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Why The Biden Administration’s Choice To Lead The Bureau of Prisons Matters

The attorney general could pick a new head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That person should have public health experience, formerly incarcerated activists say.

San Pedro Federal Prison
Photo by Christina House/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As President Biden and his administration begin selecting political appointees, civil rights advocates and formerly incarcerated people hope a new Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) director will be chosen who prioritizes the human rights of those incarcerated. 

“This is the one correctional system that is completely within the control of the Biden-Harris administration,” said Piper Kerman, who was incarcerated in the federal system and is the author of the book “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” “There’s no question that the president and the Department of Justice that he appoints control the BOP. The BOP should look the way the new administration wants it to.”

The new director should be a reformer who can change the agency’s culture, said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums). 

Ring said his organization met with Biden’s transition team to share what type of person they believe should lead the BOP. When the pandemic hit, the BOP’s reticence to release people put thousands of lives at risk, said Ring, who was incarcerated in the federal prison system. 

“They weren’t ready to do something like this, which is shift gears and figure out how to save lives,” he said.

The BOP has more than 123,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons and about 13,800 in community-based facilities. Over the last year, medical professionals have championed calls to release prisoners, and to provide proper medical care and vaccines for those who are incarcerated. 

Between March and May, federal wardens rejected or ignored more than 98 percent of compassionate release applications, according to an investigation by The Marshall Project. In addition to compassionate release, prisoners can also be placed on home confinement. Since March, about 20,000 people have been released on home confinement, according to the BOP website. And as of Jan. 16, only about 6,500 people incarcerated in federal prisons have received one or two doses of the vaccine. The Bureau of Prisons currently recommends offering vaccinations to all employees before incarcerated people. 

“We’ve been fighting to get as many sick and elderly people, those who are at risk of COVID out of prison and we’ve really had to do that by fighting the Bureau of Prisons,” said Ring. “We’ve been having to work with the prisoners and their families to file compassionate release motions and to go to court. But the Bureau of Prisons could have been a partner in this effort.”

Throughout the pandemic, numerous federal prisoners have reported inadequate or nonexistent medical care, isolation, and denied applications for release, and activists say addressing these issues should be the priority for a new BOP head.

Last February, Attorney General William Barr appointed the current BOP director, Michael Carvajal, who began his career with the bureau in 1992 as a correctional officer. Members of Congress and civil rights advocates have condemned his response to the pandemic, which they say has endangered prisoners, staff, and the surrounding communities. Since the pandemic began, tens of thousands of prisoners have contracted COVID-19. As of Monday, more than 200 federal prisoners have died from the disease, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Three BOP staff members have died. 

The new director should also be someone from outside the Bureau of Prisons, advocates  say. 

“The first thing I would ask the president is, ‘Are you happy with the way it’s being run now?’” said Rick Raemisch, a retired executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. “Does that fulfill your vision and if it does not, then I would suggest you not promote from within because when you promote from within, typically you get what you got.”

As head of his state’s DOC, Raemisch ended long-term solitary confinement, and capped the maximum stay in isolation at 15 days at a time. He suggested two reform-minded department of corrections leaders to lead the BOP: Colorado’s Dean Williams and Oregon’s Colette Peters. 

“The person in charge of the bureau has to ensure that they’re doing everything they can to ensure that [incarcerated people are] ready to return to the community,” he said. 

Several formerly incarcerated advocates told The Appeal that the pandemic made clear the need for a public health expert to lead the bureau.

“Someone from the medical field should be the head of BOP because prisons are public health disasters,” said Adnan Khan, executive director of Restore Justice. Khan co-founded his organization when he was incarcerated in California. “Anyone with a law enforcement background is not qualified for that job.”

Five Mualimm-ak, a human rights activist, agreed that the new head of the BOP should have a medical background and suggested psychologist Craig Haney. Haney, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has studied and spoken out on the detrimental health effects of incarceration and solitary confinement. A medical professional “has a duty beyond the system of punishment,” said Mualimm-ak, who is president of the Incarcerated Nation Network, a collective of formerly incarcerated leaders.

“Having a person who would put human rights first would change the system,” he said. 

Haney or public health expert Brie Williams should be among those considered to run the Bureau of Prisons, said Kerman. Williams is a professor at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. She also heads Amend at UCSF, which tries to change the correctional culture in prisons and jails. During the pandemic, the group has advocated for reducing California’s prison population through early releases. 

“We’ve had a lot of insiders run the Bureau of Prisons, and we’ve seen very little improvement,” said Kerman.  “It’s definitely time to bring someone from outside of that existing bureaucracy to change it.” 

Jack, who is incarcerated in a federal prison in New England, has filed for compassionate release multiple times since April. Although he is classified as a minimum-security prisoner and has blood disorders, each petition has been denied. (The Appeal is not publishing Jack’s real name to protect him from retaliation for speaking with the media.) 

Last year, Jack was in quarantine for about 100 days according to a court filing—before and after a prison transfer and after potential exposures, he told The Appeal. Last fall, Jack tested positive for COVID-19. He was sent back to isolation, he said.  

“One of the things that was tough for me was being in that isolation cell, not being able to reach out to my family,” he told The Appeal. “Not sure what was going to happen, not sure if I’d ever talk to them again.” 

When asked who he’d like to see head the Bureau of Prisons, Jack suggested someone who has been incarcerated or had a loved one incarcerated.

“I don’t think guards and the staff that work in the prisons, I don’t think they fully comprehend all the damage that happens to inmates when they’re in here,” Jack said. “I think only somebody who knows somebody or they themselves have been in this situation would really understand the full consequences and be able to be empathetic.”

Mualimm-ak said his first suggestion for a BOP head is “someone who’s been through it.” 

“That will never happen,” he said.