Feds Approve $54 Million for New High Security Prison

The Bureau of Prisons has announced renovations will commence on the Thomson maximum security prison in Illinois. The funding was approved in January in the Omnibus Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2014.

The “state of the art” unoccupied state prison was built in 2001 and purchased by the U.S. from Illinois as a possible place to house Guantanamo inmates when Gitmo closed. Then Congress killed the transfer of Guantanamo inmates to the U.S.

Check out the gleeful response of Illinois senator Richard Durbin:

This is the news we’ve been waiting for. The funding that the Bureau of Prisons reported to Congress today is a significant investment in the economic future of Northern Illinois,” said Durbin.

Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat, chimes in:

“Communities across our region of Illinois have spent over a decade thirsting for today’s great news,” said Bustos. “This investment by the Bureau of Prisons in Thomson prison means that construction can soon begin, workers can soon compete for good-paying jobs and Northern Illinois will no longer be home to an empty prison.”

What a shame that Durbin and Bustos place a higher priority on creating jobs for prison guards than on programs that would reduce the need for such prisons.

Nor is $53 million the total we will all be spending so Illinois prison guards can have jobs.

[Durbin and Bustos] will continue working to make certain that the Obama Administration remains committed to the activation of Thomson prison and that the next Congressional Appropriations bill includes robust funding for Thomson prison. (my emphasis)

More numbers:

The federal government’s operation of Thomson is expected to provide a major boost to the local economy and create more than 1,100 jobs. Annual operation of the facility is expected to generate more than $122 million in operating expenditures (including salaries), $19 million in labor income, and $61 million in local business sales.

This is likely to become another Supermax:

The facility was constructed on a 146-acre piece of land and has 1,600 beds with eight compartmentalized units designed for maximum inmate supervision and control. The facility is enclosed by a 12-foot exterior fence and 15-foot interior fence, which includes a dual-sided electric stun fence.

Solitary Watch has more. A BOP spokesman told them last year:

“Thomson will be a high security prison holding inmates with various security needs, including SMU and ADX type inmates.”

Only 11% (22,854) of federal inmates are classified as “high security.”

From the most recent BOP inmate population statistics: Supermax in Colorado has 413 inmates. The USP at Marion, IL has 1162 inmates and Leavenworth has 1703. USP Terre Haute has 1565, USP Lewisburg has 1029, and USP Victorville has 1527. USP Lompoc has 1618, USP Lee has 1497, and USP Florence has 784.

A new strategy and reduction in our reliance on incarceration is needed — not new prisons.The Brennan Center wrote in November:

The BOP has an opportunity to take the lead in America’ shift away from mass incarceration ….. Comprehensive reforms require not just an increase in services, but also sentencing reform, more funding for indigent defense, and change in the way that law enforcement, prosecutors, and public defenders do business. Failure to lead on significant change will only sustain an indefensible situation for BOP.

Also good reading: This report from Federal Probation:

[T]he savings from using supervision in lieu of incarceration is substantial, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars per case.89 Those savings could be drawn upon by Congress and the agencies involved to experiment with greater use and innovation in community supervision, ideally better protecting the public, reducing costs, and alleviating overcrowding at the BOP.

If we reduced prison terms for non-violent offenders, ended mandatory minimum sentences and provided more funding for programs providing skills to inmates and reducing recidivism, we’d soon have enough empty prison space to be able to modify existing federal prisons to be secure enough for violent offenders and not need to build new prisons or spend $54 million on a economic boon for Illinois.

We should also be making more use of the prisoner transfer treaty. In a 2012 OIG report on the Department of Justice, the Inspector General wrote:

Yet the OIG review found the BOP and the Criminal Division’s International Prisoner Transfer Unit had rejected 97 percent of foreign national inmates’ requests to transfer from FY 2005 through FY 2010, and in FY 2010, slightly less than 1 percent of the 40,651 foreign national inmates in the BOP’s custody were transferred to their home countries to complete their sentences.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission warned in 2011 that mandatory minimums and overly long sentences are big contributors to prison overcrowding.

Here is the 2012 GAO report on federal prison overcrowding.

The Department of Justice also needs to change its prosecution policies. From the 2013 OIG report, as to over-federalization of crimes:

The Department’s policies governing prosecutorial and investigative decisions are a key driver of prison costs, and they need to reflect the real and growing impact that increasing prison costs are having on the Department’s budget.

… [O]ne of the factors contributing to the increasing number of prisoners in the federal prison system over the past 3 decades has been the trend to prosecute at the federal level many offenses that were previously handled largely or exclusively by state and local authorities.

….The Department should simultaneously consider how the federalization of criminal law has affected its budget and operations, and whether rebalancing the mix of cases charged federally might help alleviate the budget crisis posed by the federal prison system without sacrificing public safety, particularly where state and local authorities have jurisdiction to prosecute the conduct.

America can not build its way out of its criminal justice problems. New prisons aren’t the answer. Senator Durbin may be thrilled for his constituents, but I hope those in the other 49 states are appalled at the expenditure.

Instead of funding new prisons to relieve overcrowding, with no end in sight, Congress needs to get its act together and address the real issue that we have too many federal prisoners. Put the pressure on them to pass these currently pending measures:

  • H.R. 3088, Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act of 2013, which ends mandatory minimums and requires written AG approval for filing drug charges under the threshold amounts.
  • S. 619, Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013: Allows judges to depart from mandatory minimums to prevent an unjust sentence.
  • S. 1410 (reducing mandatory minimums in drug cases and expanding the Safety Valve.) This has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and was reported to the full Senate on March 11, 2014. Unfortunately, the bill as introduced was modified to changed the expanded safety valve application from those in Criminal History Category II (2 or 3 points) to those with no more than two criminal history points (which covers only half of those in criminal history category II.) The original version should be reinstated when the full senate considers it. The corresponding House bill still is better because it doesn’t contain new crimes and enhanced penalties and it allows an out from mandatory minimums to those in Criminal History Category II.
  • S. 1675, Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2013: allows increased good time for some offenders upon completion of recidivism courses.