Amid Outcry, Women Will Stay at Danbury's Federal Prison

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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FCI Danbury
FCI Danbury

U.S. Senators Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., announced in a press release Monday that in response to concerns raised over the last two months the prisons bureau has indicated it has altered its plan to turn FCI into a facility for men.

According the press release, the bureau intends to construct a new facility for women inmates that will be located near the existing facility and maintain a satellite camp for women close by as well.

"Previously, BOP had announced that it would convert the FCI from a secure facility for women into a men's facility. This conversion would have left one of the most populated regions of the country without a secure facility for women. While BOP still intends to turn the existing secure facility into a men's facility, it now intends to turn the existing minimum security Satellite Camp for women located near the FCI into a low security facility for women. It will also maintain a minimum security camp facility for women near the new FCI by constructing a new building next to the FCI," the senators said.

It takes a lot for judges to weigh in publicly on matters of public policy. But the prisons bureau's plans drew the attention of federal judges across the Northeast.

Janet Hall, the new chief federal judge for Connecticut, was among 12 judges who signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that he reverse the decision to do away with the women's prison. Also signing the letter were judges from Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New York. The New York judges included Chief Judge Loretta Preska, of the Southern District of New York, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx and six counties in the Lower Hudson Valley, and Chief Judge Carol Bagley Amon of New York's Eastern District, which covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island.

The judges said that if the plan to convert the low-security Danbury women's prison went through, most female inmates from the region would be sent to Alabama. In their letter, released Oct. 28, they said that Danbury, which is just 65 miles from New York City, was accessible to families throughout the Northeast. They suggested that many families wouldn't be able to make the 1,000-mile trip to Alabama for visits, a situation they said would be harmful to the rehabilitation of inmates and the emotional well-being of their children.

"If the planned mission change for Danbury goes forward, our ability to recommend incarceration near family members and children for male inmates will continue, but we will have no ability to do the same for female inmates," the judges wrote. The closest men's federal prison to Connecticut is in Otisville, N.Y.

"We know that offenders who have regular visitation from their families are less likely to recidivate, and many of these women have young children," the letter continued. "I think it's important that these women be given an opportunity to rehabilitate their lives, and keeping them in a facility closer to home gives them that chance."

The federal prison in Danbury has housed women for 20 years. Its current inmate population is 1,200. Of that number, 59 percent have a child under 21, according to the judges. Most women inmates would go to Aliceville, Ala., with an estimated 300 heading to facilities in West Virginia and Philadelphia.

"Ensuring that inmates can stay connected to their families is important for all prisoners, which is why we frequently recommend that the defendants we sentence be housed in facilities as close to the Northeast as possible," said the letter, which was written by Preska, the New York judge. "As the judges who will sentence women defendants in the future, we are concerned about the ability of future inmates to maintain these critical ties with children and family."

The Danbury facility also includes a minimum-security prison camp that holds 250 inmates.

Alan Nevas, a retired Connecticut federal judge who now has a private practice as an arbitrator and mediator, said he had mixed feelings on the conversion.

"The argument has been made children won't be able to visit, that's a good argument," Nevas said. "I'm sympathetic to the concerns being expressed."

However, he said, the same concern exists over children visiting their fathers. Nevas said the Board of Prisons has a difficult job finding space for everyone. "There are a lot of issues here that in fairness the Board of Prisons has considered," he said.

According to the senators' press release, the entire transfer and construction process will take about 18 months to complete.

"BOP plans to move the female U.S. citizen inmates currently housed at the FCI to various locations around the country near their residences after their release. BOP will also move some of the current inmates with upcoming release dates to Residential Reentry Centers, or halfway houses, and others will be moved to the satellite camp," the press release said. "The agency has assured the senators that it is making every effort to keep the U.S. citizen inmates in the Northeast and maintain the same level of programming available by the end of the process. The senators look forward to continuing to work with BOP as the plan is implemented to ensure that all of BOP's goals are met."

It continued, "The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold an oversight hearing of the Bureau of Prisons Wednesday, during which Director Charles Samuels will testify. This hearing prompted BOP to make the announcement about Danbury on Friday. The Judiciary Committee and its members, including Chairman Leahy and Blumenthal, will continue to push for the consideration of families as it relates to the housing of inmates."

Megan Quattlebaum, the Visiting Lecturer in Law, at Yale Law School, said the school is pleased with the decision.

"We are pleased that women prisoners from the Northeast will continue to have some ability to be incarcerated as close as possible to their homes and families. And we hope that the BOP will undertake a review of its entire inmate population to ensure that all federal prisoners, men and women, are housed in locations where they will have the greatest possible opportunity to receive visits," Quattlebaum said. "The BOP has the ability to significantly reduce its own inmate population, which will free up space within federal prison facilities to permit those who remain incarcerated to be moved closer to home and family. Tools at the BOP's disposal include releasing inmates who have 12 months or less left on their sentences to community confinement under the Second Chance Act."

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