2013 in review: The metamorphosis of corrections

The upcoming year will require transformational leadership in all areas of the criminal justice system

Over 10.2 million men, women and children are held in prisons throughout the world. The United States prison total constitutes a rate of 716 per 100,000 of the national population, making it the largest user of prison in the world. A majority of the inmates are mentally ill or are alcohol and drug abusers.  

During the past year, there has been a metamorphosis or marked change in how policy-makers, criminal justice experts, and the general public view incarceration in America. Many significant events have caused us to pause at the appearance, character, condition, or function of corrections.

Prison Director Killed
Tom Clements, Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, was shot and killed in March. Officials believe his death was tied to solitary confinement policies. Inmate Evan Ebel was released directly out of segregation into society for less than two months before killing Clements. Ebel had the word ‘hopeless’ tattooed on his abdomen when he hit the streets. Clements had the desire to make positive change within the prison system. Extensive parole supervision was planned for Ebel, but not appropriately monitored by staff.

Almost 47 percent of offenders in ad-seg were sent directly out onto the streets. Clements cut the use of ad-seg by more than 40 percent during his first two years on the job. Around the time of Clements’ death, Colorado housed at least 87 seriously mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement (54 living in isolation for over a year and 14 in solitary confinement for more than four years). This was an improvement over fiscal year 2012, where over 500 mentally ill prisoners were housed in solitary conditions. Many of these offenders are unable to obtain required behavioral goals to progress out of segregation units.

Once the inmate’s sentence is served, they are released to the community or on parole. An audit revealed that Colorado parole officers committed fundamental supervision errors in more than 60 percent of cases handled. Many parolees with long criminal histories skipped or failed drug testing, and were involved with criminal activities while under state supervision. The system failed and this progressive prison director is no longer with us. 

As a result of the above tragedy, correctional systems are looking for solutions for effective discharge planning and community supervision to improve care and reduce recidivism.

Segregation Audits Initiated
A greater public interest in segregation has occurred. State and federal prison officials are reviewing policies and procedures. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) hired a team to conduct an audit of their segregation policies. In one year, a $498,211 contract will provide a “Special Housing Unit (SHU) Review and Assessment” of many of the BOP SHUs – to include several penitentiaries and the federal “supermax” in Colorado. A comprehensive review of the Bureau’s mental health assessment process and inmate due process will occur. As some states initiate their own review, others will wait to see “how the feds handle it.” The public will eventually have a better knowledge of America’s practice for isolating offenders.

Mentally Ill Offenders
A serious issue for correctional administrators is the incarceration of severely mentally ill inmates. Mentally ill offenders are constitutionally guaranteed basic mental health treatment. This constitutional guarantee is not being adequately fulfilled in many correctional facilities. Accurate prevalence rates of mentally ill prisoners are difficult to gauge. It is not uncommon for segregation units to be 50 percent occupied by mentally ill inmates. Staffing is often inadequate to provide out-of-cell therapeutic and non-therapeutic time.

What is particularly disturbing is that most offenders with serious mental illness also have a co-occurring substance-use disorder but may not receive treatment. Greater attention is needed to increase public safety by facilitating collaboration among the criminal justice, mental health and substance abuse systems.

Treatment alternatives to incarceration for people with mental health needs are missing. Providing access to treatment in lieu of prison can save money while also improving health. Non-custodial options should be sought by decision makers.

Sequestration & Shutdown
Sequestration hit all aspects of the government, but for the federal prisons, the impact was devastating. The sequester sent federal prison officials scrambling. Sequestration threatened to cut $338 million from the BOP’s budget, furlough of over 36,000 staff, and curtail future hiring. This dangerous situation impacted 119 federal prisons and 219,000 inmates. State and private correctional administrators were also concerned about dwindling federal dollars.

The 16-day government shutdown cost 6.6 million days of lost work. It also cost $2 billion for federal worker’s back pay. Corrections survived the fiscal crisis, and now manage more cautious budget projections.   

GITMO remained open with only 164 detainees – with taxpayers funding an annual cost of running the prison at $454 million. 

Correctional Health Care
Prison health-care costs are impacted by aging inmates, a prevalence of physical and mental illness, and delivery of services to prison settings. Recent studies indicate the median growth on prison healthcare spending has been 50 percent. In a dozen states, prison health expenditures grew 90 percent. States spend around $7 billion annually for offender healthcare.

Today, almost 9 percent of the inmate population is over 55. By 2030, about a third of all prisoners will be over 55 – creating additional financial and ethical challenges in corrections. Overall incarceration costs for this type of offender are almost $16 billion annually - $68,000 a year for each inmate over 50.  Correctional officers normally are not trained to handle elderly offenders and not all institutions can handle inmates with significant medical and mental health issues. A dozen states have geriatric release programs – others have medical or compassionate releases. Most inmates will be past their crime-prime years and of little risk to the community.  

Staff Assaults and Killings
Serious inmate-on-staff assaults continued during this year. Factors associated with the assaults were the movement of inmates, inmate mental health issues, or arguments progressing to an assault. Experience suggests that a small number of prisoners are responsible for a large proportion of staff assaults.

In February, for example, CO Eric Williams, 34, was killed by an inmate using a homemade weapon at the Canaan Federal Penitentiary in PA. Williams was the first federal CO killed within the past five years. Inmates continue to manufacture and introduce contraband throughout prison systems. Creative escape attempts were also noted during the past year.  

2013 has been a year of metamorphosis in corrections. The upcoming year will require transformational leadership in all areas of the criminal justice system.

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