Chairman, Committee Find Bipartisan Agreement on Federal Prisons

WASHINGTON – On Tuesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held what is to be the first in a series of hearings to examine the criminal justice system in America. 

In his opening remarks, Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) focused on  the striking statistics on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), noting, “the data is pretty stark.” 

  • In 1980, there were 25,000 people in the federal prison system.
  • Since the 1980s, America has seen a 735% increase in the federal inmate population, which now stands at more than 200,000.
  • The total federal spending on the federal prison system is now more than $6.9 billion in taxpayer dollars – more than a quarter of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) entire annual budget. 

Chairman Johnson stated that the intent of the hearing, was “to lay out the realities” of what he called “an incredibly difficult and complex problem.”                                                                                         

Following Chairman Johnson and Ranking Member Carper’s opening remarks, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)  was asked to deliver an opening statement due to his leadership on criminal justice issues. “It has been probably the best experience I’ve had in the United States Senate since I began about 18, 19 months ago, to find such bipartisan willingness to deal with issues of justice in our country,” Booker said. “It’s extraordinary … to be able to sit with you today, chairman, to see this bipartisan willingness to confront the wrongs in our country that surround criminal justice and a determination to do something about it.” 

This hearing is the first in a series of discussions on the BOP, Johnson said. Tuesday’s hearing specifically sought to address the high incarceration rate. 

“America’s addiction to mass incarceration is not working,” said Wisconsin resident Jerome Dillard, a former federal inmate and current reentry coordinator for Dane County, Wisconsin, testifying before the committee. “It’s costly, it does not restore people and I personally feel that the climate is right, and the ground is fertile for real criminal justice reform.”

Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, also testified before the committee on Tuesday and spoke of her own experiences serving 13 months incarcerated in federal prison. She emphasized the need for lawmakers to listen to current and former inmates when they consider reforming the criminal justice system. “Our experiences are essential to understanding the reform that’s needed in our criminal justice system so that it will provide for public safety in a way that is legal and humane and sensible,” Kerman said. 

Kerman concluded with a quote from the late Thomas Mott Osborne asking those present to consider the question: “Shall our prisons be scrap heaps or human repair shops?”  

“I strongly hope that our goal is that they’re human repair shops,” Johnson said. 

Senator Booker lauded his fellow members for demonstrating a “bipartisan willingness to confront the wrongs in our country that surround criminal justice and a determination to do something about it.” 

Other issues that were brought up included overcrowding, the psychological impact of solitary confinement, scarcity of rehabilitative programming, lack of reentry support, shortfalls within the BOP’s compassionate release program policies and management, and deficiencies in programming offered to the rapidly increasing elderly inmate population. 

Referencing the Bureau’s vocational training program, which has been shown to reduce recidivism by 33 percent, Johnson asked, “Apparently only 10,000 out of the 210,000 population are participating in the reentry program … It sounds like a very successful program. Why aren’t more people involved in it?” 

“We only have a limited number of opportunities that we can provide based on the number of inmates in our system, and that goes back to the crowding,” Charles Samuels, Jr., Director of the Bureau of Prisons told Johnson. “With increased crowding, we have waiting lists.” 

Also testifying at Tuesday’s hearing were Michael Horowitz, Inspector General for the DOJ and Udi Ofer, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. 

Chairman Johnson’s opening statement can be found here

The full hearing video can be seen here.