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How Jeff Sessions Is Undermining Trump’s Prison Reform Agenda

The president wants to send more prisoners to halfway houses. The Justice Department is doing exactly the opposite.

A man sleeps inside the dormitory at Fannie M. Lewis Community Corrections and Treatment Center, a halfway house for federal inmates, in Cleveland, Ohio.
A man sleeps inside the dormitory at Fannie M. Lewis Community Corrections and Treatment Center, a halfway house for federal inmates, in Cleveland, Ohio.

In federal penitentiaries across the nation, prisoners eagerly awaiting a transfer to halfway houses say they are being told that they will have to wait weeks or months longer than they had anticipated because there is a shortage of beds at the transitional group homes.

This story was produced in collaboration with Politico.

But that’s not true. According to inmates, halfway house staff and industry officials, scores of beds lie empty, with some estimates of at least 1,000 vacant spaces. They remain unused due to a series of decisions that have sharply reduced the number of prisoners sent to halfway houses. And home confinement, a federal arrangement similar to house arrest that allows prisoners to complete their sentences with minimal supervision, is being even more drastically curtailed.

The Bureau of Prisons says it is curbing overspending of past years and streamlining operations, but that doesn’t make sense. Putting inmates in halfway houses or on home confinement is much cheaper than imprisonment. The federal government spent almost $36,300 a year to imprison an inmate, $4,000 more compared with the cost to place a person in a halfway house in 2017, according to the Federal Register. It costs $4,392 a year to monitor someone on home confinement, according to a 2016 report by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Abandoning transitional supervision aligns with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ disputed opinion that reduced prison populations during the Obama administration are to blame for a small uptick in violent crime. As a senator from Alabama, Sessions led the charge two years ago against a bill to ease sentences, and as attorney general he has instructed prosecutors to be more aggressive in charging defendants.

But his draconian ideas are undermining his own boss’ stated preference for early release and rehabilitation programs. President Donald Trump has endorsed the First Step Act, which would let prisoners earn significant time to finish their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement if they complete certain rehabilitation programs. The bill is awaiting a Senate vote. Trump has said that he would “overrule” Sessions if the attorney general tried to stymie efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

The halfway house program in Cleveland is designed for offenders needing long-term rehabilitative programming of 90 days or longer.

The halfway house program in Cleveland is designed for offenders needing long-term rehabilitative programming of 90 days or longer.

“There has to be a reform because it’s very unfair right now,” Trump told Fox News. “It’s very unfair to African Americans, it’s very unfair to everybody. And it’s also very costly.”

But the DOJ has lobbied against the bill saying the bill would give prisoners “nearly unlimited opportunities” to move into halfway houses “at the expense of law-abiding citizens.” And now there is evidence the Bureau of Prisons, under Sessions’ direction, is actively discouraging the use of transitional supervision even under existing rules.

The Bureau of Prisons declined interviews and would not answer specific questions, but said in a statement that the “fiscal environment” prompted a thorough review of programs, which led to ways to “most effectively use our resources.” The agency said placements are based on each prisoner’s needs, the prison system’s ability to meet them, public safety “and the need for the BOP to manage the inmate population in a responsible manner.”

The White House did not respond to questions. Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who leads bipartisan efforts to reshape sentencing laws and prisoner rehabilitation, said the Justice Department had not explained to Congress the cutback in inmate transfers to transitional housing.

“Attorney General Sessions has reversed key prison reforms like reducing the use of restricted housing and private prisons and improving education opportunities and reentry services,” Durbin said in a statement. “It makes no sense to eliminate reforms that are proven to reduce recidivism and make our communities safer.”

Since the 1960s, halfway houses have provided federal prisoners a running start before release to find work, which has been shown to help people stay crime-free longer. A Pennsylvania state study found connections between higher rearrest rates and stints in halfway houses, while federal violations, violence and overdoses have contributed to poor public perception of the facilities. But prisoners and their advocates say moving into a transitional residence gives inmates an incentive to avoid trouble in prison and join rehabilitative programs.

Under the Obama administration, the number of federal prisoners in halfway houses and other transitional programs boomed. The federal government required the privately-run residences to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment, and the Department of Justice also increased access to ankle monitors so more prisoners could finish sentences in their own homes.

At the peak in 2015, more than 10,600 prisoners resided in federal halfway houses. The number of inmates in home confinement—4,600—was up more than a third from the year before. In all, one in 14 of the people under Bureau of Prisons supervision was living at home or in a halfway house.

Since then, the population in halfway houses has dropped by 28 percent to 7,670. Home confinement is in freefall, down 61 percent to a population of 1,822. The majority of that cut has come in just the past year. Now only one in 20 people under federal supervision is in transitional housing. While the overall prison population has also fallen in recent years, the number of federal prisoners monitored in communities has dropped more sharply.

Prison officials would not disclose the number of bed spaces the bureau has under contract in halfway houses. Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, who chairs the Committee on Criminal Law of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which helps write policies and guidelines for federal courts, said “we are also in the dark about those numbers.” He said the committee is working to establish better communication with the Bureau of Prisons. Federal judges, who can sentence defendants to halfway houses, need to know how much space is available.

Rough estimates based on the current population in halfway houses, internal memos, statements from prison officials and prison records put the number of vacant beds in the federal system anywhere from 1,000 to several times that number. Swaths of beds lie empty even after the prison system ended contracts with 16 of its nearly 230 halfway houses, facilities described as “underutilized or serving a small population.”

