Fixing Prison System Needs More Than Change in Leadership, Writes Bureau of Prisons Official

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By Natalia Ruvalcaba

WASHINGTON DC – Hugh Hurwitz, current Assistant Director/Re-entry Services for the Bureau of Prisons, recounts the recent coverage of the federal prison system in relation to allegations of criminal activity against its workers.

In response to these claims, senior Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asserted that the solution was to fire the person in charge.

However, Hurwitz notes the Illinois senator’s response to this ongoing issue is not a simple one-time solution.

While Sen. Durbin’s order to fire the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director, Michael Carvajal, doesn’t come as some unforeseen revelation, it doesn’t solve much, explains Hurwitz, who added there are much bigger, systemic issues that afflict the U.S. prison system.

Hurwitz believes prisons around the nation are facing a cataclysmic event due to the profoundly strong and ingrained issues within these institutions.

Hurwitz notes that firing the current BOP chief and hiring a new person is not going to solve systemic issues, as seen by Carvajal.  Carvajal, stood as the sixth director or acting director, appointed in the last five years.

Hurwitz writes, “The reality is that one person can only do so much. I should know. I was one of those six.”

When an Associated Press report came out saying that a multitude of federal prison workers had been arrested, convicted, or sentenced for criminal activity dating back to 2019, Hurwitz noted Sen. Durbin’s outrage.

Admitting it is unfortunate that wrongdoing and deceit are common in prisons, Hurwitz adds it still comes with great despair.

Sen. Durbin reported, “it’s clear that there is much going wrong in our federal prisons, and we urgently need to fix it.”

Hurwitz explains that across the United States, an approximated 1.8 million people are imprisoned.  Of that 1.8 million, 156,000 individuals, comprise the BOP populace.  This number is down from the 220,000 individuals that accounted for the BOP population in 2013.

Though, as Hurwitz explains, even with the decrease in population, staff, infrastructure, healthcare, drug treatment and other services are insufficient for those in the system. Adding to this disarray is the mass incarceration of mentally ill individuals and the disparities in the racial makeup of prisoners.

To look forward to change, Hurwitz believes, it is imperative that incarceration only includes those who need to be isolated from the rest of society or are in need of a thorough rehabilitation program, and which is done so in an appropriate manner and timely period.

To begin, Hurwitz thinks there should be common-sense sentencing.  This reform would look to alternatives to prison, such as leaning more so on drug courts, partaking in community service, and even living at halfway homes.

Dismantling and abolishing the minimum sentences for any crime related to drugs must also be established, Hurwitz maintains, because those old policies have led to the growing prison population.

Hurwitz adheres to the idea that more rigorous reentry programs also need to be set up in order to help those exiting the prison system.  Annually, around 650,000 individuals leave prison, and those people need assistance in finding job, housing, and healthcare security and stay free from crime, he said.

This effort was uplifted by Congress with the bipartisan passage of the First Step Act of 2018, cosponsored by Sen, Durbin.  Though the BOP continues to need support through resources to properly carry out this law, notes Hurwitz.

Additionally, Hurwitz said better wages and investments need to be established for correctional officers, outlining recruitment, retention and training of these workers must be fully funded, and such wages should equate to those of other law enforcement officers.

Hurwitz establishes that the news of the recent deplorable acts by federal prison system workers is not indicative of the majority of BOP officers, claiming most BOP officers put their lives on the line to protect the lives of others, suffering through high rates of PTSD and suicide, as a result.

Hurwitz notes that while tackling these issues of great importance, the easiest, yet most alienating course of action is – closing America’s oldest and big-budgeted prisons.  Such closures of expensive and aging prisons would benefit the BOP, Hurwitz writes, as it would enable them to distribute staff and resources to still existing institutions.

As a result, safety and security would be increased in the remaining  prisons, and programs and services can also be improved upon.

While Hurwitz asserts it may be difficult to propose the closure of several prisons around the U.S. to some members of Congress, he notes it is not impossible.

In South Carolina, closing prisons has been able to come to fruition on the state level with the cessation of six correctional centers within the 10 ten years.  Following the bipartisan passage of reforms pertaining to sentencing and corrections in 2010, South Carolina has witnessed a dwindling effect in its prison population.

The Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Federal Priorities recommended the construction of an independent oversight board for the BOP, and which Hurwitz agrees is significant for the Attorney General and Congress to acknowledge and accept.

According to Hurwitz, this implementation would enable private expertise to assist in the agency’s challenges, all while maintaining the career guidance that the agency has significantly retained successfully, and concludes political protection would also be of help to the agency leaders and elected officials who may find difficulty in making these decisions, to which the board is well versed upon.

The highlighting of recent BOP actions are troubling, but as Hurwitz writes, they also provide the knowledge that the current criminal justice system is in dire need of reconstruction that ensures the institution is not immense, not penal, and not inhumane as it is now.

Hurwitz notes, change can come from this system, though it needs to be accompanied by political resolution, independent supervision, and steadfast commitment.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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