Just as Attorney General Eric Holder was rightly decrying the impact of onerous drug sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders this summer, the federal Bureau of Prisons began to implement plans that would dramatically increase the burdens of imprisonment on women inmates. The sole federal prison for women in the Northeast — a facility for 1,100 in Danbury, Conn. — is scheduled to be converted into an institution for men, and many of the female prisoners will be transferred to rural Alabama, making family visits virtually impossible.
Only 200 beds for women will remain in Danbury, attached in a lower-security camp — far too few to hold the roughly 900 women from the Northeast who receive federal prison sentences each year.
After the bureau's plans became known, 11 senators from the Northeast asked for a suspension, pending more information, and the bureau temporarily halted some transfers. Yet some women have already been sent to West Virginia, and many will end up in a new federal prison in Aliceville, Ala., a community of 2,500 near the Mississippi border. That remote facility, which can house 1,800, is a throwback to when prisoners were isolated far from society. No public transportation goes to Aliceville.
The bureau's plan to move women prisoners thousands of miles from their homes flies in the face of a new prison-reform initiative by Holder and the White House, which stresses the importance of keeping inmates in touch with their families. As the Justice Department website explained: "Research shows that maintaining contact and healthy relationships in spite of the barriers represented by prison walls is not only possible but beneficial, for both the children and their parents. We owe these children the opportunity to remain connected to their mothers and fathers."
The federal government describes itself as undertaking an "aggressive campaign" to mitigate the harms that incarceration of parents imposes on children. In late August, the White House made its commitments clear by hosting a conference to help social scientists, lawyers, and judges learn how to "reduce the collateral costs to children." The Justice Department has also directed the Bureau of Prisons to support "programs to enhance family relationships, improve inmate parenting skills, and redesign visitation policies in its system."
These efforts comport with what state correctional systems have learned after studying thousands of inmates over several years: Maintaining contact with outside friends and family improves the chances that inmates won't return to prison after release. Therefore, where prisoners do time matters.
The Bureau of Prisons has formally endorsed the policy of keeping inmates in contact with their families, but in practice is undercutting its aims. The bureau has 119 institutions, yet it is closing off space for women in the Northeast. Danbury, close to Boston and New York, at least offered the chance for women from those cities to see their families and children while serving time.
The bureau doesn't make visiting prisoners easy. Federal regulations require each prison to approve every visitor. Once approved, the days and times of visits are short. Long-distance communications are difficult. Phone calls are expensive even with the Federal Communications Commission's recent cap on rates for inmates' calls. The number of minutes on the phone is limited. No three-way calls are permitted, so children can't be patched in by someone else paying for the call. Inmates can also lose both visits and calls as a disciplinary measure.
What's needed is a permanent halt to the transfers of women from Danbury, and public hearings about what spaces are available — for women and men — at different types of facilities, as well as ways to provide greater access to families.
Absent a directive from the attorney general or the White House, Danbury will close for women at the end of this year. The Obama administration should require the Bureau of Prisons not to exacerbate the impact of incarceration on female prisoners — most of whom are not violent — by holding them far from their homes.
Nancy Gertner is a retired federal judge and a professor at Harvard Law School. Judith Resnik is a professor at Yale Law School.