Covid’s not over, but the DOJ is still pushing to lock non-violent offenders back up.
By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News
Last month I wrote about some positive news that came out of the final days of the Trump administration. President Donald Trump pushed for passage of, and then signed into law, a measure that lifted a 26-year ban on giving prisoners federal education aid. It was a bold move that turned out to be less controversial than almost anybody had imagined.
At around the same time, Congress for the first time created the “Congressional Bureau of Prisons Reform Caucus,” a bipartisan group intended to “increase oversight of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and to bring accountability to decisions made by its executives.” For the first time, perhaps ever, Congress is finally coming to the realization that the prison system is broken and needs to be overhauled. It’s a giant leap forward.
Not all is milk and honey at the Justice Department, however. Career employees at the DOJ — those civil servants who are not political appointees — decided with only hours left in the Trump administration that they would end a policy of home confinement for non-violent, low- or minimum-security prisoners to protect them from Covid.
A year ago, the Trump administration had quietly enacted a policy that would allow prisoners at high risk for Covid, who were housed in minimum-security or low-security prisons, and who had been convicted of non-violent crimes, to finish out their sentences at home. Each prisoner was fitted with an ankle bracelet and was assigned a federal probation officer to monitor his or her movements (or lack thereof). The program worked. There is literally not one single example of any of these prisoners violating the terms of their home confinement or committing another crime. The savings to the taxpayer is in the millions of dollars.
So why is the Biden administration allowing preparations to send them all back to prison?
In a memo authored by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the rationale is simply that “the rules are the rules.” It argues that the Bureau of Prisons should be “required to recall (to prison) any released prisoners who have not yet reached the six month or 10 percent threshold of time remaining on their sentences.” That’s unnecessarily arbitrary. And it’s dangerous for both the BOP and for prisoners at risk for Covid. Let me give you an example.
Just One Example
One of my cellmates when I was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto, Pennsylvania, was Frank Russo. Frank had been the Cuyahoga County auditor, one of the most powerful Democrats in the state of Ohio. He was widely considered a soon-to-be candidate for governor when he was arrested and charged with dozens of counts of corruption, bribery and conspiracy.
Frank decided to testify about his involvement in a $1 million kickback scheme, and his testimony was instrumental in putting 70 people behind bars. His cooperation got his 22-year prison sentence reduced to 14 years, but he still had to pay $7 million in fines and restitution. With good behavior, he was scheduled to be released in 2024. Even though Frank was technically a “rat,” everybody at Loretto loved him. It was easy to see how he succeeded as a politician. He was a guy who wanted to make everybody happy. I thoroughly enjoyed his company.
One day in 2014 while waiting in line to get his insulin shot, Frank suffered a major heart attack and collapsed in the prison medical unit. An ambulance took him to a local hospital, where he remained chained to a bed for three weeks. After that, he was transferred to the Federal Medical Prison at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and then to a major BOP medical prison in Butner, North Carolina.
Frank remained there until last year, when he was deemed to be at critical risk for Covid. He was then sent home with an ankle bracelet to his family in Cleveland. Frank is 70 years old and he suffers from advanced heart disease. He was incarcerated for a non-violent crime. There are only three years to go on his sentence before he would be released anyway, provided that he lived that long. And it’s insanely expensive to provide the medical care necessary for him to remain in prison. What threat is this man to society? Why should the taxpayer pay to lock him up again?
This is, of course, just one example. But multiply it by thousands of men and women. Remember, the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We are arguably the most over-criminalized society in the world. Are we better off — is society safer — with non-violent prisoners, many of them geriatric, locked up and at risk of Covid? I say no. And I hope that somebody in the Biden Justice Department puts his or her foot down, overrules the career paper-pushers, and brings some common sense to the issue.
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.
The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.