BOP Director’s Misrepresentation to Congress

By · Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Harley Lappin, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, issued a prepared statement to a Congressional committee on March 10, 2009. In Director Lappin’s lengthy statement pertaining to the Second Chance Act, he expressed that an integral part of the BOP’s mission indicates that “the post-release success of offenders is as important to public safety as inmates’ secure incarceration.” Prisoners and their family members, however, find the BOP remiss in this aspect of its stated mission.

In the Second Chance Act, Congress made specific findings about appalling recidivism rates that cost taxpayers billions each year and threaten public safety. The Act cited the prison system’s own metrics suggesting that prisoners who maintained strong family and community ties were the most likely to succeed upon release. Congress charged the Director of the BOP to create programs that would help prisoners nurture family and community ties during the course of imprisonment. Despite the passing of a full year since Congress overwhelmingly passed the legislation, neither prisoners nor their family members have observed changes that would help them nurture family and community ties.

One terrible disruption to the possible nurturing of family and community ties began during the era of former Attorney General John Ashcroft. It concerned changes to the inmate telephone system. The telephone represents one of the essential links prisoners have to society. Prior to John Ashcroft’s leadership over the Department of Justice, inmates could use telephones freely to communicate with family members and friends. Since 2001, however, telephone policies have limited prisoners to 300 minutes of telephone access per month.

Besides restrictive telephone limitations, under Director Lappin’s leadership, the Bureau of Prisons places severe limitations on each federal prisoner’s ability to nurture family and community ties through visits. In the prison where I am held, for example, a rigid point system prohibits prisoners from receiving more than one visit per week. Prisoners who cannot visit during Friday work hours face even more restrictive time limitations; they may visit only two Saturdays per month. Such restrictive policies hinder rather than encourage the nurturing of close family and community ties.

The Director even authorizes policies that restrict federal prisoners from nurturing strong family and community ties through correspondence. In the prison where I am held, for example, policies prohibit inmates from using e-mail, or even typewriters for social correspondence. Those policies threaten disciplinary action against prisoners who use typewriters to nurture family ties; they may not even type letters to open relationships with prospective employers.

I may have only been in prison for 21-plus years, but as far as I know, prisoners have no more than three mechanisms through which they can nurture family and community ties. Those mechanisms include the telephone, visits, and correspondence. Congress published findings indicating that close family and community ties were the most important links that can lead prisoners to post-release success. Under Director Harley Lappin’s leadership of the federal Bureau of Prisons, however, restrictions exist to block rather than nurture those ties.

In this era of government transparency, the incongruity between Director Lappin’s statement to a Congressional committee and the policies he enforces should not go without notice. Telephone, visiting, and correspondence restrictions represent but three of the troubling policies that afflict all federal prisoners. Those policies belie any ostensible mission to assist prisoners with post-release success.

As a prisoner who struggles daily to hold his family together in spite of the Bureau of Prisons stifling restrictions, I found Director Lappin’s misrepresentation to Congress patently offensive. I would have preferred the direct honesty of my former unit manager, Ms. Ortega, who told me point blank: “We don’t care anything about what you’re doing to prepare for release. All we care about is the security of the institution.”

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