What Happened To The First Chance?

An essay by James A Graves, Jr.


On Tuesday, March 11, 2008, the U.S. Senate passed The Second Chance Act; legislation designed to aid former prisoners coping with the challenges of reentry. The Second Chance Act authorizes $362 million to states, local governments and nonprofit prisoner reentry organizations to help former prisoners obtain job training, literacy training, substance abuse treatment, counseling, housing and mentoring services.


Notice the key word here is former prisoners.  The description of the Second Chance Act doesn’t indicate that the training, treatment and counseling is “follow-on” or “continued” services for former prisoners, but suggests that these services were not provided while the inmates were in prison and must be provided after release.


The Second Chance Act is nothing more than additional US taxpayers’ money appropriated for services that the US prison system should be providing to inmates during incarceration - and apparently are not.


The Second Chance Act was hard fought, won only because of the difficult and tireless work of organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

Prisoner advocacy groups like FAMM are the only reason that any meaningful gains are made toward improving prison conditions, the humane treatment of inmates and reducing the excessive prison sentences handed out by federal, state and county judges.


Considering the fact that there are currently over two million people serving time in prisons and jails in the US, the scope of the task of prisoner advocacy organizations like FAMM is monumental.  And, considering the need for federal legislation like Second Chance Act, the prisoner advocacy organizations are getting very little help from the prisons and jails responsible for housing all of those people.


The Federal Bureau of Prisons budget for 2005 was $4.5 BILLION.  In 2006 the FBOP budget was over 4.8 billion dollars, or an increase of over $258 million from the previous year.  Yet congress still found it necessary to pass The Second Chance Act in order to take $362 million from American taxpayers to help former prisoners obtain job training, literacy training, substance abuse treatment, counseling, housing and mentoring services. 

Most of these services - all but housing assistance -should have already been provided to the prisoners.


What was being done for these prisoners while they were in the custody of the FBOP?

The FBOP has complete control of inmates during the entire length of incarceration.

Why must inmates wait until after sentences are served to get literacy training, substance abuse treatment and counseling?

What happened to their first chance to receive this kind of training, treatment and counseling?


According to the FBOP, “It is the mission of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.”

“The Bureau helps reduce the potential for future criminal activity by encouraging inmates to participate in a range of programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism. The Bureau's approximately 35,000 employees ensure the security of Federal prisons, provide inmates with needed programs and services, and model mainstream values.”


If that is, in fact, the FBOP mission, should not literacy training, substance abuse treatment and counseling be a part of “needed programs and services“?

It is safe to assume that there are teachers and counselors among the Bureau’s 35,000 employees that could provide these needed services.


Federal Prison Industries is the primary job training service provided by the FBOP, but obviously, job training is not a very high priority...

Federal Prison Industries budget for 2005 was 3.36 million dollars.

It was $3.32 million in 2006, a decrease of almost 1%, while the FBOP 2006 budget increased by almost 1%. 

Prisoners, earning less per hour than most people spend at a soda machine, manufacture office furniture and other products that Federal Prison Industries sell to the government at typical market prices. 

Considering the Federal Prison Industries budget, profit margins must be quite impressive.

Yet, it still cost American tax payers over 4.8 billion dollars to operate the FBOP in 2006.


The Second Chance Act includes a limited pilot program for early release of eligible nonviolent elderly prisoners over the age of 65 who have served the greater of 10 years or 75 percent of the term of imprisonment to which the individual was sentenced.


This is a first, and a positive sign.  Previous to this, there was no federal parole or early release. Prisoners served 100% of their sentences unless they cut a deal with federal prosecutors to trade time in prison for information that would enable more arrests under federal conspiracy laws. 

Federal conspiracy laws are fundamental to the Drug War, sucking a steady stream of alleged illegal drug conspirators into the federal criminal justice system and ultimately, federal prison.  Fresh fodder for the Drug War Machine.


The American Justice System has come to the point where non-violent criminals, most convicted of drug crimes, get such lengthy sentences that they are warehoused in federal prisons into old age, yet basic services, such as literacy training, substance abuse treatment and counseling, must be provided at taxpayers’ expense by states, local governments and nonprofit prisoner reentry organizations after the inmates are released from prison.


If inmate rehabilitation was the true goal of all US prisons and jails, the population of America’s prisons would not continue to rise - especially with repeat offenders - and prisons would cease to be a growth industry of human warehousing that the US prison industry is today.


©2008 James A Graves, Jr.


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