The Unlikely Force Behind US Prison Reform

If a conservative is a liberal who gets mugged, then a prison reformer is a conservative who goes to prison, as John Kiriakou explains.

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

Prison and sentencing reform have long been an important issue for the political left. The United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Congress creates 50 new crimes every year. That’s 500 things that were legal a decade ago that are now felonies. It’s no wonder the prisons are full.

Liberals are concerned because so many poor people and people of color are in prison. One out of every four black men in America is in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. The numbers are astounding. The rest of the world looks at us and shakes its collective head—especially our European allies.

The truth, though, is that prison reform and sentencing reform are not reserved for the left. In fact, evangelicals and conservatives have been leaders in the reform movement since the 1970s. Chuck Colson, who had been Richard Nixon’s special counsel and hatchet man during the Watergate years and who served eight months in a minimum-security prison for Watergate-related crimes, found his Christian faith there and created Prison Fellowship, now the oldest and largest Christian-oriented prison ministry and reform organization in the country. Its success has spawned countless similar organizations.

Prison Fellowship has become known especially for its program that sends Christmas presents to the children of indigent prisoners and for its provision of bibles and religious literature to prisoners at the federal, state, and local levels. The trend for Christian organizations involved in prison work, though, has changed over the past 20 years or so, ever since President Bill Clinton toughened the already harsh Reagan-era anti-drug laws that have filled American prisons. Now, many of those groups are advocating for legislation that would change sentences, guidelines, and in some cases, the entire system.

Colson: From hatchet man to prison reformer. (Prison Fellowship)

Most recently, Congress has twice come up with bipartisan bills that would reshape the entire federal sentencing regime. Supporters thought they had a real chance in 2014 when a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014. The bill easily passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. A similar bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, also passed the committee. Both bills also sailed through the House Judiciary Committee. They died on the Senate floor, though, when then-majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) refused to call them up for a vote. A year later, the new majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also refused to allow a vote.

Both bills, which would have eased sentencing guidelines, done away with mandatory minimum sentences for most drug crimes, and offered incentives for federal prisoners that would have allowed early release for good behavior and for taking GED or vocational classes, had the support of groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative Heritage Foundation, former prosecutors, police and prison guard organizations, victims’ advocates, prominent conservatives, and faith groups. But nothing happened.

Four years later, with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, that could change. Certainly, evangelical and conservative interest in prison and sentencing reform has not diminished. Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at Colson’s Prison Fellowship, told Religion News Service in May, “There’s never been greater interest in America for criminal justice reform. We have a lot of hope. This administration is genuinely interested in second chances.” De Roche added that, while Prison Fellowship and other Christian organizations have worked on prison reform with every president since Jimmy Carter, the group’s access to the Trump White House is “unprecedented.” Part of the reason, he said, was that the prison population has so ballooned in the past 20 years that the issue has “touched many Christians personally.”

Kushner: Reformer after father was jailed.

I would add that the driving force behind the Administration’s interest in prison and sentencing reform is presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father Charles was convicted in 2004 of 18 counts of making illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. The elder Kushner was sentenced to 24 months in prison. He served 14 months and completed his sentence in a halfway house in Newark, New Jersey. The younger Kushner has been a reform advocate ever since. And that’s where hope lies.

In May the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan prison reform bill by a vote of 360-59 that would immediately send home 4,000 prisoners, provide free sanitary napkins to all incarcerated women, outlaw shackling during childbirth, and make it easier for inmates to earn time under house arrest or in halfway houses. President Trump endorsed the bill just a few days after it passed the House.

The problem is, and has always been, in the Senate. In June, Kushner met with Cornyn and Whitehouse, as well as Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), to strategize on how to move the bill forward in the Senate. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has his own reform bill that is more comprehensive than Kushner’s. But it runs the risk of alienating other key Republicans, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump himself. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) already has said that he will seek to block it.

