Overcrowding Cause for Prisoners Release, DOJ Says While Prisons Stand Empty, Underused

By Penny Starr | May 2, 2013 | 5:06pm EDT

Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)

(CNSNews.com) – The Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General’s April 2013 report on the Federal Bureau of Prison’s plan for the “compassionate release” of old, sick and low-risk inmates cites cost savings and less crowded prisons as benefits.

But at a House Judiciary hearing last month, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), questioned a DOJ official on the status of five federal prisons that were either empty or operating at a reduced capacity.

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Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, first noted that the DOJ had paid $165 million for the Thomson prison complex in Illinois in October 2012 that still has not been “activated” before questioning witness Lee Lofthus, assistant attorney general for administration at DOJ.

“Mr. Lofthus, the Thomson prison was a white elephant,” Sensenbrenner said. “The Department of Justice purchased it last October from the president’s home state of Illinois.”

Sensenbrenner noted that Congress had opposed the acquisition “and the fact that DOJ has four duly constructed Bureau of Prison facilities that currently sit idle awaiting full funding for operation.”

Sensenbrenner asked Lofthus: “Why do we have five prisons sitting empty?”

“Let me start by saying that we bought Thomson because we needed the high security bed spaces for the federal prison,” Lofthus said. “BOP needs high security bed space.

“It is 52 percent overcrowded in the high security level,” Lofthus said, adding that the purchase was “getting value for the taxpayer.”

Sensenbrenner then asked Lofthus about the Federal Correction Institution (FCI) Aliceville (Alabama), FCI Berlin (New Hampshire), FCI Hazelton (West Virginia), and FCI Yazoo City (Mississippi) prisons’ statuses.

“Well, we’ve got four other prisons that are sitting empty that apparently aren’t as high priority to this day,” Sensenbrenner said, asking if there were plans to sell the facilities.

Lofthus said DOJ did not plan to sell them because the prisons in New Hampshire and Alabama already had inmates. But when asked the percentage of capacity, Lofthus said “off the top of my head” it was “approximately 10 percent.”

As for the other two prisons, Lofthus said the West Virginia prison was recently completed and the Mississippi prison was not completed.

As the exchange continued Sensenbrenner asked Lofthus why BOP didn’t transfer inmates from overcrowded prisons to those operating under capacity.

“Because we just brought these prisons online,” Lofthus said. “We just got the activation money for the prisons, and I would like to thank Congress for funding in the FY ’13 full-year enacted bill that was just received on March 26.

“That full-year funding bill has provided us activation money to finish– to completely activate and fill those first two prisons, Mr. Chairman, and activate the second two prisons.”

As for Thomson prison, the funding for activation is included in President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014.

On page 43 of the DOJ OIG report, the section is entitled: “Release of inmates through the compassionate release program provides cost savings for the BOP and helps the BOP with its growing prison population and significant capacity issues.”

The report also states (page 47): “We found that the compassionate release program can help BOP in managing its growing prison population and its significant capacity issues.”

In a related story on CNSNews.com, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines, extraordinary and compelling reasons exist for compassionate release when:

-- The defendant is suffering from a terminal illness.

-- The defendant is suffering from a permanent physical or medical condition, or is experiencing deteriorating physical or mental health because of the aging process;

-- The death or incapacitation of the defendant’s only family member capable of caring for the defendant’s minor children.

-- Any other circumstance, which the director of the Bureau of Prisons finds to be an extraordinary and compelling reason.

Under the new plan, the length of time left to live with a terminal illness was extended from 12 to 18 months.

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