Early-Release of Some Inmates Could Cause Hardships For Others

prisonGreat! At long last, action is being taken, by the White House and the Department of Justice, to grant ‘early’ releases from prison to many non-violent inmates convicted under the onerous “drug laws” passed in the 1980’s.  Those laws insisted – meaning there was no judicial leeway or option – “many drug crimes that were common at the time to carry mandatory minimum sentences of 5 to 10 years in a federal prison.”

Between Friday, Oct. 30, and Monday, Nov. 2, in the neighborhood of 6,100 individuals convicted under those laws were released from prisons.

How far the government intends to extend this program is an open question at this point – not least because of a probably-overlooked ‘wrinkle’: In recent years, an increasing number of federal prisons – as well as state-, regional- and local-level jails – have fallen under the management of profit-oriented corporations. And profit they do, to the tune of some $3.3 billion per year. Part of the way they profit so handsomely is by contractually insisting that the institutions they oversee remain occupied at rates as high as 90-100%.

So, here’s the problem: While prisons in 17 states are occupied well beyond the capacities they were built for, populations in 33 other states’ prisons are, in a significant number of instances, at 99-100% of their intended capacity. In the latter sector, the just-under-capacity prisons, the departure of even a small number of early-release individuals could drop the population to below a contracted-for level, if the prison is one run privately, not by a government agency itself.

Theoretically, it would be possible to simply shift some inmates from over-populated prisons to ones with a few (or more) empty beds. But in practical terms, that ordinarily would work only where federal prisons are concerned, or where less-crowded facilities are within the same jurisdiction – say, a state – as an over-crowded one.

(There are a few exceptions, as when Pennsylvania contracted, a few years ago, to have several hundred of its state-level inmates housed in prisons in Virginia. That practice was fairly quickly halted and reversed, though, in part because housing prisoners many hundreds of miles from their families caused more problems than the practice solved: While prison over-crowding was eased in Pennsylvania, the ‘solution-caused’ situation, where families and inmates came to be unable to see each other, posed risks of long-term, during- and post-confinement issues. Pennsylvania was forced to ‘bite the financial bullet’ and bring its prisoners home – resulting, unfortunately, in prison-worker job losses in Virginia. This is, as we’re all increasingly aware, far from a perfect world: What’s good for one too often is far from good for someone else.)

At this writing (late on the afternoon of November 4), the Department of Justice hasn’t responded to our requests for information on how these contractual/occupancy level issues are to be dealt with. We, with you, await their explanation.

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