But now there’s finally some good news. Trump has proven to be truly interested in reform. He met in early August with Republican senators and told them that he is supportive of a new reform proposal that would combine Kushner’s “First Step Act,” the Grassley proposals, and the original provisions of the 2013 and 2014 bipartisan bills. Trump told the assembled senators, “Do some work with your colleagues and let’s see where the Senate is and then come back to me with it.” That’s as far as any reform bill has gotten in a generation.

Here are the provisions as things stand now:

  • The bill would lower lifetime mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior nonviolent drug felony convictions to 25 years;

  • It would reduce 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for similar offenders to 15 years. This would apply only to new sentences and would not be retroactive;

  • It would apply the Fair Sentencing Act, which Congress passed in 2010 and which reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses, retroactively;

  • And it would expand exceptions to the application of mandatory-minimum sentences to more people with criminal histories.

The bill is popular and is moving forward because of that support from evangelicals and conservatives. Conservative icon Richard Vigeurie said in the New York Times in 2013 that, “Conservatives should recognize that the entire criminal justice system is another government spending program fraught with the issues that plague all government programs. Criminal justice should be subject to the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to any other government program.” He added that three principles—public safety, compassion, and controlled government spending—lie at the core of conservative philosophy. He’s right. And it’s evangelicals who are focused on the “compassion” aspect.

All of this is great, right? But it ignores the single most important reason that people are in prison in the first place—drug abuse. The federal Bureau of Prisons has a program that’s supposed to help people get off drugs and reintegrate into society. It’s called the Residential Drug Abuse Program, or RDAP. It’s a joke. There is precious little money dedicated to RDAP. And in most prisons it consists only of 11 weekly meetings where prisoners gather to watch taped reruns of the A&E Network program “Intervention.” Seriously. That’s it. There is no counseling, no therapy, no drug education, no vocational training. Nothing. That’s where conservatives should focus. If the government isn’t going to do anything about it, shouldn’t the churches? Wouldn’t it be practical for every church in America to help one single prisoner get off drugs and learn a trade or finish a high school diploma? It would certainly be cheaper and it probably would be more efficient than the system we now have.

Overall, a lot of Congress members want to do the right thing here. Reform is truly bipartisan. The political stars have aligned. It’s time to get it done. Conservatives should push reform forward and declare victory.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act – a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

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36 comments for “The Unlikely Force Behind US Prison Reform

  1. Jamaal James
    September 9, 2018 at 06:41

    Don’t hold your breath waiting on these reactionary capitalist to set the captives free as long as the profit motive is a factor in the maintenance of the criminal industrial complex…,,,!

  2. Justin
    September 7, 2018 at 00:35

    This bill is not something to be celebrated. The provisions are pathetic. Lifetime sentences reduced to 25? Reducing 20-year minimums to 15? That’s it? Really? That’s called reform?
    No, this is what real reform looks like: All drugs need to be de-criminalized. Every person currently in jail for a non-violent drug offense needs to be released immediately.
    Drug addiction is not a crime, it is a disease that should be treated as such. These people need treatment and compassion. Not cages.

  3. Bert v Baar
    September 6, 2018 at 15:22

    If this is true: 5% of worlds people and 25% of wirlds prisoners! That makes the US a criminal country!
    Don’t your ‘leaders’ are feeling a little insecure about that? How can we trust a countries leaders if that country is the most criminal country in the wirld and its leaders don’t mind!

  4. September 5, 2018 at 19:09

    Kushner is NOT a prison refomer. His nightmare is he will end up in one. He is as crooked, criminal as his father in law who tonight is being called a treasonist, who is unfit intellectually to run this country. NYTimes story today is many months of reporting, Woodwards book everyone knows is highly credible should give us all pause. We are in a Constiutional Crisis right now, there is a hunt right now inside the WH to find out who the staff or cabinent member who states, He/she is PART of the Resistance.

