Is Biden overlooking Bureau of Prisons as reform target?

Jul 28, 2021, 9:35 AM | Updated: Jul 29, 2021, 2:35 pm
FILE - In this July 6, 2020, file photo a sign for the Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Pris...

FILE - In this July 6, 2020, file photo a sign for the Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons is displayed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York. While most criminal justice overhauls require action from local officials or legislation, reforming the federal prison system is something President Joe Biden and his Justice Department control. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden took quick action after his inauguration to start shifting federal inmates out of privately run prisons, where complaints of abuses abound.

“It is just the beginning of my administration’s plan to address systemic problems in our criminal justice system,” Biden promised in January as he signed an executive order on the matter.

The administration also is expected to encourage reductions in bulging state and local prison populations by allowing the use coronavirus relief dollars to help reduce overcrowding.

But in both of these efforts, Biden is overlooking a prime — and, in some ways, easier — target for improving the conditions of incarcerated people: the federal Bureau of Prisons.

While most criminal justice overhauls require action from local officials or legislation, reforming the federal prison system is something Biden and his Justice Department control. And there are crying needs there for improvement.

Even before the coronavirus, federal prisons were plagued by violence, suicide, escapes, understaffing and health concerns. The pandemic made things worse. And now these facilities are set to absorb even more prisoners from private institutions that are no longer in business with the government.

Advocates say that while the Democratic president has talked a good game, his actions tell a different story, particularly because the Justice Department has refused to reverse a legal opinion requiring inmates released during the pandemic to return to prison.

“There isn’t an appetite in the administration to act,” said Inimai Chettiar of the Justice Action Network.

The administration has prioritized infrastructure as its top legislative target and is intently focused on working to contain rising coronavirus cases. Other issues — like prisons — have prompted impassioned speeches but less action. Administration officials say it’s just been six months, a half-year colored by the virus, and much more is in store.

But a key part of Biden’s agenda is combating racism, and nowhere is racial equity a more fraught issue than inside prisons — institutions that first proliferated in the 1800s as a way to lock away Black men for minor offenses after the abolition of slavery and that are still disproportionately filled with Black people.

In his January speech on racial equity in which he issued the prisons order, Biden said it was a step “to stop corporations from profiteering off of incarcerating — incarceration that is less humane and less safe, as the studies show.”

Meanwhile, the number of federal prisoners is rising. Defendants end up in federal prison usually because their crime crossed state lines, or they violated a specific federal law. There are about 156,000 federal inmates. In total, 38% are Black and 57% are white, 1.5% Asian and 2.4% Native American.

Most are serving sentences between 5 and 20 years, and 46% of those sentences are for drug offenses. Another 20% are for weapons, explosives or arson charges.

The administration can’t control the laws that get someone sent to prison. But it can control staffing, transparency, health care, the use of solitary confinement and, most of all, agency leadership.

The head of the Bureau of Prisons is a Trump holdover, Michael Carvajal, who has been in charge as the coronavirus raged behind bars, infecting more than 43,000 federal inmates. He also oversaw an unprecedented run of federal executions in the last six months of Donald Trump’s presidency that was a likely virus super spreader.

Administration officials have been mulling whether to replace him, but no decision has been made, according to officials who spoke to The Associated Press.

One question they should be asking, according to Andrea Armstrong, a Loyola Law School professor who studies prisons, is whether the director’s role is to do more than keep operations running smoothly.

“Real leadership,” she says, “would be convening people incarcerated, wardens and programming staff together to say, OK, we have an enormous problem … how do we address this?”

Armstrong and other advocates do not diminish what has been done already in six months, including the private prisons order and a moratorium by the Justice Department that halted federal executions.

It’s just they had higher hopes for action, including a more definitive end to executions, especially because Biden is the first president to openly oppose the death penalty. And they hoped he would push harder to make sure the Justice Department was implementing changes enacted under former President Donald Trump.

The “First Step Act,” approved in 2018, gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders, eases mandatory minimum sentences and encourages inmates to participate in programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism, with credits that can be used to gain an earlier release.

But those programs can’t be completed right now, because there are not enough workers to facilitate them. Nearly one-third of federal correctional officer jobs in the United States are vacant, forcing prisons to use cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates.

