The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 24, 2015

Ideas for justice reform from behind prison walls

September 24, 2015

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This weekend, HBO will premiere Fixing the System, a VICE documentary on prison reform featuring President Obama's visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma. As part of the visit, the president sat down and spoke with a group of incarcerated men. 

Over 200,000 individuals are currently incarcerated in our federal prison system. While Congress, advocates, and policymakers think about ways to reform the federal justice system, they should consider the ideas and experiences of the people most affected by sentencing and corrections policy—the people incarcerated themselves.

The bloated federal prison system won’t go away on its own

The federal prison population has grown by over 700 percent since 1980. While recent reductions in the federal prison population have given some policymakers hope, the reality is that the federal prison system remains seriously overcrowded, undermining the safety of those who live and work in the prisons and limiting program offerings designed to reduce recidivism.

This increase in the federal prison population didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen on its own. Much of it can be attributed to legislative and policy changes in the past few decades that sent more people to prison instead of probation—and for longer periods of time. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his recent work chronicling mass incarceration and its effects on black communities, bipartisan reforms in the 1980s led to longer sentences and more stringent requirements for the amount of time an individual had to serve before being eligible for release. Many of those currently incarcerated in federal prison are there as the result of these policies.

Listening to those most affected

Earlier this month, the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, a congressionally mandated blue-ribbon panel tasked with finding solutions to the challenges facing the federal corrections system, visited Atlanta to learn about the successful criminal justice reforms the state of Georgia has implemented. While they were there, Task Force members visited USP Atlanta, a medium security penitentiary, minimum security camp, and segregated housing detention center.

Task Force members toured the facilities, learned about program offerings, and talked to corrections officers and prison officials. They also sat down with men incarcerated at the facilities to learn about their experiences and their ideas for reform.

These men sincerely wanted to be productive while in prison, and to return to their communities with the skills needed to rebuild their lives. While inside, they asked for facilities and care that keep them healthy and safe, and the chance to be recognized and rewarded for good behavior. They wanted the ability to maintain the sort of strong connections to their families and communities that are proven to reduce recidivism. They expressed strong desires to learn trades that would help them find jobs when they return home, giving them a true second chance when they exit prison and return to society.

The need to provide hope

While these incarcerated men represent only a small portion of the opinions and experiences held by people currently housed in the federal prison system, their ideas were consistent with many of the thoughts shared by advocates and formerly incarcerated people during public testimony and roundtable discussions with the Task Force. Task Force members left USP Atlanta with a better understanding of the concerns of those directly affected by the stringent sentencing and corrections policies of the 1980s and 1990s, and strategies for reforming some of those policies while maintaining public safety.

The bipartisan climate for criminal justice reform brings hope to advocates and policymakers seeking to fix the federal justice system and improve public safety. However, unless these bipartisan efforts transform into policy that will affect the lives of those incarcerated in federal prison, we will continue to suffer the costs—both human and financial—of an overcrowded and under-resourced system.

The United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, G.A. on June 30, 1910. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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