  5. rosemerry
    September 4, 2018 at 17:13

    As a non-American, I find the article horrifying as it shows that the situation is even worse than I thought. Why is it that the USA is so obsessed with personal use of drugs? Why is it pretending that “tough on crime” means putting large numbers of small-time offenders inside while encouraging fraud, waste and destruction of the environment by the rich and corporations?
    Why are Senators determined to avoid any vestige of sense and proportion while people languish in prison while their families try to cope? Who benefits from the system, besides the private “managers” and corporations using cheap prison labor (and sometimes crooked judges convicting innocent people for money)?

  6. mike k
    September 3, 2018 at 16:41

    A police state like the US needs ever more prisons. it is ironic that the biggest criminals are the very ones who push for more people in prison.

  7. michael
    September 2, 2018 at 13:48

    Incarceration also varies widely by state, there should be more consistency. For example, Kentucky has one of the the lowest violent crime rates in the country (7th lowest state at 232 per 100,000; yet it has one of the highest (9th highest) incarceration rates at 1010/100,000. DC has by far the highest violent crime rate (1206 per 100,000) but has the lowest incarceration rate in the country (320/100,000); maybe because these criminals are intertwined with our politicians?

  8. Olga Strickland
    September 2, 2018 at 10:55

    Doesn’t the issue of private prisons play a role in the issue also?

  9. September 1, 2018 at 22:03

    The “reforms” that the Evangelic reformers may help to pass, presumably by working with liberals etc. seem to be a thin gruel indeed. After 50 years of such reforms USA will have justice system merely as ridiculous as in Russia. The latter has horrendous incarceration date, but quite a bit smaller than USA, brutality in prisons and jails, also “approaching” American levels etc.

    Our free press is notably free to cover negative stories about Russia, one was about a victim of jail abuse, some of his tormentors got prison sentences. Something which is hardly ever possible in USA. I guess matching Russia could be a good benchmark if “reforms” are laughable or not.

    • christina garcia
      September 1, 2018 at 23:54

      hey, went grocery today and there was a lady with 9 kids someone stopped her and said that is great in his church, the more kids you have the better. The mom wore a tshirt about the exodus old testament . She was white, Caucasian. No one did anything , but as a woman, I do not want 9 kids do you? Wait , Our President has at least 5 or 6 kids. Gotta stop those colored people from having babies but let us promote white people breeding like rabbits we need more white home-schooled kids

    • mike k
      September 2, 2018 at 06:51

      Prisons have a bad record worldwide. An index of our lack of real civilization.

    • rosemerry
      September 4, 2018 at 17:15

      Have you seen the “banned” film “The Magnitsky Act- behind the scenes” ? Not all you read about Russia is true!!!

      • September 6, 2018 at 07:26

        Thank you, rosemerry, for pointing out the truth. As Aldous Huxley said, ““To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” There’s more freedom in Russia than in the USA.

  10. Ed
    September 1, 2018 at 15:25

    The only government action I could agree with would be ending the war on drugs. As long as republicans and democrats refuse to consider the repeal of prohibition there will be huge problems with prisons and the courts, as well as an overloaded probation and parole system.

    • mike k
      September 2, 2018 at 06:53

      The war on drugs is a total failure, like all wars. When will we stop buying into the “just” war concept?

    • September 6, 2018 at 07:30

      Ed, yes. About 20 years ago, Portugal made all drugs legal and the addiction has dropped year after year.
      (The US likes the “drug war”…it’s been profitable in many ways and places for a long time.)

