Bureau of Prisons Announces Family-Friendly Policies

By Christopher Zoukis

In a bid to make federal prisons more helpful for inmates’ ability to re-enter society after their release, the Bureau of Prisons in late April announced a set of new policies designed to make it easier for those incarcerated in federal institutions to stay in contact with their families.

Three new initiatives were unveiled in an April 26 speech in Houston by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who visited a federal women’s prison and a re-entry hostel for female inmates awaiting release. The event was part of the “National Reentry Week” declared by the Justice Department to publicize a variety of anti-recidivism programs to aid the more than 40,000 inmates released from federal facilities each year.

During Reentry Week, Attorney General Loretta Lynch issued a framework-setting “Roadmap to Reentry,” which outlined five evidence-based principles which she said underlie the Bureau of Prisons’ efforts to help former inmates overcome the stigma of a criminal record so they can successfully reintegrate into mainstream society and avoid being re-incarcerated.

One of those five principles deals with giving inmates the resources and opportunities they need to maintain their family relations, by strengthening inmate support systems while they are behind bars. (The Justice Department statement notes there’s research evidence showing strong family relationship cut recidivism, improve chances of finding post-release employment, and ameliorate the harm to children from having an incarcerated parent.)

One concrete step the Bureau of Prisons will take to solidify inmate-family relationships is expanding a new pilot program to bring videoconferencing to all its facilities for female prisoners by June 2016, with an eye to expanding video visits to all federal facilities eventually. Over 7% of Bureau of Prisons inmates are women, and because there are fewer facilities for women, they are often assigned farther away from their children than male prisoners might be.

Another measure the Bureau of Prisons plans is to start a pilot program, in cooperation with DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency, for children with a federally incarcerated parent. The pilot program, to be launched at federal facilities in four states (Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia), aims to involve inmate parents and their children in youth development activities, such as mentoring and academic support. This program is already well underway; the $1.3 million in federal grants awarded last September to service providers will support these programs, starting this June.

The Bureau of Prisons also says it will develop and train its staff on best practices for interacting with child visitors and will create kid-friendly visiting areas at its facilities.

The other four principles in the Roadmap to Reentry are: providing each inmate with an individualized reentry plan matching his or her risks and needs; providing inmates with education, job-related training or other programs (such as those addressing mental health or substance abuse); assessing and improving the care halfway houses provide about 80% of newly released ex-inmates in the crucial time immediately after release; and giving newly released ex-prisoners reentry-related information and help accessing needed services, through a new reentry services hotline (1-877-895-9196) and a revised reentry manual for federal prisoners on their release.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com