A Day in the Life of a BOP Inmate
By Marjorie E. Berman
Divergent descriptions of a day in the life of a Bureau of Prisons inmate were presented at a program sponsored by the Council’s Committee on Sentencing and Alternatives to Incarceration. So at odds were the views presented that it became clear that the answer to what a day in the life of an inmate looks like is a function of perspective, experience, and facility. In short, like most things, the answer depends on who is providing it.
The panel drew from diverse perspectives with one of the panelists having had an inside view of prison life – Jeff Smith, who served one year at the federal correctional institution (“FCI”) in Manchester, Kentucky. Prior to his conviction for corruption, he had been a state senator in Missouri. The other panelists were Judge Shira Scheindlin, Judge Stefan Underhill (both members of the committee), Michael Tafelski (Regional Counsel Northeast Region, Bureau of Prisons), and Nicholas Turner (president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice). The panel was moderated by Martin Horn (Lecturer in Corrections at John Jay College and former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction). The program was introduced by Larry Krantz, chair of the committee, who commented that the program presented a unique opportunity for those practicing criminal law to see behind the curtain as to what happens when a defendant is sentenced to prison. Even experienced criminal defense lawyers often have little insight into this since the job of the attorney typically ends at sentencing and appeal.
The State of Incarceration
The panel opened with Horn repeating a critical insight from the Vera Institute’s 2006 report entitled, “Confronting Confinement.” The report said: “What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. It comes home with prisoners after they are released and with corrections officers at the end of each day’s shift. We must create safe and productive conditions of confinement not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it influences the safety, health, and prosperity of us all.” It was in that spirt, Horn remarked, that the committee brought the program. “It matters to all of us because it affects all of us.”
Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute, presented chilling statistics about the state of confinement in the United States. Referring to the continuing legal education materials distributed with the program, he reported on the exponential growth in the rate of incarceration over the last four decades – from approximately 200,000 inmates in 1972 to 1.5 million inmates in 2013. Further, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. – at 716 people per 100,000 – far outstrips any other country in the world. Indeed, the next closest contender, Turner reported, is Rwanda at 476 people per 100,000. The rate of incarceration in the U.S. is six to 10 times the rate of countries we perceive as our peers. Given the enormous number of people who will confront incarceration at some point in their lives, Turner argued that we all need to think about conditions of confinement, which are obscure and unknown to many of us. He welcomed the change in the air with all sides coming together for justice reform, increased public interest in conditions of confinement, and renewed focus on rehabilitation and return to the community.
The Judges’ Views
The insights provided by Judge Scheindlin and Judge Underhill were largely the product of their prior visit to Otisville Prison, which had been arranged as part of this program. Shortly before the formal program, committee members including Judges Scheindlin and Underhill visited the Otisville Federal Correctional Facility for a tour and introduction to the facility and its programs. This visit was Judge Scheindlin’s first since she had visited a prison as part of her orientation when she was appointed to the bench.
Both judges were favorably impressed with the conditions and programs offered at Otisville, a medium security facility with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp and a detention center. They met with the warden and staff and spoke with two prisoners. They reported that Otisville has a special focus to debrief and rehabilitate former gang members. Rehabilitation efforts are strong with ESL and GED available, computer skills training, and vocational training. Aware of the acute problem of boredom among inmates, Otisville offers extensive programming to keep prisoners occupied. She described as well a state-of-the-art gym and opportunities for team sports. She observed that the housing unit featured cells with double bunks, freedom of movement, and comfortable community space. From her conversation with the warden and the staff, she felt there was genuine concern for rehabilitation and re-entry. The representatives of Otisville reported that there was no violence at the prison. Judge Scheindlin questioned if Otisville was representative or an outlier.
The committee also met with two prisoners. The first was a former gang member of the Aryan Nation who had spent 15 years in solitary. He reported that his experience outside of Otisville is that prisons are controlled by gangs. With the help of the program at Otisville, designed for people who want to break their ties with gangs, he now has renounced his affiliation. He reported that now that he has done so, he believes that if he returned to certain states he would be killed. The second prisoner, convicted of bank robbery, has a wife and children at home. At Otisville, he found both religion and education. In fact, he learned to read. His goal, when released, is to work with a re-entry population in the area of drug addiction.
Judge Underhill, who has made visits to a number of prisons, remarked that Otisville is something of a jewel within the Bureau of Prisons. The warden is progressive and he instills in inmates and guards a positive culture to bring out the best in people.
