Lame-Duck Justice Department Maps Bureau of Prisons Reforms

Lame-Duck Justice Department Maps Bureau of Prisons Reforms

Helping inmates prepare for post-prison life a “moral imperative,” according to Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

By Christopher Zoukis

With less than two months before the end of the Obama administration, on Nov. 30 the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced “sweeping” reforms being made at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to facilitate federal prisoners’ re-entry into society while reducing recidivism.

Aiding inmates to prepare for post-prison life is not only smart public policy, said Attorney General Loretta Lynch, but also “a moral imperative.” Describing the changes underway as “critical reforms” needed to give inmates skills and assistance for transitioning back into their communities, DOJ announced several new steps for BOP, including building a semi-autonomous “school district” for federal prisons, BOP picking up the costs for inmates to obtain state-issued identification cards and birth certificates before release, and new standards for halfway houses— which BOP calls “residential re-entry centers.”

A new DOJ website provides additional detail on the new steps planned for BOP, plus the agency’s continuing anti-recidivism measures. Much of the material builds on an outline DOJ issued in April announcing five principles BOP would follow in helping prepare inmates for eventual release.

The principles call for having every inmate receive: (1) a personalized re-entry plan, (2) needed support — such as education, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and other skills training — and (3) opportunities to maintain family ties during incarceration. When reentering society, former inmates should receive: (4) individualized continuing care in supervised release programs and halfway-houses, and (5) resources and information needed for successful re-entry.
Also noted in DOJ’s new announcement were several recently completed studies on a number of topics. An August report from Deloitte contained recommendations for assessing residential re-entry centers. A September report from the Boston Consulting Group focused on ways improved BOP programs can recidivism, and an analysis of the BOP’s educational programs was released in November by the Chicago-based Bronner Group.

DOJ’s new announcement elaborated on several of its newer plans. For example, it noted BOP’s expanded educational efforts will include literacy and high-school diploma programs, post-secondary offerings and more comprehensive programs for inmates with learning disabilities. A veteran educator from the school system in Texas prisons has been hired as superintendent of BOP’s expanded educational system.

On the new initiative to have BOP pay for birth certificates and identification cards for prisoners before their release, DOJ notes its consultant estimates the $1 to $1.5 million annual cost will be dwarfed by an estimated $19 million in annual savings from making jobs and housing easier to find, thus speeding up inmate transfers from prisons to less expensive settings, such as home confinement.

DOJ further noted Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has directed BOP to use its purchasing power to reform for-profit and nonprofit providers of residential re-entry centers, promoting clear, uniform, higher standards for providers; collecting and publishing performance data; and exploring alternative methods for providing re-entry services.

What remains to be seen, however, is how the incoming Trump administration will view the DOJ’s announced plans. Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has in the past voiced skepticism on DOJ’s anti-recidivism efforts. For instance, at a Senate Judiciary Committee on sentencing reform in October 2015, Sessions said some anti-recidivism programs he had seen over the years in his view failed to show much benefit.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and