In an unexpected turnabout, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has modified its July 2013 decision to transfer all prisoners from the only federal women’s facility in the northeast, located in Danbury, Connecticut. The BOP had planned to ship 1,120 prisoners held at FCI Danbury to a recently-opened 1,800-bed facility in Aliceville, Alabama – over 1,000 miles away. The $250 million Aliceville prison had been championed by U.S. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama.
However, almost a dozen other U.S. Senators – as well as prisoners’ rights organizations and advocates, federal district court judges and prisoners’ families – unleashed a firestorm of criticism over the proposed move, which threatened to exile prisoners at Danbury far from their families in the northeast. This was despite the BOP announcing as early as 1997 that it was committed to meeting the “different physical, social, and psychological needs” of women prisoners.
The BOP attempted to justify the wholesale transfer of women from FCI Danbury by claiming the move would “relieve overcrowding” in men’s prisons, as BOP officials intended to convert Danbury into a facility for male prisoners. The minimum-security satellite camp at FCI Danbury would continue to house around 200 women.
While there are 25 federal facilities for male prisoners in the northeast, only Danbury holds women prisoners in that region. The low-security facility has housed such notable prisoners as “Queen of Mean” real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley, singer Lauryn Hill and Piper Kerman, author of the book (now a hit TV series) “Orange is the New Black.”
The BOP pays lip service to “maintaining ties” between prisoners and their families; however, the agency’s plan to transfer hundreds of women more than 1,000 miles to a remote prison in rural Alabama indicated that maintaining family ties was low on the BOP’s priority list.
U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Chris Murphy of Connecticut voiced their opposition to the BOP’s decision to relocate prisoners from FCI Danbury and convert the facility to a men’s prison, as did online magazine Slate contributor Judith Resnick, who slammed the BOP in the strongest possible language.
“Being moved far from home limits the opportunities of women being moved out of Danbury; it hurts them in prison and once they get out,” Resnick wrote. “Instead of taking a route consistent with its policies, and newly announced commitments to parenting by prisoners, the government is sending hundreds of prisoners on a long hard trip to Aliceville.”
“These women clearly did something wrong in order to get to federal prison but their kids didn’t,” Senator Murphy noted. “The best way to bring any inmate back into society is to make sure that while they are incarcerated they keep their connections with their families.”
Gillibrand and Murphy recruited fellow U.S. Senators Charles Schumer of New York, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania, Angus King of Maine, and Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who signed a joint letter in August 2013 that criticized the BOP’s plan to transfer prisoners from FCI Danbury.
“This transfer would dramatically disrupt the lives of these female inmates, many of whom are from the Northeast, and place them out of reach of their families and loved ones,” the letter stated. “Given BOP’s commitment to maintaining family contact, the goal should be to have as many inmates as close as possible to their homes. The Federal Corrections Institute at Danbury is uniquely well-situated to do just that.”
The National Association of Women Judges also weighed in, meeting with BOP Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr. and with Deputy Attorney General James Cole to express concerns about removing women prisoners from Danbury. Further, the BOP’s plan was opposed by National CURE, FedCURE and the New York-based Osborne Association.
Additionally, a dozen federal judges in northeast districts sent a joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in October 2013, stating, “If the planned mission change for Danbury goes forward, our ability to recommend incarceration near family members and children for male inmates will continue, but we will have no ability to do the same for female inmates.”
The BOP temporarily suspended its plan to transfer prisoners from Danbury due to the strong opposition, which was followed by delays caused by the federal government shutdown in October 2013, but BOP Director Samuels indicated the agency intended to proceed with relocating women prisoners to FCI Aliceville. He noted that some of the prisoners from Danbury would be housed closer to their families as a result of the move.
Senator Blumenthal, who called the BOP’s plan “profoundly shortsighted and misguided,” stated on October 6, 2013 that he intended to meet with Attorney General Holder in an effort to reverse the BOP’s decision. “As a former federal prosecutor, I believe this very unwise and unfair policy is completely antithetical to the goals of wise criminal justice,” he said.
Ultimately, the wide-ranging criticism of the BOP’s plan to transfer prisoners from FCI Danbury to Aliceville resulted in a compromise.
In November 2013, the BOP announced it would spend $8-10 million to expand the satellite camp at Danbury to house around 400 women prisoners whose families are in the northeast. The conversion of FCI Danbury to a men’s prison will continue, however, and hundreds of women prisoners will be shipped from Danbury to Aliceville – mainly non-citizens and prisoners who do not have family in the northeast.
The first mass transfers to FCI Aliceville began on November 13, 2013, and the facility is expected to reach full capacity in early 2014. Interestingly, Aliceville was previously a prison town – it hosted a prisoner-of-war camp that held up to 6,000 mostly-German and Italian POWs from 1943 to 1945.
Sources: Reentry Central, Connecticut Law Journal, Associated Press, Hartford Courant, www.newsday.com, www.newstimes.com, www.montgomeryadvrtiser.com, www.slate.com, www.forbes.com
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