When President Barack Obama goes to Oklahoma Thursday and enters the medium-security federal prison FCI-El Reno he will be entering the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Prisons, part of the Justice Department, a bureaucratic fiefdom that is nearly as sprawling as the Department of Defense and in many ways as secret and unaccountable to the public and lawmakers as the CIA or the NSA. This even though 168,139 men and women (not counting 40,000 or so prisoners held in federal custody in private prisons) are incarcerated daily in a system staffed by approximately 40,000 federal employees.
When he walks through the doors of the prison, on his way to his inevitable photo opportunity with corrections officers and nonviolent drug offenders, the President will be entering the domain of officials in Washington who for decades have sanctioned the widespread use of solitary confinement, the systemic abuse and neglect of mentally ill prisoners, and deplorable shortages of properly trained corrections staff and medical professionals, to name just three of the systemic problems identified in recent reviews of the Bureau of Prisons.
It would be a shame if those underreported angles are lost in the cascade of political coverage the president will receive both for his historic visit (no sitting president ever has gone to a federal prison) and for his weeklong crusade to reform criminal justice. The big story this week isn’t just the bipartisan push on Capitol Hill to reduce the federal prison population through sentencing reform and other measures. The story also is that the president is going to a persistent symbol of government abuse and neglect, a place where too many of our fellow citizens are held in conditions that ought to shock the conscience.
When the President enters El Reno, enters the world of the BOP that is, he will be entering into a system where prison guards are permitted to put shackles on prisoners post-mortem before releasing them to local coroners to send a message to the world that even dead bodies are not free from confinement. He will be entering a realm where prisoners are told to reach out for help if they are feeling suicidal but who then are cruelly punished when that help doesn’t come and they try to end their lives. I doubt the President is aware of any of this. Now is the time for him to learn.
When the President enters El Reno, when he enters the realm of the BOP, he will be under the supervision of federal bureaucrats who broadly employ “isolated detention” practices to separate prisoners without even knowing if their widespread use of “segregated housing” has any impact on prison safety. Obama will be entering a place run by people in Washington who traumatize prisoners for years in solitary confinement and then release those people back into the streets without adequate “step down” processes (never mind job training skills). The President likely doesn’t know anything about any of this, either. Now is the time for him to learn.
When the President enters El Reno, he will be hosted by officials who administer controversial prison policies that are not always subject to the sort of meaningful review by independent analysts that would help ensure that corrections officials are even following their own rules. And if the President is serious about prison reform, in addition to criminal justice reform more generally, someone ought to get him on the record this week talking about what the administration is looking for when it hires a replacement for BOP Director Charles Samuels, who surprised many with his resignation earlier this year.
As the nation gets serious about criminal justice reform, as politicians and judges of all stripes sign on to reform, the truth is that the Bureau of Prisons still is a mess, neither Eric Holder nor Congress has been able to make it materially better since President Obama took office, and prisoners every day continue to be detained in unsafe and unlawful conditions. That was the case last week before the President commuted the sentences of 46 federal prisoners, it will be the case this week when the President arrives in Oklahoma, and it will be the case next week when the spotlight’s glare is off the issue. The serious problems are not unusual. But they sure seem cruel. Hopefully Barack Obama comes away from his historic trip understanding that sad truth a little better.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.