On Wednesday, December, 13, 2017, the House Oversight Committee held a 2.5 hr long federal prison oversight hearing. Many prisoners and their family members had hoped this hearing would hold the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accountable for its recent decision to reduce or cancel federal halfway house placements for many prisoners. But the hearing, in the end, was filled with nothing but soundbites and "soft" questions for the new Director of the BOP, Mark Inch.
The House Oversight Committee's website states the purpose of the federal prison oversight hearing was:
- To examine Bureau of Prisons policies related to BOP’s Release Preparation Program and use of Residential Reentry Centers, including reviews made by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (DOJ OIG) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
- To discuss policy related to “The Fair Chance Act.”
However, very little of the discussion between members of Congress and the witnesses addressed the immediate re-entry problems prisoners are facing.
Director Inch was asked by several members of the Committee about BOP's decision to cut back halfway house placements. In response, Director Inch told the Committee that the agency is "absolutely not" cutting back on its commitment to re-entry. Director Inch said that BOP did not actually close any halfway houses, but rather chose not to renew contracts with 16 halfway houses that were being underutilized. Further, per Inch, the halfway houses that closed represented only one percent of the BOP's re-entry bed space.
Inch characterized the BOP's decision to end these contracts as an effort to deal with "efficiencies of the system." According to Inch, many halfway houses have been operating over capacity and the change in policy brings the BOP's other halfway houses back in line with contract requirements.
Congresswoman Norton asked Inch why the BOP charges inmates 25 percent of their pay while in a halfway house. In response, Inch said the purpose of the fee is to teach inmates "real life budgeting." In other words, by requiring inmates to pay 25 percent of their pay, inmates will learn how to prepare for their housing and food expenses upon release.
Congresswoman Norton did not seem very happy with Inch's answer, suggesting instead that the 25 percent was better allocated to the family and children of releasing prisoners.
Director Inch confirmed that some BOP institutions are understaffed to the point of potentially jeopardizing the safety of staff and inmates. But he made a commitment during the hearing to address staffing levels in the coming months.
The Inspector General of the DOJ, Michael Horowitz, also testified at the federal prison oversight hearing. Mr. Horowitz indicated that BOP is underutilizing home confinement for white collar offenders. In fact, Horowitz said that some white collar offenders are actually harmed by being placed in a halfway house because they are exposed there to more hardened offenders. Horowitz stated that halfway houses should only be utilized for offenders who really need them.
Other witnesses were asked about the Fair Chance Act, which is a federal "ban the box" initiative. Ban the box is a term used to describe legislative efforts that prohibit employers from asking job applicants if they have been convicted of a crime or arrested.
Strangely, Ms. Jennifer Doleac, a professor at the University of Virginia, testified that statistical evidence demonstrates a decline in ex-offender employment in states where "ban the box" has been adopted.
Other witnesses challenged Ms. Doleac on this point, but only with anecdotal comments.
The members of the Committee expressed a strong bipartisan commitment to adopting reforms to address federal prisoner re-entry. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Chair of the Oversight Committee said, "paying your debt to society pays the debt. We are a nation of second chances. We love redemption stories. It would be nice if our criminal justice system produced more of them."
Testimony from Director Inch and other key witnesses at the hearing can be found below.