Dozens of family members of incarcerated inmates in federal prisons are meeting with nearly half of the United States Senate on Wednesday to urge them to vote in support of a Trump-backed prison reform bill that overwhelming passed in the House but has stalled in the upper chamber.
As criminal justice reform activists say that the best chance in decades to pass meaningful prison reform legislation that will help reduce the federal recidivism rate is now, activists and family members held a rally outside of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday to publicly voice their call for the Senate to vote on and pass the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act.
The FIRST STEP Act would greatly expand the training and educational programs that are available for federal inmates to help prepare them for life outside of prison and allow those eligible to earn time credits to complete their sentences in halfway homes or in-home confinement. The legislation would also do other things like ban the shackling of pregnant inmates in labor and place a 500-mile limit on how far inmates can be incarcerated from their families.
Although 134 Democratic Congress members voted in favor of the bill when it passed 360-59, it has not been voted on in the Senate and has also been opposed by over 70 left-leaning social justice groups that want the bill to include mandatory minimum sentencing reform for non-violent drug offenders.
At the rally hosted by the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums, several family members spoke about their experiences and how the FIRST STEP Act would not only benefit their imprisoned loved ones but would also benefit them as well.
Although the bill does not include mandatory sentencing, the message at the rally was clear: inmates in federal prison and their families can not wait any longer for Congress to fix a broken prison system simply because a bill doesn’t have all the things that politicians desire.
Tony Lewis Jr., a re-entry specialist based in D.C. whose father has served over 29 years in federal prison, shared how much of a struggle it was for him growing up in the nation’s capital with his father all the way across the country in California for the first 13 years of his sentence.
“In terms of this bill, I think it is important to keep people within a 500 mile radius,” he said. “Those familial bonds are some of the most important things to keep people through. I like to tell people, particularly young people, you are the driving force in your parents’ life.”
Now that he is working as a professional helping inmates successfully re-enter society, Lewis said that the FIRST STEP Act would provide immense help in fixing the “skill set deficit” that currently exists in federal prisons.
“Everybody does their time in the federal system and there is a big skill set deficit,” he said. “So expanding training and education in the federal system is critical and pivotal. It is shameful that we don’t have more of a focus on that.”
Although some state prison systems have incorporated a more restorative approach to incarceration and have implemented programs to help prepare inmates for life on the outside, the federal system is lagging.
“Did you know that the Bureau of Prisons recently confirmed that there are 16,000 people in the federal system awaiting literacy classes?” James Ackerman, CEO of the evangelical prison ministry Prison Fellowship, said during the rally. “It is shameful. We can almost guarantee that somebody is going to have a very difficult time re-entering society from prison if they can’t read.”
As Prison Fellowship has been one of the most active supporters of the FIRST STEP Act, Ackerman asserted that the legislation will order the BOP to implement programs to help inmates with all different kinds of problems.
Under the legislation, prisoners would receive individual assessments to determine what kind of support they need while serving their time — whether it is anger management, addiction rehabilitation, job training, life skills education or financial management training.
“We have been in [communication] with the White House over the course of the last year,” Ackerman said. “I can confirm for you that the White House, we have been told, is supportive of the FIRST STEP Act. If they get a bill passed, it goes to the White House and we are going to have people coming home.”
Click here to read more.
Source: Christian Post