We need President Obama to appoint a new Director in the Bureau of Prisons

By · Saturday, November 8th, 2008

The President appoints Director of the Bureau of Prisons. The  Director presides over an agency that employs more than 25,000 people and incarcerates more than 200,000 people. The Director sets the policy for the Bureau of Prisons. All employees of the BOP carry out the Director’s mission, and the prisoners must live within the rules set by the Director or suffer the consequences. We need a Director who reflects the vision for America that President Obama embraces. As such, President Obama should appoint a new Director.

I write from the perspective of a long-term prisoner. My time as a prisoner began in 1987, when I was initially confined inside the high walls of a United States Penitentiary. I was 23-years-old then, and Norm Carlson was the Director of the Bureau of Prisons. Since then, the BOP has expanded its population by a factor of five. With its shift toward more punitive policies, the system has become more violent and less likely to prepare offenders for law-abiding lives upon release.

A new Director who espouses President Obama’s vision would rely on more than threats of punishment to shape human behavior. Rather than extinguishing hope, as has been the policy of the current and past BOP Directors, a new Director of the BOP would implement policies that would encourage offenders to redeem their actions through merit and contributions to society.

As members of Congress stated in the Second Chance Act of 2007, the BOP’s own metrics show that strong family and community ties represent the most effective means to support successful re-entry for prisoners about to return to society. Yet Harley Lapin, the current BOP Director, supports policies that hinder those in prison from nurturing family support. One blatant example of BOP policy that deteriorates family and community relationships is the ridiculous limitations on telephone access. Federal prisoners cannot access the telephone for more than an average of ten minutes per day. Such limitations weaken family relationships. Marriages fall apart. Children lose contact with their incarcerated parents. Prisoners cannot use their precious phone minutes to build community ties without sacrificing family communications.

Visiting restrictions represent another flawed BOP approach to corrections. Rather than encouraging family members and supportive mentors to play an active role in the prisoner’s efforts to prepare for release, the current Director supports policies that frustrate and impede citizens from visiting with those in prison. Where I am incarcerated, for example, administrators implemented a strict points system that severely limits visiting opportunities. Each prisoner here is allocated only 20 visiting points per month. Prison administrators penalize prisoners and their families by “charging” 8 points for a Saturday visit and 6 points for a Sunday visit, and visiting on federal holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas “costs” 8 points per holiday. Such limitations make it impossible for me to build the network of support that I will need to overcome the challenges that will follow my release after more than 25 years of continuous imprisonment.

The current Director of the BOP sets policies that are designed to preserve the security of the institution. Rather than implementing creative, incentive-based programs that encourage offenders to work towards emerging as successful, law-abiding citizens, the current BOP Director embraces the failed policies of divisiveness. Those policies that strive to isolate prisoners from the values of America are diametrically opposed to the policies that President Obama supports.

To reverse the costly and destructive trends of high recidivism rates, President Obama should appoint a BOP Director who will abandon this flawed, architecture of human failure. Rather than presiding over an institution that warehouses humans and obliterates hope, a BOP Director under President Obama should set policies that motivate offenders to educate themselves. As former Chief Justice Warren Berger suggested, prison administrators should implement programs through which offenders can “earn and learn their way to freedom.”

Policies come from the top down. To realize the promise that President Obama so eloquently describes for America, we need a new Director for the Bureau of Prisons. We need a Director who will help, rather than block, prisoners striving to reconcile with society.

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