The Unnecessary Risk Of Incarcerating Minimum Security Inmates

By Walt Pavlo
June 28, 2023

Our political leaders banter back and forth about incarcerating members of the opposite party. In fact, phrases like “toss them in prison” or “lock’em up” have been so misused that we forget the responsibility that comes with taking people into custody and assuming the risks associated with their care while in custody. The incarceration of minimum security inmates reflects an unnecessary that prosecutors and judges push onto the the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The BOP houses 160,000 inmates of various security levels and 23,000 of these are minimum security, 56,000 are low security. Minimum inmates are usually housed at camps, many of which do not even have a fence. Inmates at these facilities routinely have jobs outside of the compound, some even in the community that surround the prison. They have jobs of driving vehicles, heavy equipment, shopping at local stores for supplies to support the prison and some even furlough transfer on commercial airlines or buses to go to another prison to complete their sentence. With all this lack of security, it begs the question of why these inmates are in put into prison institutions at all when other means of supervision exist.

The BOP is in a crisis with staffing shortages, corruption of staff, placement on Government Accountability Office’s high risk list, and being one of the worst places to work among US government agencies. Within these problem areas, the BOP did a commendable job in placing many minimum security inmates on home confinement as part of its response to reduce prison populations and remove health vulnerable inmates to allow them to serve their sentences on home confinement. Between March 26, 2020, and January 23, 2023, the BOP placed in home confinement a total of 52,561 inmates, mostly minimum security and some with many years to serve on their sentence. The program had a 99% success rate with most inmates successfully completing their sentences without an incident.

Supervision of inmates on home confinement is also less costly for the BOP than housing inmates in secure custody. In Fiscal Year (‘‘FY’’) 2019, the cost of incarceration fee for a inmate in a Federal facility was $107.85 per day; in FY 2020, it was $120.59 per day. By contrast, according to the BOP, an inmate in home confinement costs an average of $55.26 per day—less than half the cost of an inmate in secure custody. Although the BOP’s decision to place an inmate in home confinement is based on many factors, where the BOP deems home confinement appropriate for a particular inmate, that decision has the added benefit of reducing the agency’s expenditures. This type of cost savings was among the intended benefits of the First Step Act, when Congress passed it citing a need to ‘‘control corrections spending, manage the prison population, and reduce recidivism.”

There are inherent risks in prison, even in minimum security facilities. Falling out of bunkbeds, getting hurt while working, poor diets, substandard medical care, communicable diseases and unnecessary lockdowns are all part of camp life. Some minimum security inmates with severe health issues are housed in secure medical facilities, which comes with an even higher cost of incarceration.

There are numerous examples of the risks that the BOP takes on with incarceration and some of the outcomes are tragic. My story in 2021 on Jimmy Monk, a first time, white-collar offender serving a one year sentence, demonstrated the unnecessary risk of housing such inmates. Monk, who had various health issues, died within 90 days of arriving in prison from COVID-19. Another inmate, Dan (will withhold his full name) was on CARES Act home confinement when the BOP halfway house violated the 72 year old citing he had failed a breathalyzer test (something he contested). Rather than find some other means to punish him, the BOP decided to send him to a county jail for 3 weeks before returning him to the prison camp in Coleman Florida. With only a few days remaining in his sentence, Dan passed away from a heart attack. In the fall of 2022, Benjamin McGraw was nearing the end of a long prison term when he got into a fight with another inmate at FCI Forrest City camp, a rarity. After being punched once he fell backwards and hit his head on a concrete wall. He died days later from the head injury.

The BOP has the means to return many minimum security inmates to society sooner but it is falling short in implementing programs it already has to place them in other, non-institution, settings. The First Step Act could return many minimum security inmates to home confinement but the BOP continues to struggle to implement the program. While the press was covering the long 11 year sentence of former Theranos executive Elizabeth Holmes, it failed to mention that her sentence behind bars could be around 5 years with a substantial part of her team being served on home confinement.

Prison sentences, many for white collar or low level drug offenders, are often 6 years or less. These sentences can be reduced with existing programs. The Second Chance Act (up to one year of halfway house / home confinement) and First Step Act (credits to reduce sentences up to a year and additional home confinement) can both be used to reduce prison populations and put people in a safer environment to make what BOP Director Colette Peters says “better neighbors not better inmates.”

In order to be a neighbor, the inmate needs to be in a house, not a prison.

The BOP has used home confinement for all levels of inmates ranging from those who leave from high security prisons to those from camps. They all have earned the right for this alternative form of incarceration and most all adhere to the rules that will allow them to enjoy the rewards of being at home or close to home. The expansion of the programs that would allow many inmates to serve their time in home confinement is only limited by the infrastructure to house them. Halfway house capacity has long been an issue for the BOP and with the expansion of programs to place more inmates in the community, this problem will only be exacerbated.

The Washington Post has called for reform of the BOP in an editorial and Congress has been frustrated with the agency for years. Director Peters has the congressional support to implement change, but can she bring a beleaguered government agency to face its almost insurmountable challenges? Reducing the reliance on institutional housing of minimum security inmates is one way to allow the BOP to focus on the bigger issues they face in housing dangerous criminals. By the BOP’s own security classification system, minimum security inmates are a minimum danger to society and a good place to start to change the BOP for the better.