Judge Underhill made some general observations about the critical importance of internal jobs for inmates. He is a huge supporter of UNICORE and the values that inmates learn by having a job, including learning respect, working with others, efficiency, thrift, and how to handle their earnings. He reported that for many inmates, the job they have in prison is their first job and will give them the skills they need to find and keep a job upon release. Judge Underhill also made a powerful suggestion that the criminal rules should be changed to allow sentenced defendants to have one opportunity, after serving a prescribed portion of their sentence, to go back to the sentencing judge and ask for a sentencing reduction based on rehabilitative efforts while in prison. Interestingly, a few weeks after the program, Judge Underhill authored an opinion piece that was published in The New York Times making the same suggestion (available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/opinion/sunday/did-i-sentence-a-murderer-or-a-cooperative-witness.html?_r=0).
The takeaway: The judges saw what appeared to be both a highly functional and effective program at Otisville. Perhaps what they saw was indicative of other successful programs in the Bureau of Prisons system. On the other hand, perhaps, as Judges Scheindlin and Underhill suggested, what they observed was an aspiration for prison life – but not indicative of a typical prisoner’s experience.
The Inmate’s Views
Jeff Smith, based on his experience at Manchester, a medium security facility with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp, was sharply critical of the Bureau of Prisons and prison life. (Although Smith was convicted of a white collar crime, he was assigned to Manchester rather than a camp facility. His observation was that 98 percent of the inmates at Manchester had been convicted of drug-related charges.) He described difficult and often undignified circumstances during his year of incarceration at the facility.
His experience sharply contrasted with the description of Otisville provided by Judges Scheindlin and Underhill. In his experience, there were no programs to improve inmates, to tap potential, or to provide education. He further criticized the system for making the ability to stay in touch with loved ones so difficult – crippling an important support system. He reported, for example, that a phone call from prison cost $1 to $2 per minute. However, his monthly salary for his job of moving food from the trucks to the prison freezers was $5.25. Those financial constraints also made it difficult to have decent hygiene and maintain personal dignity. Other than a bar of soap, every other personal hygiene product – deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste – had to be purchased.
He described his experience that most prisoners have a “hustle” inside – so that they can make money to survive. From his perspective, many inmates have sharp entrepreneurial skills, with no opportunity to redirect them in a productive way into legitimate meaningful work.
He described that his one and only educational opportunity while incarcerated consisted of a computer class in which the following occurred: Inmates were told to (1) turn on the “on” button; (2) turn off the computer; (3) shut the “f” up; and (4) get back to your cells. That was the whole of it.
The takeaway: Smith has an agenda to reform prisons. He wants prisons to provide education, to provide dignity, and to maintain family relationships as much as possible. He recently authored a book on this subject. With a goal of change, he is not in the business of talking about what prison does well. On the other hand, he may not have seen Manchester doing anything well.
The BOP Representative’s View
As a representative of the Bureau of Prisons, Michael Tafelski spoke about it in extremely positive terms. He described the bureau’s mission as protecting society by confining offenders in facilities that are safe, humane, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens. In short, the bureau wants to do what is right.
He described a typical day in the 121 federal correctional institutions as follows: Lights go on at 6 a.m. At 6:30, there is breakfast, religious time, pill line, and meeting with dieticians and health professionals for sick call. Work call begins at 7:30 and all inmates are assigned to work through a variety of different programs. Lunch is provided at 11 a.m. and inmates return to work until 3:30. At 4 p.m. there is an inmate count.
Following dinner there are other opportunities for religious, educational, and recreational programs. At 9 p.m. the compound closes and at 11:30, the lights go out. There are multiple counts during the night.
He reported that recent surveys demonstrated that 82 to 94 percent of inmates feel safe.
He described the major challenges facing the Bureau of Prisins as, (1) the use of restrictive housing (a/k/a solitary confinement); (2) the treatment of mental health issues by the 600 doctoral level psychologists who are part of the system; and (3) preparing inmates for re-entry, which he described as beginning on the first day of prison.
With respect to recidivism, his perspective was that large populations are addicts before they come to prison, and that until we as a country straighten out our drug problem, we are not going to see a decline in recidivism.
The takeaway: The Bureau of Prisons has an enormous job to accomplish under extremely challenging circumstances. No doubt it has both strengths and areas for improvement. It certainly appears that the Otisville facility is one of the jewels of the bureau’s system, but it also caters to a unique population of inmates including those seeking to break free from a gang environment.
On a topic as complex and varied as understanding what a day in the life of a Bureau of Prisons inmate is like, we can only expect the answers to be as diverse as the experiences of the participants in the system. Indeed, the only way to attempt to form some sense of the “truth” of the experience is to learn from all of the perspectives in the quest for improvement, and also to understand that each facility has its own unique environment, staff, and culture. As we focus on change, we need to consider both macro and micro issues.