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Why Do We Keep Building Needless Prisons?

A pair of hands in handcuffs
A pair of hands in handcuffs
Amy Fettig,
Deputy Director,
National Prison Project
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June 26, 2012

Why are the Feds spending $250 million in taxpayer dollars to build an unnecessary and counter-productive prison for women in rural Aliceville, Alabama?

As the New York Times pointed out recently, most women in federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody are incarcerated for non-violent offenses; over half of them have minor children. Many of these women do not need to be incarcerated in order to protect public safety. Locking them up hundreds of miles away from their families, children and communities is exactly the wrong step to take if we want them to re-enter society successfully. Decades of research demonstrates the success of policies that keep prisoners near their homes – and for women especially, concern for their children is most often cited as a prime motivator for successful rehabilitation.

But visits to remote Aliceville by most prisoners’ family members and children will be difficult, if not impossible. And the increased recidivism and negative effects this will have on the women prisoners, their children, and the community will be devastating.

What could possibly justify a decision with such a predictably bad result? The BOP claims that its overcrowding problems continue to justify prison expansion, such as the Aliceville facility, but it’s hard to credit these claims – especially since the BOP has continually failed to implement sentencing reduction measures that would help alleviate overcrowding and lower the federal prison population at great savings to the taxpayer.

Here are just a few examples:

• BOP does not allow prisoners to take full advantage of its communitycorrections programs, so that prisoners now serve an average of only four of the available 12 months in the community authorized by the Second Chance Act.
• The Residential Drug Abuse Program incentive for nonviolent offenders is underutilized so that successful participants rarely receive the 12 month sentence reduction to which they are legally entitled.
• BOP rarely uses its authority to request sentence modifications for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” often referred to as “compassionate release,” which deprives sentencing judges of the opportunity to shorten the terms of deserving prisoners, especially the elderly and infirm whose continued imprisonment involves some of the highest prison costs.

These management failures lead to both over-incarceration and overcrowding and they waste millions: just by increasing home confinement by three months, the BOP could save up to $111.4 million each year.

In condemning the Aliceville facility as an example of misguided and costly policy, the New York Times noted that in contrast to the BOP, state corrections systems are scaling back incarceration due to its crushing costs. A recent report by the ACLU, Smart Reform is Possible, highlighted reform efforts in several states, including New York and Texas, which were both able to stop building prisons, save money and lower crime rates by implementing sensible alternatives to incarceration.

It’s time for BOP leadership to look to the states for new ideas and approaches. Based on the successful reforms being implemented around the country it’s clear that we don’t need another federal prison for women in a remote corner of Alabama. We need leadership dedicated to producing the best, most cost-effective outcomes for women, their children and the community.

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