  11. September 1, 2018 at 12:07

    John, I have deepest respect for you and all VIPS! However, as a recovered evangelical fundamentalist, I have to speak up about your positive presentation of this cult which is very dangerous. It is not what you think. It is mind control and often exploitive of those who have trauma and/or neglect histories. It creates PTSD, bipolar and DID. It takes years to recover with the help of intense licensed therapy and can take even longer to break all the brainwashing/mind control. Ironically, my licensed therapist and one of the psychiatrists who helped me recover encouraged me to read Colin Ross, MD, “CIA Doctors” because the CIA actually studied evangelical fundamentalism’s “conversion”/mind control techniques that sets up external locus of control rather than healthy reliance on one’s own conscience, guts, reason and empathy. My former psychology professor also encouraged me to read British intel mind control researcher, William Sargant, MD, “Battle for the Mind” (especially his chapter on evangelicalism) and Margaret Sanger’s “Cults Amongst Us” as well as Steven Hassan’s works. As a historian, I know that Puritanism’s “City on a Hill” justified US agression and genocide of native people and condoned slavery. As a historian, I also am aware that evangelical fundamentalist ministers were instrumental in resurrecting the KKK in the 1920s and beginning in the 1830s of creating a bible belt religion that justied slavery. Stephen Kinzer’s “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles’ and Allen Dulles’ War Against the World” documents how evangelical/calvinist manichaeism shaped Dulleses’ world view that was instrumental in setting up our cold war mentality that is currently bringing us to the brink of WWIII based on their psychopathy. As a historian and recovered evangelical fundamentalist I know that they teach their victims to read the bible literally and to apply it literally. It is in many ways the flip side of the coin from radical Islam when the coin is cult/fundamentalism. Michael Parenti’s “God and His Demons” is another good historical resource. Trump is currently surrounded by a number of evangelical fundamentalists who not only teach that the poor deserve to be poor and that the elite are somehowd entitle and divine conduits to the masses, they also expect nuclear WWIII during their lifetime which according to them will hasten the return of Jesus Christ. One of the problens with this expectation is that they read the bible out of historical context of the Jewish Wars against Rome and set up victims to think god is a psychopath/tribal war god that favors genocide and authoritarian control. Another problems with this expectation is that, as a historian, I know there is actually no credible historical evidence that the gospel’s Jesus ever existed, so clearly he is not going to be returning because he is a metaphor. Emeritus professor of early church history, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the roots of Islam, Robert Eisenman, PhD (Cal State – Long Beach) has documented that the gospels are actually mocking the Jewish zealots and their allies who had the gall to revolt against authoritarian Rome. They are not history. Eisenman documents that the gospels actually invert first century history. They are the voice of Rome and thus their Jesus teaches followers to be passive, obey Rome (Romans 13) and to pay their taxes (one of the main issues for the revolts) and are built on anti-semitism due to the fact that it was the Jews who were revolting (based on their understanding of the Torah) and causing Rome a pain in the ass. In short, evangelical fundamentalism is a warrior and anti-semitic cult. I am happy to give you more academic sources.

    • rosemerry
      September 4, 2018 at 17:17

      The thing I remember about Chuck Colson is the quote “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”!!! How much has he changed???

  12. September 1, 2018 at 10:59

    The author is talking less about prison reform and more about the pandemic of drug use. What extended family in the United States does not have at least one drug abuser. It’s hard to be critical of any effort like the one the author mentions, but does anyone believe that is going to address the problem. We need to find solutions but so far we haven’t. Maybe there isn’t any and self-destruction is simply another indulgence.

    That is not to say nothing can be done about destructive behavior because it can, particularly if the person has a strong, mostly family, support system. Even then it can fail.

    If anything can be done It will be done by yet to be uncovered out of the box thinkers willing to look holistically at how we have become such a screwed up society that we can’t prevent its members from destroying themselves.

    • mike k
      September 1, 2018 at 14:01

      “we have become such a screwed up society that we can’t prevent its members from destroying themselves.”

      Maybe our society could start by not giving people so many reasons for trying to escape it’s “blessings”? Read Gabor Mate about why people choose drugs. “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.”

