Expand RDAP-Type Incentives in Federal Prison

By · Sunday, January 18th, 2009

Forbes published Time Off for Bad Behavior, by Kai Falkenberg, in the magazine’s 12 January 2009 issue. The article described how white-collar offenders maneuver their way into the Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Treatment Program. The RDAP represents the only program available for qualifying federal prisoners to earn an administrative time cut. Those who qualify and complete the 500-hour program may advance their release dates by up to 12 months, at the sole discretion of prison administrators.

In order to qualify for the time cut provided by RDAP, federal prisoners must not have a history of violence. Other than the prohibition against violent offenders, the only other qualification is that RDAP participants show a documented history of substance abuse during the 12 months that preceded arrest. The presentence investigation report, in most cases, provides that documentation.

If the offender tells the federal probation officer who conducts the investigation that he had a drinking problem, the offender’s admission would be noted in the PSI. That “documentation” would be sufficient to qualify him for RDAP. If he completed the 500-hour course, administrators would advance his release date by up to 12 months.

As Mr. Falkenberg pointed out in his article, many white-collar offenders denied having any substance abuse problems prior to their arrest. The probation officer noted the offender’s response in the PSI. That entry would result in a disqualification from the time-cut. Some offenders manipulate the documentation aspect, however, by finding a medical professional who would submit a letter attesting to the offender’s having received treatment for substance abuse. With that letter, the offender may qualify for the time cut.

As a long-term prisoner, I’ve known hundreds of men who manipulated this documentation of treatment for substance abuse. These are the consequences of a wretched system that does not provide a path for all offenders to work toward earning freedom.

I have always resented the ridiculous legislation that requires an individual to have a documented history of substance abuse in order to qualify for the single program through which he can earn time off his sentence. I do not have a history of substance abuse, so I cannot earn any time off by participating in a 500-hour course. This system, however, provides no such incentive or reward to prisoners who work toward educating themselves and preparing for law-abiding lives upon release.

Our society would contribute to lower recidivism rates in significant ways if legislators and administrators offered more meaningful incentives. If the RDAP program represents such a success, then they ought to expand it. By offering opportunities for inmates to earn time reductions through teaching or completing academic and vocational courses, for example, administrators would reduce the backlog of applicants to RDAP. Simultaneously, they would remove the motivation for inmates like Sam Waksal and other white-collar offenders to manipulate their way in through bogus documentation.

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