Norton Calls on Bureau of Prisons to Change Policies Harming D.C. Inmates

Jul 27, 2017
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today released Norton’s letter to Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Acting Director Thomas R. Kane about her concerns with certain BOP polices that are harming District of Columbia code felons, the only local felons housed by BOP.  Norton asked BOP to take action on four specific policies: eliminate or significantly reduce the fee that residents of Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), or halfway houses, must pay to offset the cost of being housed; change the policy limiting physical contact during a visitation, particularly between a parent and young child, from only the beginning and closing of the visitation; change the visitor dress code; and provide all inmates with the opportunity to receive computer training.

“D.C. inmates already face tremendous challenges due to the unique circumstance of being housed in BOP facilities that are hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles away from their families and loved ones,” Norton said.  “While we have made some initial progress in our fight to have male and female D.C. inmates housed closer to the District, there are several significant steps BOP can take now to facilitate the transition of returning citizens back into civil society and to implement common-sense policies that help ease the already painful separation between inmates and their families.”

Last month, Norton introduced a bill (H.R. 2988) to eliminate the requirement that residents at BOP halfway houses pay a subsistence fee of 25 percent of their gross income to offset the cost of being housed.

Norton’s full letter is below.

Thomas R. Kane
Acting Director
Federal Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street NW, Room 642
Washington, DC 20534

Dear Acting Director Kane:

I write to express my concerns about four Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policies.  I have a special interest in BOP policies since District of Columbia Code felons are the only local felons housed by BOP. 

First, I am requesting that you use your authority to eliminate or significantly reduce the fee that residents of Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), or halfway houses, must pay to offset the cost of being housed.  While federal law mandates that BOP charge a subsistence fee, the fee must be “appropriate and reasonable.”  Currently, BOP requires halfway house residents to pay 25 percent of their gross income. 

Many halfway house residents work minimum-wage jobs, so the loss of 25 percent of their paychecks is a significant hurdle to successful reentry, making it extremely difficult for them to save money for rent or to pay child support or fines and fees associated with their conviction (such as restitution).  Only last year, BOP eliminated subsistence fees for those on home confinement.  Far from promoting financial responsibility, subsistence fees actually prevent returning citizens from meeting their financial obligations.  I am sure you agree that we should not be imposing additional burdens on returning citizens, possibly setting them up to fail.  Securing jobs and affordable housing is crucial to successful reentry, and charging subsistence fees is antithetical to this goal.

  The Department of Justice (DOJ) itself has recommended eliminating this fee, and has indicated that BOP has the authority to eliminate or reduce it.  A November 2016 DOJ memorandum recommended developing a plan to “limit the use of counterproductive ‘subsistence’ fees imposed on indigent residents,” and said, “[t]he Bureau’s process for collecting these subsistence fees is costly and administratively burdensome for both [RRCs] and the Bureau, and these fees make it difficult for residents, who typically earn minimum wage, to meet their other financial obligations, including restitution, fines, and child support.”  I recently introduced a bill, the Ensuring Successful Reentry Act (H.R. 2998), to eliminate these subsistence fees for halfway house residents, but while it is pending, I request that you use your authority to eliminate or reduce this fee.

Second, I am requesting that you change the BOP policy limiting physical contact during visitation, even between a parent and young child, to only the beginning and closing of the visitation.  While the stated purpose of this policy is to “minimize opportunity for the introduction of contraband and to maintain the orderly operation of the visiting area,” I fail to see how allowing a parent to hold his or her young child during the middle of the visitation increases the risk of introducing contraband any more than when the parent is allowed to do so at the beginning and end of the visitation.  Furthermore, visitors can be required “to submit to a personal search, including a search of any items of personal property, as a condition of allowing or continuing a visit,” further limiting the possibility of transferring contraband.

Third, I urge you to change the BOP visitor dress code.  I was stunned to learn of families traveling hundreds of miles, often at a great financial sacrifice, to visit a loved one in a BOP facility only to be turned away for wearing improper clothing, including shorts.  While I understand that BOP may need to ban certain items of clothing, such as those that are see-through, BOP’s policy appears overbroad, arbitrary and to disproportionately affect women.   Unless particular items of clothing could reasonably be expected to lead to a breakdown in good order, visitors should not be denied access to a BOP facility because of what they are wearing.

Lastly, I am requesting that all inmates be given the opportunity to receive computer and technology training.  Knowing how to operate a computer is essential to functioning in society today, and is increasingly necessary for finding and applying for jobs.  One part of the mission of BOP is to “provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.”  Computer training should be central to fulfilling this part of its mission.

I ask that you respond to this letter within 30 days, outlining how BOP plans to address these concerns.  I look forward to working with you on these important issues.

Sincerely,

Eleanor Holmes Norton

Cc:       Avis Buchanan, Director, Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia

Nancy Ware, Director, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia

            Michelle Bonner, Executive Director, DC Corrections Information Council

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