How Julia Roberts’s new movie may influence prison reform

A new movie being made about ADX Florence may impact the public’s opinion of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), conditions of confinement, restrictive housing and segregation units

The recent release of the movie “Concussion” concerns scientists, sports fans, and the NFL. The movie follows actor Will Smith as he discovers a degenerative brain disease in a former National Football League player on his autopsy table. Smith’s character, the Nigerian-born doctor Bennet Omalu, then must battle the powerful football league to share his findings with the public. The film was based on a true story and has troubling implications.  

Research conducted on almost 100 deceased NFL players revealed that over 95 percent of them tested positive for the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive degenerative disease which afflicts the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries, such as athletes who take part in contact sports. Over the last few years, American Football has had to face up to the fact that repeated head collisions can have serious long-term effects.

In corrections, movies such as Brubaker (1980), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Green Mile (1999), and other exceptional films provide a distorted view of prisons in America. Each movie, however, also reveals the need to improve conditions of confinement and provide overall prison reform. In the end, the public enjoys the movie and takes home a sample of life in prison. It is time for a new movie.

The Initial Hit
During the past year, several hits brought light to how the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) needs to improve conditions of confinement — especially within restrictive housing and segregation units. The agency continues to nurse their concussion. 

In a New York Times article “Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison,” Mark Binelli examined conditions inside the United States’ only federal Supermax facility — the United States Administrative Maximum (ADX) Penitentiary in Colorado. He also shared details from a landmark lawsuit against the BOP which addresses the harsh world within the ADX. The co-counsel teams of Deborah Golden, director of the D.C. Prisoner’s Project, and Ed Aro, a partner with Arnold & Porter legal team, have initiated the largest lawsuit ever filed against the United States Bureau of Prisons. Binelli’s article and the lawsuit brought great attention to the ADX. 

The ADX is designed to safely house the Bureau’s most violent, predatory, disruptive, and escape-prone inmates. The mission of the ADX allows the Bureau’s other penitentiaries to operate safely and openly, permitting the significant percentage of the Bureau’s inmate population who want to serve their sentences without difficulty to do so safely. The ADX houses just over 400 male inmates, which constitutes less than a quarter of a percent of the total Bureau population. 

ADX Players 
The “supermax” houses many “high-profile” inmates such as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, along with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef. Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and shoe bomber Richard Reid are housed near former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, a Soviet spy. 

Here’s what the ADX players look like: 

    98 Leaders, Members, or Associates of “Security Threat Group” (STG) 
    67 Murdered Another Inmate 
    62 Leaders, Members, or Associates of “Disruptive Group” 
•    34 International Terrorists
    19 Al Qaeda 
    3 Gama’a Al-Islamiyaa 
    3 Taliban 
    12 History of Hostage Taking 
    12 Threatened Members of Federal Judiciary 
    10 Domestic Terrorists 
    3 Murdered Bureau Staff 

A New Playbook
In a July 14, 2015 speech, President Barack Obama announced that he had asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a review of “the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons.” The President directed that the purpose of the review be not simply to understand how, when, and why correctional facilities isolate certain prisoners from the general inmate population, but also to develop strategies for reducing the use of this practice throughout our nation’s criminal justice system. 

After extensive study, the report concluded that “there are occasions when correctional officials have no choice but to segregate inmates from the general population, typically when it is the only way to ensure the safety of inmates, staff, and the public.” But as a matter of policy, the authors believed that this practice should be used “rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.”

The report includes a series of “Guiding Principles” that should guide plans for limiting the use of restrictive housing across the American criminal justice system, as well as specific policy changes that the BOP could undertake to implement these principles. It recognized that life in restrictive housing has been well-documented by inmates, advocates, and correctional officials

During the 2016 Winter Conference of the American Corrections Association (ACA), Attorney General Lynch again addressed the need for prison reform. Local, state, and federal correctional professionals heard the message loud and clear — prison reform will occur.  

Additional scrutiny of the federal prison system occurred during the past year. The Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections (CCTF) was created by Congress. This nine-person, bipartisan, blue ribbon task force was mandated to examine challenges in the BOP and develop practical, data-driven policy responses. The group met throughout 2015 and presented its findings and recommendations in January to Congress, the Department of Justice, and the President.

The CCTF provided recommendations to reform the federal justice system, enhance public safety, and save the government billions of dollars. The newly released report, “Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives” provided a playbook for improvements. “We have laid out a detailed roadmap of ambitious, consensus-based recommendations that place public safety first while reserving prison for those who truly need it,” said task force chair, former Republican congressman from Oklahoma J.C. Watts, Jr. “If taken together, these reforms are projected to reduce the federal prison population by 60,000 people in the coming years and save more than $5 billion.”

It is important to note that Congress established the bipartisan panel in response to mounting concerns about the scale and cost of the BOP, which currently houses 195,000 people with a budget of almost $7.5 billion this year. Alan Mollohan, the task force’s vice-chair, said that the seven-fold increase in the BOP’s population since the 1980s is unsustainable.

“The BOP has been operating at crisis levels for decades,” said Mollohan, a former Democratic congressman from West Virginia. “As a result, its policies and practices have not kept up with best practice in the field, presenting a missed opportunity to rehabilitate those who are confined in federal prisons and thus promote public safety.”

ADX: The Movie
Julia Roberts is set to star in and produce “ADX” a drama about the groundbreaking lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The movie exposes the treatment of inmates at the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” and is said to be based on Mark Binelli’s New York Times article.

The Oscar-winner will play an attorney who receives a letter from an inmate at the ADX speaking of the injustices found in the ultra-secure penitentiary. She partners with another attorney to take on the BOP. This movie, combined with other revelations about the ADX identified during the past year, will present challenges for the BOP. With each challenge will come prison reform.

Going Forward
As Roberts’ movie is under development, the public will become more aware of committee’s findings, new articles, and litigation. The public will continue to learn more about incarceration.

Correctional professionals and others interested in mass incarceration will find great value in a new book released in February. Dr. Baz Dreisinger goes behind bars in nine countries to investigate the current conditions in prisons worldwide. Incarceration Nations is a first-person look at the prison systems of the world. Professor and journalist Dreisinger looks into the human stories of incarcerated men and women and those who imprison them, creating a view of a world to which most are denied access. 

As local and state prison systems wait to see how the “feds” deal with their concussion, many are getting ready to transform their systems by participating in the Warden Exchange (WE) program. The WE program is an opportunity for wardens and experienced correctional professionals to exchange best practices with the goal of improving culture and successful reentry. An eight-member advisory panel assists correctional professionals over a seven-month period, which consists of three in-person residencies. By exchanging ideas, participants learn fresh approaches to handling ongoing challenges within prison environments. It equips wardens with transformational leadership skills. 

During the past year the general public has been exposed to life within the ADX and other aspects of the federal prison system. Local and state prison systems are determining how this knowledge impacts their institutions. They are preparing for change. 

Under the leadership of its outgoing Director, Charles E. Samuels, Jr., the BOP has addressed many of the challenges mentioned in this article; but more changes need to occur. A new coach (or director) will soon be appointed to lead the BOP’s team of 40,000 employees. The new director will need to deal with the agency’s concussion and transform the federal prison system. The new Bureau will need transparency to retain credibility. 

As former warden of the ADX, I support the need to reform the BOP. The upcoming movie “ADX” has the potential to be the prison reform movie of the decade. Looking back we may find that what “Concussion” was to NFL “ADX” will be to prison reform in America. 

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