“There need to be enough people working in a prison to keep people housed in a prison safe. And they must be able to get access to the programs that should allow their release,” said Maria Morris of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Under Trump, the Bureau of Prisons wasn’t granting the early-release credits that inmates were due. In addition, the absence of a uniform policy on masks and hygiene led to massive coronavirus outbreaks.

More than 28,000 inmates were released as part of an effort to ease pandemic conditions as long as they met certain criteria, including they were not likely a danger to others. But about 1,900 of the more than 7,000 people who remain on home confinement – the others completed their sentences – likely have to go back, and advocates question why it is necessary to send them back, particularly as the highly transmissible delta variant surges.

A legal opinion issued in the waning weeks of the Trump administration said the remaining inmates would have to return to prison at the end of the coronavirus emergency, and the Biden administration appears on track to stand behind that legal interpretation.

That approach is frustrating civil rights groups and advocates who say Biden is ignoring opportunities for real reform.

“If the president is really trying to walk back from his ’94 crime bill and be supportive of criminal justice reform, it would just be completely in conflict to allow these individuals to return to prison,” Chettiar said, referring to Biden’s support as a senator of a bill that was aimed at reducing crime and wound up sending thousands more to prison.

Advocates for the incarcerated are puzzled by the president’s reluctance to step in on matters that could be addressed with the stroke of a pen or internal changes.

“It is clear it is their willingness and not their inability,” Chettiar said.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Gov. Bill Lee speaks to local media at the front of McConnell Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. ...
Associated Press

Third judge blocks Gov. Lee’s mask opt out in schools

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A third federal judge has blocked Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s order allowing families to opt out of school mask mandates. The decision, handed down by U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw late Friday, is the latest development in the ongoing legal battle over Lee’s order launched by parents and advocates alarmed over […]
1 day ago
Vehicle debris are mixed with torn road sections of Mississippi Highway 26, in the Crossroads commu...
Associated Press

Mississippi gets ready to repair highway collapse from Ida

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi will soon start rebuilding a section of highway that collapsed during torrential rainfall brought by Hurricane Ida, the head of the state Department of Transportation says. Two people were killed and nine were injured Aug. 30 as seven vehicles plunged, one after another, into a deep pit that opened up […]
1 day ago
FILE - In this May 6, 2021 file photo, Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election ar...
Associated Press

EXPLAINER: As Arizona election ‘audit’ ends, new ones begin

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The most closely watched attempt by Republicans to examine the 2020 presidential election in a battleground state lost by former President Donald Trump is coming to an embarrassing end in Arizona, but their efforts are cranking up elsewhere. The most recent is in Republican-controlled Texas, where the secretary of state’s office […]
1 day ago
DUNMORE, Pa. (AP) — Four teenagers have been charged with a plot to attack a Pennsylvania hig...
Associated Press

4 accused of plotting school attack on Columbine anniversary

DUNMORE, Pa. (AP) — Four teenagers have been charged with a plot to attack a Pennsylvania high school in 2024, on the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School, authorities said. A 15-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy are charged as adults and two other teenagers face juvenile charges in the plan to […]
1 day ago
FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 response an...
Associated Press

Biden risks losing support from Democrats amid DC gridlock

NEW YORK (AP) — President Joe Biden is losing support among critical groups in his political base as some of his core campaign promises falter, raising concerns among Democrats that the voters who put him in office may feel less enthusiastic about returning to the polls in next year’s midterm elections. In just the past […]
1 day ago
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at Uni...
Associated Press

India’s Modi targets neighbors at UN, but not by name

NEW YORK (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t directly mention Pakistan or China in his Saturday speech to the United Nations General Assembly, but the targets of his address were clear. He called upon the international community to help the women, children and minorities of Afghanistan and said that it was imperative the […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

IQ Air

How Poor Air Quality Is Affecting Our Future Athletes

You cannot control your child’s breathing environment 100% of the time, but you can make a huge impact.
Swedish Health Services

Special Coverage: National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

There are a wide variety of treatment options available for men with prostate cancer. The most technologically advanced treatment option in the Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform.
Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for both lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.
Courtesy of JWatch Photography....
Experience Anacortes

Summer Fun Activities in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
By Alaska Airlines

Calling all football fans: follow Russell on the road

Take your Northwest spirit that we’re known for on the road this season with Alaska Airlines.
By Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.
Is Biden overlooking Bureau of Prisons as reform target?