I just got a call from my client in a recent federal criminal case here in Atlanta. My client was outside the gates of the federal prison, and gave me one last call before he went inside to begin serving his sentence, or as some inmates call it, “doing time.” I always feel bad for my clients and their families when anyone is separated from society and their loved ones because they are incarcerated. In the big picture, this man received a very favorable sentence, considering the facts of his situation on the day when I first met him. Still, it’s a sad feeling to get such a call. The call made me want to put down a few thoughts about what I have learned over the years concerning the experience for clients who are “doing federal time.”
For starters, the federal prison system is operated by a huge organization called, oddly, the “Bureau of Prisons.” Regular practitioners usually call it “BOP.” The BOP operates throughout the entire country. There are various “security levels” amongst the many federal prisons, and these fall into three basic categories, High, Medium and Low. High security is what you think it is, a very restrictive prison housing inmates with very bad or violent prior criminal records, generally serving long sentences. Medium and Low are also what one might anticipate, less restrictive environments with less dangerous inmates. “Penology”, essentially the study of incarcerating people, has been around for a long time, and after all these years, the people in this business have a pretty good track record of predicting when an inmate will be dangerous and therefore in need of higher restrictions, versus someone who clearly is serving his or her only sentence and simply wants to do the time and get back to their life. As a result of this experience, prison officials put less dangerous people in far less restrictive prisons, thus making it a little bit easier for that person to “do time”, and less expensive for BOP to house that same person. For example, my client who just called operated some businesses in South Florida in which he and others did some fraud. BOP clearly understood he is no danger, so they put him into an institution with the lowest possible security level, called a “prison camp.” Camps are not dangerous, most don’t have walls or fences, and most inmates perform daily jobs and have access to educational and other programs.
One of the best things to come along in my 36 years of representing people who have to go into BOP custody is the use of an email system now available to most federal inmates. I make it a practice of trying to stay in touch with clients serving time in BOP custody, and this system has been a tremendous benefit. I no longer have to write a letter which takes many weeks to be delivered, and my clients can respond to me within a day, usually. Also, clients can remain in almost daily contact with family and loved ones.
Federal sentences cannot be shorted by what used to be called “parole.” That was eliminated as part of the much-derided Crime Control Act of 1984 and the associated Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Currently, there are only two ways that a sentence can be shortened within the BOP system: “good time credits”, and RDAP. Under the 1984 law, inmates are supposed to be eligible for reductions up to 54 days per calendar year if they behave. Also, in the 1990’s Congress added some laws saying that if a person succesfully completes a “Residential Drug and Alcohol Program” (“RDAP”, get it) that inmate might be able to get as much as a 12-month sentence reduction. Some minor cosmetic changes were made in, but I don’t see much benefit coming from, the recently enacted First Step Act
Doing time is a big subject. I may return to this topic at some point down the road. For now, I have to be satisfied that my client who just began serving his sentence is doing his time in the least restrictive environment possible, he will get email access, and I hope he earns all potential sentence reductions so he can get back to his life as soon as possible.