Bureau of Prisons ending contracts with 16 halfway houses

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about domestic security in New York on November 2, 2017.

Story highlights

  • The Bureau of Prisons listed 16 contracts it was considering ending or had ended
  • 'I never really got the full story,' said the director of one halfway house
  • Members of both parties were taken aback

Washington (CNN)The Bureau of Prisons is cutting off funding for halfway houses throughout the country, saving money the bureau says it needs at the expense of what reform advocates say are vital programs to help prisoners transition effectively and safely out of the corrections system.

Some 16 facilities around the country have seen or will see their contracts with the federal prison system end. The cuts are coming weeks into the tenure of newly minted Bureau of Prisons Director Mark Inch, whom Attorney General Jeff Sessions tapped earlier this year to lead the federal prison system. Inch, a retired Army major general, hails from the military's corrections and law enforcement system.
Halfway houses, or "residential re-entry centers" in federal prison lingo, help manage the transition for federal prisoners from incarceration to freedom. According to the Bureau of Prisons, the facilities "provide a safe, structured, supervised environment, as well as employment counseling, job placement, financial management assistance and other programs and services."
    Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group, said the cutback won't necessarily mean that prisoners will go straight from prison to the outside world, but that it could diminish the time they spend getting acclimated to post-prison life.
    Asked about the closures, the bureau provided a list of 16 contracts due for expiration around the country, from West Virginia to Michigan to Colorado. Each is contracted for at most a few dozen beds, with some managing people in home confinements as well. Some expiration dates had already passed and others indicated the bureau would exercise its authority to end them soon.
    The Bureau of Prisons also issued a statement saying the decision on the 16 contracts "does not reflect any change in the Bureau's long-standing commitment to provide transitional services to inmates releasing back to our communities, or to provide the courts with an alternative to incarceration when appropriate."
    The decision affects only a small share of the "total number of beds under contract," the bureau added, and was the product of a months-long review.
    "Over the past several months, the bureau conducted a comprehensive analysis of current RRC resources to determine how to most effectively use our resources. As a result, we decided to discontinue some contracts that were underutilized or serving a small population," the bureau said.

    'A big surprise'

    For at least one contractor, the bureau's decision came as an unwelcome shock.
    Tim Hand, the head of Larimer County Community Corrections in Fort Collins, Colorado, runs a halfway house that he said houses several hundred state offenders along with a "relatively small" federal contract.
    Hand said he got an email from Washington out of the blue notifying him his federal contract would end in 30 days -- by the end of November.
    "I never really got the full story," Hand said. "It sure is sad."
    Hand said he pushed back but was unsuccessful, and described his experience working with the federal government as difficult. He said his facility recently invested resources and time, including building a new software program, for its federal work -- without getting a heads up from the bureau that his facility was on the chopping block.
    "Everything is secret, top secret," Hand said. "It came as a big surprise to us."
    He added that he had not heard any overtures from the federal government about opening a new contract with them, and if he did hear from Washington, Hand said, "I don't know if I would even be interested."
    Greg Toutant, the executive director of Great Lakes Recovery Centers, Inc., wrote a letter requesting the bureau reconsider closing its re-entry center in Michigan. The letter said Great Lakes had operated services for federal parolees going back 30 years and served a wide region.
    "Please do not let what appears to be a unilateral, knee-jerk reaction override quality systems of care," Toutant wrote.
    Toutant said he found out his contract was ending in a "very abrupt letter" and that the bureau had not made itself available to talk about the decision or what would happen to the federal parolees.
    "No one has talked with us about what's going to happen," Toutant said.
    He said their "minor use" facility cycled about 25 to 30 people from the Bureau of Prisons every year and that he is "a little scared" for what the decision means for those affected.
    Toutant said the facility, based out of the upper peninsula city of Marquette, was important because of the unique geography of the area and the isolation of its community. He stressed that the relatively small decision would have an outsize impact.
    "Nobody has really picked up on what this is going to do to communities," Toutant said.
    Bureau spokesman Justin Long told Reuters last month, when the news agency first reported the decision, that although the bureau supported halfway houses, it was forced "to make some modifications to our programs due to our fiscal environment."
    Gotsch, the Sentencing Project staffer, challenged the bureau's reasoning that fiscal realities were behind the decision to close the facilities.
    "It's kind of curious to me that BOP is claiming they're having these big financial problems because they've had a huge dip in their prison population," Gotsch said. "What are they talking about? They don't have enough funding?"
    Gotsch said a quality period of time in a halfway house can be essential to transitioning from prison and noted that halfway houses offer not only proximity to offenders' home and communities, but that they can also access counseling and classes to help them acclimate back to society.
    "It definitely compromises the re-entry process," Gotsch said of the contracts ending.

    Cuts against trend

    The Bureau of Prisons' decision to cut funding for halfway houses has alarmed members of both political parties, who have begun to move toward a consensus that the federal government must implement some degree of reform to its criminal justice system in order to reduce the US prison population. The federal prison population makes up about 13% of the overall US prison population, and the nation's overall incarceration rate is the highest recorded in the world.
    A group of eight senators sent a letter in late October to Inch and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, expressing dismay at the cuts and asking for the move to be reversed.
    The letter notes concern about eliminating cognitive behavioral programming in addition to the closure of the 16 federal halfway house programs.
    "These changes, particularly in the absence of a justification, threaten to make our communities less safe while increasing BOP operating costs over time," the letter said.
    The senators on the letter were a bipartisan group, made up of John Cornyn of Texas and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa as well as Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
    The cuts are at odds with public actions and statements by the administration. White House adviser Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law, met with members of both parties at the White House in September to discuss improvements to the federal prison system, including better ways to reintegrate convicts into society.
    And last week, Sessions appeared to offer a mixed assessment of programs targeted at reducing recidivism when asked in a House Judiciary Committee hearing, but said he believed pre-release programs can be effective.
    "Most of the time, according to my experience, they don't achieve huge results, but if they achieve 10, 15, 20% improvement, that's of value," Sessions told GOP Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia last Tuesday.