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December 23, 2021

BOP chief from Trump Administration says "prisons are in crisis, riddled with deep and systemic ills that won’t be cured by simply replacing the BOP chief"

Hugh Hurwitz, who served as Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons from May 2018 to August 2019, has this notable new Hill commentary headlined "To fix our prison system, we need far more than a change in leadership."  It is worth reading in full, and here are some extended excerpts:

U.S. prisons are in crisis, riddled with deep and systemic ills that won’t be cured by simply replacing the BOP chief.  In fact, we’ve already tried that. Carvajal, appointed last year, became the sixth director or acting director in just five years.

The reality is that one person can only do so much. I should know. I was one of those six.

The news that sparked Durbin’s ire was an Associated Press report revealing that numerous federal prison workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019.  Sadly, corruption and other malfeasance within prison systems are not uncommon.  But as Durbin rightly noted, “it’s clear that there is much going wrong in our federal prisons, and we urgently need to fix it.”...

How do we move forward?  We must rethink our overall approach to incarceration to ensure that only the right people — those who need to be separated from society or require intensive reentry programming — are confined for the appropriate amount of time.

Common-sense sentencing reforms are a good place to start.  These include mandating a greater reliance on drug courts, community service and other alternatives to prison, such as halfway houses. It also means eliminating mandatory minimum penalties for drug crimes, which, among other problems, result in long sentences that drive prison populations up.

On the back end of the system, we need more intensive reentry programs to ensure that the more than 650,000 people leaving prison annually find the jobs, housing and healthcare they need to lead stable lives — and remain crime-free. Congress started this effort with bipartisan passage of the First Step Act of 2018 (co-sponsored by Durbin), but BOP needs sufficient resources to fully implement this law.

We also must invest in the recruitment, retention and training of correctional officers, while paying them on par with what other law enforcement officers earn. While the conduct spotlighted in recent news reports was reprehensible, it does not reflect the majority of BOP officers who put their lives on the line every day, and suffer disproportionately high rates of PTSD and suicide. They deserve to lead healthy lives, and their mental health has a direct impact on the orderly functioning of our prisons. It must be our concern.

Beyond such measures, Congress must tackle what should be the easiest, but may be the most divisive, piece of the debate: closing some of America’s oldest and costliest federal prisons.  Shuttering these aging lock-ups, some of which are more than a century old, would allow the BOP to reallocate staff and resources to the remaining facilities, improving safety and security while strengthening programs and services.

Closing prisons may be a hard sell to some, particularly to those in Congress.  But it has been done recently, at least at the state level. South Carolina, for example, has closed six correctional centers in the past decade, as its prison population declined following bipartisan passage of sentencing and corrections reforms in 2010.

One step the Attorney General and Congress should quickly consider is a recommendation from the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Federal Priorities, which called for creation of an independent oversight board for BOP.  This would bring outside expertise to bear on the agency’s multiple challenges while retaining the career leadership that historically has served the agency well.  The board would also provide political cover for harder choices that agency leaders and elected officials are sometimes reluctant or unable to make.

While the recent news about the BOP is disturbing, I hope it serves as a reminder of the need to rebuild our criminal justice system so that it is smaller, less punitive, more humane and safer for all.  With political will, independent oversight and an unwavering commitment, we can make holistic change to a system long in need of it.

December 23, 2021 at 12:50 PM | Permalink


This opinion piece by Former BOP Director Hugh Hurwitz may be the most audacious attempt to rewrite a career in history. Director Hurwitz, who previously was Acting Assistant Director over Reentry services singlehandedly ordered the closure of 16 BOP Halfway Houses. Further, he ordered the BOP to only grant up to 120 days of Halfway House Placement to the inmates, rather than up to the one year they were previously eligible for. This order was issued in an October 10, 2017 memo (Google it, I can't attach it here). Further, he misrepresented this action as a cost saving measure. Yet, it costs the BOP less to house a prisoner within a Halfway House, then in the prison system.

Today it seems Failed Director Hurwitz is hoping to use this newfound wisdom to be a voice of reason regarding the how to fix the prison system. The reality is the last individual whose advice anyone needs on how to fix the unjust criminal justice system is an individual responsible for ensuring that the men and women housed within the BOP had less time in the Halfway House to assist in their transition back to the community.

You want to fix the prison system, ask the many men and women who have served time there and been released and are successfully advocating to change this broken system. They (we) can tell you everything that ails that system.

On a final note, BOP guards are some of the most well compensated prison guards in the world. With benefits that would make another union blush. If they have a high case of PTSD it is because of the Executive Branch of the BOP bureaucracy that they must deal with daily, not the inmates. (Poll the guards, they will certainly agree).

The BOP is the most top heavy agency in the Federal Government. Here's a way to save money and invest in reentry services. Abolish all the BOP Offices (Central, Regional, etc...) that do not house inmates. Relocate those staff members inside the prison complex offices. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be saved! Next you could simply begin to abolish all the redundant positions within those offices, and invest that money into education. That would be a small start to a much needed overhall.

Posted by: Dani Hourani | Dec 24, 2021 9:58:43 PM

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