  13. September 1, 2018 at 08:33

    “He added that three principles—public safety, compassion, and controlled government spending—lie at the core of conservative philosophy.” I prefer the word rightwing to describe the fascists running the world. Chomsky has some interesting things to say about governments’ concept of public safety in his excellent, but also quite flawed, “Who Owns The World.” He notes that those who rummage through declassified ‘secret’ documents can’t help but notice that the secrecy isn’t about protecting the public, but about protecting those with power from public scrutiny. The US is also all about law & order, but we see daily how the words don’t match the deeds. Look at lawless Israel and lawless Saudi Arabia, two staunch allies of the US, involved in ongoing illegality and human rights abuses. Ergo…

    Chris Hedges says something interesting things, in “Empire Of Illusions,” about his clearly ruined country, including the fact that violence and cruelty are ingrained now in American culture and society and that it has a lot to do with what uncaring, too free Corporations want. (There’s also a Pew poll that reveals that much of the Christian community is down with torture. See See also: “Yes, Christians Can Support Torture” by D.C. McAllister – He talks about incarceration as well.

    I’ve always considered jails to be a form of torture. My personal view of the matter is that the only thing law-abiding citizens should be concerned about when it comes to crime and punishment is removing criminals from society, not punishing them further with torture. I don’t even care if they are perfectly comfortable. I’m ambivalent about them having access to the outside world via technology. But if we aren’t going to (collectively) punish entire families for the crimes of single members, then granting a prisoner access to his family seems reasonable. But I absolutely do not believe in torture or jails for profit. Those in society who are mentally and spiritually ruined, however, do.

  14. TomG
    September 1, 2018 at 08:32

    I’m all for these reforms and one more critical one which is elimination of the cash bail system that has the poor trapped before they ever get to trial with many loosing their jobs and making their families debtors to the system.

  15. Joe Tedesky
    September 1, 2018 at 07:54

    If only the Rich were as fearful of war as they are of prison.

  16. mike k
    September 1, 2018 at 07:17

    Having spent a lot of time in three different prisons as a volunteer, I am aware of the horrible injustice that these institutions perpetrate. The drug laws are an insane device for incarcerating those whose only offense is their illness. These people need help, not senseless punishment. The criminalization of drug addicts is a crime far worse than anything they are accused of.

  17. Adrian E.
    September 1, 2018 at 03:43

    20 or 15 years minimum sentences for people with prior nonviolent drug offenses?

    That may be less extreme than the current laws, but it is still completely insane, and it shows that the US has little in common with civilized countries. It is time goverments around the world recognize this and treat it as the rogue country it is. Both internally and externally with its violent foreign policy, the US is a dangerous barbaric country. It is a very heavily armed rogue country. If the civilized nations collaborated more colsely, the threat from the US might be contained. But many European (and Japanese, Korean etc.) politicians and journalists are in the pockets of US interest groups and still consider the US an ally and even sometimes support US military aggressions, even though they would never accept such horrendous tyranny like in the US within their own countries.

  18. john wilson
    September 1, 2018 at 02:37

    The incarceration business PIC (prison industrial complex) is just another racket like the MIC (military industrial complex).
    The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a twofold industry because not only do the racketeers get paid to provide prisons, they have a captive slave labour force as well. I read somewhere recently that every American commits some kind of crime every day by virtue of the fact there are so many laws its impossible not to. Over here in the UK we pass approximately 7,000 new piece’s of legislation every year and they are mostly restrictive in some way and with penalties. The EU passed a similar number of laws against the British people as well. Although we are leaving the EU soon, hey, guess what, we are going to keep the thousands of EU laws we are already subject to anyway. Legislators just can’t bear to part with any laws, and even if witch burning was still on the statue, they would keep it, because legislators just can’t bear to part with any laws no matter how obsolete they are today.

  19. CitizenOne
    September 1, 2018 at 01:05

    The NY Times ran an article about how Charles Kushner, the father of Jared Kushner who was convicted in 2004 of 18 counts of making illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. The elder Kushner was sentenced to 24 months in prison. He served 14 months and completed his sentence in a halfway house in Newark, New Jersey.

