BROWN: Response to The First Step Act

The criminal-justice reform bill that was passed by the Senate with the support of the Republican leadership, and being claimed as a pivotal moment in criminal and prison justice reform, is a continuation of the same old piecemeal approach that’s noninclusive of most inmates and their families.

This legislation is supposedly to benefit and affect the more than 200,000 federal inmates confined in Bureau of Prisons (BOP) correctional facilities. This shift in attitudes from punishment and lock-up-and-throw-away-the-key approaches has contributed to the devastation of families of color that have bore the financial burden of supporting their incarcerated loved ones.

Sure, about 2,000 federal inmates like those convicted of crack and powder cocaine will benefit from the discrepancy of the harsh and punitive laws that Congress said “led to major racial disparities in sentencing.” These racial disparities existed long before the crack and powder cocaine epidemic and it still exists today. This legislation does not address the totality of our concerns as it relates to the multi-layer affect of the criminal punishment system, from arrest to prosecution, sentencing, corrections reentry, etc. Sure, quite a few federal inmates will hopefully see a lowering of their excessive and impossible sentences, through some of the issues addressed in the bill.

If one has multiple injuries, the doctor will treat all of your injuries based on the seriousness of one injury. I did not see included in the bill any mention of the billions of dollars that is generated off the backs of inmates and their families. The talk about increasing inmate access to telephone time and video visiting and increased statutory good time and attempts to lower the recidivism rate — we don’t need a more comforting prison community.

Why was there no mention of the fact that several prisons and major corporations and banks have made billions off the backs and pain of prisoners and their families? Some of whom have received no-bid contracts and operated as a monopoly while generating revenues of billions of dollars from construction of private prison facilities. inmate telephone calls, health services, money transfers, prison commissary stores, co-pay for medical treatment, fees for emails, etc. Why are prisoners the only ones in America who have to pay to send and receive emails? Released prisoners are given what little funds that are in their institutional account on a debit card, issued by JPay, with outrageous fees for every time you use or don’t use the card, resulting in millions of dollars to the company. This financial rape is spread across the spectrum of correctional services. I support any positive change that would reduce these impossible sentences and bring our families and friends back home. If one has all four tires flat, you have to repair all four tires — you don’t put air in one and say, “Look what we’ve done.”

Men and women are released every day with little or no money after years of making nothing to pennies a day, yet have to pay for a lot of products and services they require while incarcerated, and none of the billions of dollars are shared with the inmates or their families. The practice is to give the institution a kickback for permission to provide their services to the inmate and their families, and none of the profits or commissions are shared or returned to aid or assist those being released. Our pain is someone else’s gain. Shouldn’t inmates and their families share in the billions that are generated from their money? Not only should monies be given for release and reentry purposes, but for micro loans, investments, family unification, etc. It is ironic that none of the companies that operate these sole-source, no-bid contracts are a minority company and yet Blacks and people of color are the majority of the prison population. Why did Congress not address the financial burden that is breaking the backs of families that are already poor and indigent? There are laws and regulations that would address some of the immediate relief that’s required to release prisoners if implemented with a compassionate and humane focus. The criminal punishment system and big business equals profits.

There are a few issues that should have been addressed, like the fastest growing prison population is Black women. Over 30,000 inmates are over 55 years old and have aged out of crime. Reintroduce parole, increase the wages that inmates earn, eliminate the high cost of telephone calls, make emails free, use liberal application of the furlough program, utilize family impact statements and its effect on families with young children at time of sentencing, end the school-to-prison pipeline for our children, and expedite implementation of the compassionate-release program for the elderly and infirmed.

Returning control to D.C. of our correctional and paroling authority are a few issues that should have been included. Any progress in granting relief to those incarcerated in any and all forms is appreciated, but it reminds me of having your house of fire, and the fireman gives you a cup of water to put the fire out. Until we address the social and economic causes of poverty and social disenfranchisement, this First Step Act implies that there will be a Second Step, and the First Step has taken years of politicking. Hopefully the second step will happen while we still have feet to step.

For the men and women incarcerated who heard that Congress will pass legislation on prison reform, gave everyone hope for some type of relief from the discriminatory and racial practices, but not every inmate will see any type of benefit from this legislation. Everyone needs hope and not every federal inmate will receive any, depending on nature of violent crime, availability of institutional programs that are supposed to make one eligible for earlier release to the halfway house. The BOP has closed 16 halfway houses nationally, causing some inmates to be incarcerated longer.

Mothers of children younger than 10 should be given furloughs to maintain parental unification during incarceration, 75 percent of whom are primary caregivers. The biggest losers are our children. They, too, are serving sentences. No released inmate should be made to pay income taxes after serving five years or more.

Do we thank you for the First Step Act? Any relief is needed, but how do you rectify the racial and discriminatory practices that have gotten us to this point? The powers that be are praising this bipartisan participation. African Americans have been stepped on for over 400 years. Let’s get to the Last Step and release those imprisoned now.

Unjustly treated because of the color of their skin, discriminatory and racial application of unjust laws, only attitudes and compassionate humaneness will change this. Piecemeal legislation will result in piecemeal results. Our car has been totally wrecked and the First Step Act will fix only one tire.

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