Martinez, whose committee has pushed for placing more prisoners on home confinement, said that advances in tracking technology and risk assessments should alleviate public safety concerns. “It’s a stupid waste of taxpayer money to put people in a confinement level they don’t need to be in,” the judge said.

“Case managers in the institutions are telling the guys the halfway houses won’t accept you because they’re too crowded,” said Herbert J. Hoelter, chief executive of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a nonprofit group that provides defense lawyers with alternative sentencing plans and inmates with services and housing. “That’s certainly not true.”

The Justice Department’s aggressive dismantling of the halfway house system is plainly visible in the saga of the McLeod Addictive Disease Center.

The McLeod Center, a nonprofit facility in Charlotte, ran North Carolina’s largest halfway house. It has contracted with the federal government since the 1990s and avoided the scandals that have troubled many other facilities. In 2015, the center bought a former post office and renovated it into a 130-bed “flagship, state of the art facility,” said Mary H. Ward, the president of the center.

She recalled federal prison officials touring the new center and being impressed by the computer labs, security cameras and badge readers. In July 2017, McLeod moved 88 inmates into the new residences. On May 31 of this year, the McLeod halfway house closed because of drastic funding and prisoner reductions that began unexpectedly last fall.

“We were doing great work, and we were a stellar program,” Ward said. “I wish I had more answers for you, but I’m left baffled because I don’t think we did anything to warrant this sudden change.”

The plight of the McLeod center appears to be connected to a seemingly arcane change in how halfway house contractors are paid—another reversal of an Obama-era policy. In 2015, the Bureau of Prisons began offering flexible, guaranteed contracts that rewarded halfway houses for graduating eligible inmates to the less stringent regimen of ankle bracelets and home confinement.

But the Trump administration, complaining in testimony to Congress of “bad management controls,” said providers routinely exceeded contracts and pushed the prison system nearly $40 million over budget, according to a former Justice Department official with knowledge of the agency’s finances. An Inspector General’s audit of federal reentry services says federal halfway houses were consistently over capacity between 2013 and 2016.

The Bureau of Prisons reverted to the old system of paying operators based on monthly headcounts. A drawback to that approach, according to a recent inspector general’s report on halfway house contracts, is that it “can create incentives to keep some residents in-house rather than transitioning them to home confinement when they are ready.”

The Bureau of Prisons’ own guidelines recommend bypassing halfway houses more often to send more inmates considered low-risk directly into home confinement. But just four percent of eligible inmates received a direct transfer home. That “strongly indicates that BOP is underutilizing direct home confinement placement as an alternative to transitioning low-risk, low-need inmates back into society,” according to a 2016 federal audit of the prison system’s reentry program.

Not only are fewer inmates being sent to halfway houses, the stays are shorter. Last year, prison officials cut the average stay for inmates by nearly a month, to four months. Mark Inch, then the Bureau of Prisoners director, told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in December the goal was to keep within a tighter budget while also sending as many prisoners as possible to halfway houses.

“Is it our intent to cut back on our program?” Inch told Congress. “Absolutely not.”

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Prison officials say stays of six months or longer in the centers’ crowded and often aging dorms can lead to growing tensions and increased bad behavior when people of different criminal backgrounds mix.

But halfway house operators say shortened stays threaten the main purpose of transition.

“The concern is if you’re only letting these people come out for 30 to 60 days, how do you expect these people to find a place to live or find a job?” said Anne Connell-Freund, past president of the International Community Corrections Association, which represents operators of halfway houses.

The changes dishearten prisoners counting down the days until their prerelease date.

At the FCI Seagoville prison camp in Texas, one inmate told a common story: He had lined up a construction job in the Dallas area anticipating his move to a halfway house on Aug. 30. Then the prison system told him there were no available beds. A recovering addict convicted in 2013 of conspiracy to deliver methamphetamines and marijuana, he was eager to be more present in the lives of his two teenage sons, who he had learned were experimenting with drugs.

“He wishes he could physically be there and say you don’t have to do this,” his wife said. “He’s been trying to be a father through 15-minute phone calls.”

She learned that the nearest halfway house had at least 30 open beds. But prison officials told her the system was overwhelmed. She asked them to send her husband home in an ankle bracelet since he was already under light supervision at a prison camp with no fences. They told her he just had to wait his turn, now rescheduled to October 30.

“We want to have faith in the system, and it completely depletes our faith,” said the inmate’s wife, who requested anonymity, fearful the prison system could add another delay. “They call themselves corrections, but what is it really correcting?”

In another break with the Obama administration, the Justice Department no longer requires halfway houses to treat mental health issues and drug addiction.

A person with knowledge of the decision said federal officials wanted halfway houses focused on the core mission of finding inmates housing and jobs. They argued that the few months prisoners spend in halfway houses were inadequate for effective treatment.

A bipartisan group of senators, including Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote last year urging Sessions to restore the programs.

“These changes, particularly in the absence of a justification, threaten to make our communities less safe while increasing BOP operating costs over time,” the senators wrote.

The trade association that represents halfway house operators said the behavioral health programs are where inmates learned to control anger and deal with underlying issues.

“We went through the whole ‘nothing works so you should just keep people in prison,’” said Connell-Freund, who also serves as executive vice president of Oriana House in Ohio, a federal halfway house provider. “To keep them in a bad situation longer doesn’t make them better.”