This may be one reason so many federal prisoners end up back in jail

By: Michael Doyle

Three federal prisons in California and others nationwide appear to be falling short in preparing inmates for safe release into society, investigators are warning.

Most inmates don’t complete the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ formal pre-release program, investigators found. Individual prisons show “widely inconsistent curricula, content and quality” for the programs. Federal agency coordination is said to be poor.

“We found that the program’s overall effectiveness remains largely unknown,” the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General said in a report released Wednesday.

The findings rely in part on investigators’ evaluations of the Release Preparation Program at federal facilities in Victorville, San Pedro and Los Angeles, which are among 10 Federal Bureau of Prisons institutions in California.

The 48-page report also helps illuminate the prospects for nearly 125,000 federal prisoners released over the last three years. These ex-convicts are released directly into communities, home confinement or residential re-entry centers like those managed by a federal field office in Sacramento.

The California re-entry centers, commonly known as halfway houses, include a 27-bed facility in Fresno and a 25-bed facility in Bakersfield, among others.

Underscoring the high stakes for all these institutions, a March study cited in the new report found that 49.3 percent of federal offenders released in 2005 were later arrested for new crimes or violations of parole conditions.

Of the 68,695 federal prisoners released during fiscal year 2013, 16.4 percent had been returned to federal custody by 2015.

“That’s a failure,” Patrick J. Nolan, the director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation, said in an interview Wednesday. “The whole idea of a corrections department is to correct behavior.”

A former Republican leader in the California Assembly, Nolan served 29 months in federal custody after pleading guilty to a racketeering charge that followed an FBI sting operation. He was released in 1996.

“The re-entry preparation was a joke,” Nolan recounted, “and from what the inmates tell me, that hasn’t changed.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, in the agency’s official response, agreed with each of the Office of Inspector General’s recommendations and pledged to make specific improvements.

“The BOP will establish a mechanism to assess the extent to which the (program) provides inmates with relevant skills and knowledge to prepare them for successful re-entry to society,” the agency said.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires all inmates to participate in the Release Preparation Program except for those in exempted categories, such deportable unauthorized immigrants. The program covers topics like health and nutrition, employment and personal finance.

Individual prison administrators develop their own offerings, and specific classes range from anger management to arts and crafts. One of the visited prisons, investigators noted, offered no courses in résumé writing or job interview skills.

“Institutions do not formally collect feedback from inmates to determine whether they find the courses useful,” the investigators said, adding that the courses “vary greatly in terms of their apparent practicality.”

The class quality, too, varies widely. One personal finance course visited by investigators involved a teacher reading verbatim from a handout for 20 boring minutes, while another lasted an hour and included considerable substance and student discussion.

The coursework variation, investigators said, “greatly complicates any effort” to evaluate whether the program works in reducing recidivism.

Only about one-third of the inmates released in fiscal 2013 had completed the Release Preparation Program.

“Some institution staff told us that one of their greatest challenges was getting inmates to ‘buy into’ the RPP,” the report said, adding that some inmates “felt the information presented was not relevant to their individual circumstances.”

Congress, too, has periodically tried to fine-tune the corrections system, as with the Second Chance Act, signed in 2008. The legislation authorized grants that have included $1.5 million in 2012 to a Fresno County job-training program for young offenders.

Bills to reauthorize the Second Chance Act, including requirements that federal prison wardens enter into anti-recidivism programs with faith-based and community volunteer organizations, have been introduced but not advanced far this Congress.

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