When Dawn Brooks recalls her time in prison, she uses one simple word: “unfathomable.” She remembers the lack of toilet paper and feminine and hygiene products. She recalls the lack of alcohol-based hand sanitizer amid the COVID pandemic. She remembers having to skip meals because of her severe peanut allergy: the prison did not offer alternative meals or access to an EpiPen when peanut products were served to her dorm mates.
“When I got home I was malnourished,” said Brooks, who served time at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut. “We need a total overhaul of how we view prisons, when or how people are housed.”
Brooks was released on June 4, 2020 – 18 months into her 48-month sentence for a wire fraud conviction. She was among 41,000 incarcerated people who were moved to home confinement under the CARES Act of 2020, allowing most to complete their sentences outside of prison cells. The law, part of the $2 trillion COVID stimulus bill signed by then-President Donald Trump, was intended to tackle the scourge of COVID in prisons by giving the Justice Department the power to to select certain federally incarcerated persons for home confinement during the pandemic.
But a year after the CARES Act was passed, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin of Illinois and other lawmakers have called out the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons for not releasing more nonviolent first-time offenders to house arrest or compassionate release amid staffing shortages and the deterioration of conditions in prisons. Other measures that allow federally incarcerated people to return home sooner — such as executive clemency and act of the first step – have also not been used as often as lawmakers and advocates would like, especially during a health emergency crisis.
President Joe Biden has campaigned to reform and strengthen the criminal justice system, but critics say his administration has let many of those issues fall by the wayside. This week, Biden took a big step by commuting sentences of 75 people with drug-related convictions and granting pardons to three. The move broke with a long line of presidents who failed to use their powers of executive clemency in their first two years in office – the last was George H. W. Bush in 1989, when he granted nine pardons and one petition for clemency.
But a lot of Biden’s other major commitments, such as an end to the federal death penalty and incarceration for drug use only, have not been fulfilled. And in Congress, other prison reform bills have stalled.
Major criminal justice reform came in 2018, when Trump signed the First Step Act, which allows incarcerated persons to submit their own request for release on humanitarian grounds. Previously, requests for compassionate release could only be submitted by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons and granted by a judge under certain conditions, such as deterioration of health that cannot be sustained while incarcerated or the death of a prisoner. a spouse who was the sole caretaker of their child. .
Between 2013 and 2017, only 6% of the 5,400 applicants were granted a discharge, according to federal data analysis by The Marshall Project and The New York Times. After the signing of the First Step Act, those numbers increased dramatically. From January 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021, federal courts received more than 20,491 requests for compassionate release and 3,602 were granted, or approximately 17%. Of the motions granted, 3,471 were filed by a violator and 32 by the BOP Director.
Marsha King was granted early release via compassionate orders and the CARES Act on June 30, 2020 — 44 months into his 59 month sentence for aggravated identity theft and theft of public funds. She credits Trump with signing the First Step Act and wants Congress to pressure BOP to increase the number of people on compassionate release.
Trump “has done a lot more for prison reform than anyone else. You have to give credit where credit is due,” King said. “A lot of people got a second chance and a great opportunity to get out of prison. If it weren’t for him, think of the overcrowding and the number of additional deaths there would likely be because no one would have been released under the humanitarian release.
Like other advocates, King is calling for more action from the Biden administration and Congress to address prison conditions that have deteriorated during the pandemic. Legislation stalled in Congress has also addressed issues beyond the COVID response, including improving medical care for pregnant inmates, regulating the cost of phone calls from prisons and easing the challenges of reintegration into the society. Here are some of the prison reform bills awaiting action by lawmakers:
- Senator Cory Booker and Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, both New Jersey Democrats, introduced the Next step act in 2019. The bill seeks to “make serious and substantial reforms to sentencing guidelines, prison conditions, law enforcement training, and reintegration efforts.” He was returned to Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2019 and has not moved.
- When former Attorney General Bill Barr announced in 2019 the reinstatement of the federal death penalty after a 17-year hiatus, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and other Democratic lawmakers introduced the Federal law prohibiting the death penalty. A Republican, Rep. Pierre Meijer of Michigan, joined them in reconvicting those sentenced to death. The bill was reintroduced in the House in January 2021 and was considered by three committees but did not pass. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a moratorium on the death penalty in July 2021 pending a full investigation into the practice which includes drugs used for lethal injection.
- In March 2021, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the Federal Bureau of Corrections Nonviolent Offenders Assistance Act. The law – which has no co-sponsors – calls for the release of non-violent offenders over the age of 45 who have served at least half their sentence. It has been reviewed by three House committees.
- Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth received bipartisan support for the Martha Wright-Reed Fair and Reasonable Communications Act of 2021, which would regulate the “predatory” cost of telephone calls to and from correctional facilities. Duckworth and other lawmakers introduced this bill in 2019and it advanced for consideration in Congress in March.
- California Representative Maxine Waters introduced the Justice for the Exonerated Act in the House in June 2021 that would increase the annual cost to compensate an exonerated from $50,000 to $70,000. The bill is supported by 21 Democratsbut there has been no action on this since June 2021.
- the Justice for Incarcerated Mothers Act – part of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act introduced in February 2021 by Durbin, Booker, and Democratic Senator Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii – aims to improve medical care for incarcerated pregnant women through “grant and model programs.” He would also “commission a study into the maternal health crisis within our prison system and end the practice of shackling pregnant women.” This document was presented to House and was read by 17 committees but was not put on the voting calendar.
- Durbin and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa presented the Law prohibiting the punishment of acquitted persons in March 2021. Co-sponsored by nine other lawmakers, the bill seeks to “end the unfair practice of judges increasing sentences based on behavior for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury.” It was presented to Senate and entered in their legislative calendar in July 2021.
State lawmakers have also introduced legislation that would implement changes to state and local correctional facilities and attempt to improve conditions for those incarcerated.
- Representative of Louisiana House Larry Selders proposed two bills this year to improve health care system in his state’s prisons by creating a medical advisory board and eliminating co-pays for incarcerated people.
- The legislators of Ohio introduced more than 1,500 page invoice during the regular session of the general assembly 2021-2022 to revamp the entire criminal justice system of the state. Some of these provisions include incentives for incarcerated people to reduce their sentences and give the prison system the power over judges and prosecutors to offer an offender early release.
- In New York State, Senator Gustavo Rivera proposed a bill last year calling for the words “detainee” or “detainees” to be replaced with the words “incarcerated individual” or incarcerated individuals.
This story was originally published on April 28, 2022 by Capital news B.