the BOP, are from the Southern District encompassing Mobile and several surrounding counties. Edmond Ross, a spokesperson with the BOP, said the process is applied on a case-by-case basis and prisoners are only granted early release if they meet certain criteria. Prisoners are also required to petition their sentencing with the court so their case is reviewed by the judge who presided at trial and imposed their sentence.
“The decision to grant this deal of a two-point reduction is based on a number of factors, including public safety,” Ross told Lagniappe. “If the judge determines this individual has met the criteria, only they can adjust the sentence.”
When a prisoner petitions the court for early release under the new sentencing guidelines, the judge also reviews an offender’s criminal history to determine their eligibility. Whether they are a “career offender” is another factor the court has to weigh.
However, Lagniappe’s attempts to find out exactly which 107 convicted drug offenders will be benefiting from the reduced sentencing guidelines this year have been unsuccessful. Ross said the BOP could not release that information other than to give a total number of prisoners broken down by state.
He added that the U.S. attorney’s offices in each court district are involved in the review process, but neither the U.S. Southern District Court of Alabama nor U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown could comment on the specifics of the program or give an exact figure of the number of prisoners being released in the Mobile area.
However, Ross said the majority of those released early are likely already out of prison and into some type of institutionalized transition program. He said halfway houses typically are used for these transitions, and the amount of time spent in these facilities can vary from prisoner to prisoner.
“Some need more time because they don’t have an established family structure, but if they have a job and a stable home and those kinds of things, they will probably need less time in a halfway house,” Ross said.
According to Ross, a prisoner’s path to rehabilitation begins the moment they enter a federal prison. He said the BOP begins preparing inmates for release the first day they arrive by working to cultivate job and basic life skills.
“They all are required to work as long as they’re medically cleared, because we see working a job as a training program, but also as a reentry program,” Ross said. “Many don’t have an established work ethic. So, we require them to get up and go to work everyday. They have to be accountable.” Ross said prisoners’ tasks include a number of things that can be transferred to real-world skills including landscaping, food service training, HVAC repair and maintenance, electrical wiring and others. He also said the labor saved by the prison system is an added savings for taxpayers.
“We don’t want to waste resources if they’re not going to be productive,” Ross said. “We want them to develop these skills and be productive citizens when they are released. We don’t want them to come back, because we don’t need the business.”
The effort to rehabilitate doesn’t end once a prisoner leaves the confines of a cell, either. Many are put on supervised release, also known as parole. Others are also extended the chance to participate in voluntary reentry programs like Project H.O.P.E. (Helping Offenders Pursue Excellence) – one that’s been touted by Brown.
Specifically, Project H.O.P.E. helps ex-convicts address their housing, educational and employment needs immediately after incarceration. In a statement to Lagniappe, Brown said the programs would be available to the prisoners currently scheduled for early release within the next month, as they are to others who served full sentences.
Still, the largest one-time release in history only results in a 13 percent increase to the average number of prisoners released in any given year.
“On average we release 45,000 every year and have [for] many, many years,” Ross said. “So there’s always large number of inmates, but we have always stressed to [Congress] and to any of our stakeholders, that the vast majority of individuals in prisons are being released. It may be tomorrow or next year, but they’re going to be released.”