    NY Times:
    NEWARK, Jan. 12 – In an emotional handwritten letter in August, Charles Kushner, a major developer, political donor and philanthropist in New Jersey, apologized to his sister for hiring a prostitute to seduce her husband, who was cooperating in a federal investigation against him, and then sending her a videotape of the encounter.

    The actions of Charles Kushner might as well be a real life example of how the Trump administration wages war against its opponents. Trump engendered investigations surrounding his dalliances with porn stars and Playboy models where it is alleged that his lawyer Michael Cohen paid them off to buy their silence.

    Is it any wonder how a multimillionaire who settles his liabilities with large cash payments to “prostitutes” and lots of name calling to discredit prosecutors would ultimately be tied up with the likes of Cohen and Kushner?

    What comes to mind is a presidential team of wealthy people who will stop at nothing to attempt to buy their way out of hot water or hide their conduct in underhanded ways to cover their tracks by framing others who might stand in their way.

    The no holds barred political messaging which disrespected war hero John McCain as a loser for the mere fact that he was captured by the Vietnamese while serving in the military shows how low this group of individuals will go to smear their opponents just as Charles Kushner tried to smear his own sister.

    Is it any wonder that these same people seek to reduce sentencing procedures for nonviolent offenders?

    They surely realize that they might one day be one of the very same accused defendants they now fight for. Their aim as always is to use their position of power to get themselves off the hook. See recent Supreme Court nominee who thinks a sitting president cannot be impeached.

    • Groucho
      September 1, 2018 at 02:06

      I wouldn’t argue with your depiction of Trump and his cronies as corrupt to the core however I fail to see how that diminishes the obvious need for prison reform. The statistics alone should give one pause when looked at along side other developed nations. US incarnation rates are multiples of most European countries. The system is driven largely by inherent racism and a uniquely American political demagoguery. Land of the free indeed.

      I don’t know what McCain has to do with this article but I don’t recall anyone calling him a loser, just a war criminal which he was.

      • September 1, 2018 at 12:12

        Actually, Trump called McCain a “loser” for being captured. He said something about his preference for those who were not captured. This was during the pre-election campaign. You are correct. McCain was a warmonger who used his capture as a way to catapult himself and his mentality into power.

        • rosemerry
          September 4, 2018 at 17:24

          McCain’s supporters gloss over the fact that he was killing innocent people in their own country, was captured and looked after so he recovered and lived to be over 80, was known as the son of an admiral (btw who helped cover up the “Liberty” attack by Israel ) and so given better treatment than most POWs.

  20. Jeff Harrison
    September 1, 2018 at 00:32

    Forgive me but… the problem is making drugs illegal in the first place. I don’t think the US government has the authority to make drugs illegal. There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that gives the US government authority over drugs. They had to pass a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol but then they passed the pure food and drug act and all of a sudden the Feds could control anything (supposedly). The reality is that other states (Portugal, for example) have legalized all drugs and they’re doing fine. This isn’t to say that people who are doing smack, and coke, and meth don’t need help – they do, but only a Republican would think that prison is help.

    • john wilson
      September 1, 2018 at 02:50

      If it wasn’t drugs it would be something else. “AUTHORITY” needs a massive prison and other forms of punishment to reflect its total power over the population. Control over people needs the people to live in fear of ‘the state’ hence, a large prison population together with numerous other forms of punishment achieves the goal of subservience of a cowed people

    • dick Spencer
      September 2, 2018 at 13:45

      We should follow Portugal`s example–and treat it as a medical problem .Help people –don`t lock them up.

    • Aeron Berlay
      September 3, 2018 at 20:00

      Excellent points, Jeff. Our judicial system is criminal in its collaboration with this racket.

    • rosemerry
      September 4, 2018 at 17:28

      Correct. Considering the additives and GMOs that the USA allows, many forbidden in most other nations, it is hypocritical to pick upon certain substances, ban them and then punish transgressors. Advertisint pharmaceutical drugs on TV, rare anywhere else,is another factor making the drug user/dealer but not the Big Pharma a criminal a farcical idea.

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