Our Voices > Reform Debate

The BOP War Against Family Ties

Jul 7, 2024

By Rob Barton

Each time I write a post about how we incarcerate our “citizens” in America, or the horrible conditions under which tens of thousands of Americans are held captive in these gulags all over the country that make up the federal Bureau of Prisons (especially its high-security institutions, the USPs), it may seem like I am just out to rail out against my captives and the establishment. But this isn’t the case.

I am not anti C.O. (correctional officer). I’m not anti-prison administration, or even anti-prison per se. I am pro programming that actually develop our skills and self-awareness. I am pro the humane and beneficial treatment of inmates (oh wait, the BOP now calls us “adults in custody”). I am pro keeping us healthy, in body and spirit. I am pro all the things BOP Director Collette Peters says she wants, and all the things the wardens and their staffs proclaim to be their mission in the bylaws, program statements, handbooks, memoranda, etc. that they churn out and paint on the walls (as if that makes it true). They all say, in one form or another, that “rehabilitation starts on the first day of incarceration.” I am pro that! I am anti the farce those words have become when experienced inside these walls. 

A case in point is the BOP’s system for determining our “custody classification” (degree of supervision we need): “Enter the number of points that reflect the degree of family and community ties, based on the inmate’s efforts to build, maintain and strengthen family/community ties, rather than the unilateral efforts of the family/community to provide support and assistance to the inmate.

“Consideration should be given to the following:

  • Financial support.
  • Visits (consider the inmate’s efforts to establish a list of approved visitors, frequency of visits and who visits).
  • Development of approved caller list, with a focus on family, potential employers and community.
  • Sends and receives regular correspondence.
  • Participates in release preparation and mock job fairs.
  • Involved in parenting programs and other family-oriented activities.
  • Participates in institution-sponsored community-service opportunities (such as Toys for Tots, Make a Wish foundation, community gardening, etc.)
  • Volunteers for community service and related activities.

“Score each inmate based on his/her unique circumstances, while focusing on what the inmate does to maintain, build and strengthen these ties.”

Ummm. All I can say is, “What a bunch of you know what!” We are locked in our cells for most of the day and a lot of the times, all day. When we are finally let out, 120 people are only given two hours to use six phones and four email computers. Meanwhile, families are afraid to come see us because 9 times out 10 lately, visits are cancelled at least one of the three days. But they are rating us based on frequency of calls and visits? 

And now, this prison has come up with a point system to further limit visits. Each of us only get seven points a month to allocate for visits: a visit on Saturday or Sunday uses up three points and Monday requires one. That means that those of us who are fortunate enough to have those robust social connections they want us to have can only one weekend visit a month, even without the lockdowns. What if we have divorced parents or children by different mothers? We’re forced to choose between them. And…we lose “points” if we aren’t judged to have strong social ties.

Many state prisons allow inmates to email from their cells using tablets, but in the feds, our tablets are “dumb.”  All they are set up to do is play music (that we pay for), play games and kiddie movies like Superman. No educational programming for us! And email or video visits? Nah…that would promote better family ties.

As I write this, staff are apparently installing WIFI in the units. Rumor is that video visits may be on the way. That would be amazing, if true. But what I fear is that the administration will use that benefit to deny us of in-person visits even further. Ad online and video can’t replace human touch. We need hugs. We need kisses. Touch visits rehumanize us. And our mothers, spouses, kids and other loved ones need us to hug and kiss them. 

And as for the other issues prison staff evaluate (“community service,” etc.), I have been held in a high-security prison for 25 years. Since I have an “indeterminate” [30 years to life] sentence, I’m considered a “lifer” and don’t get to participate in anything close to community-oriented activities, even though I am eligible for early release under DC’s “second-look” law. I was supposed to start an anger management class over a month ago and, due to those lockdowns, I haven’t been able to participate yet due to the constant lockdowns. So, please.

I write these posts because it’s important for the public to know what is really going on behind these walls and what needs to change if they want to see incarcerated men and women come home and be successful. The way we are incarcerating now is counterproductive to rehabilitation; in fact, it’s the biggest reason for our dismal recidivism rate. I write because I need people like u to join me in changing this system. 

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