The federal prison reform law known as the First Step Act, one of the only criminal-justice reform laws passed by Congress in recent years, is a little more than five years old.
Speaking in an online program Monday sponsored by the think tank Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), Colette Peters, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) said that putting the statute into effect has become a "way of life" for the agency.
Some 110 programs have been instituted under First Step, helping inmates earn credits that can shorten their time behind bars while teaching them skills that lessen their chances of committing new offenses after their release, Peters said.
The director reeled off a long list of varied subjects available to inmates, from welding to culinary arts, plus "life skills" like banking and cooking.
Officials at all of the bureau's prisons are reaching out to local colleges to enlist their cooperation on providing education for inmates. BOP also is expanding a system of "residential re-entry centers" to help departing prisoners prepare for life outside the walls.
Peters admitted that there has been much confusion among inmates and prison staff about how credits are calculated under the law. She said the bureau is working to "make everyone understand" how the relatively new system works.
The prison system is partly housed in structures that were formerly military facilities and are not designed for prisoner-rehabilitation work, Peters said. The prison bureau is seeking more funds from Congress to add suitable programming space to lockups.
On another topic, Peters said her agency is facing challenges in recruiting and retaining employees. BOP had many job vacancies during the pandemic and the unrest after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.
BOP is reviewing its use of what Peters called "restrictive housing," which includes solitary confinement.
The agency is working with the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice to commission a study of its restrictive housing practices.
Peters was the first female director of the Oregon prison system. She has headed the federal prison agency since August 2022.
A longtime critic of BOP, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) complained last fall that "the percentage of people in Bureau of Prisons restricted housing is higher than when I held my first hearing on solitary confinement more than a decade ago."
As of last week, there were 156,845 federal inmates, far fewer than the record total of 219,298 in 2013. Last year, 37,829 were released.
Also on Monday's program, Stephanie Kennedy of CCJ reviewed an analysis of First Step Act results released by the organization last summer.
The study said the recidivism rate for people released under the First Step Act was 12.4%, compared with an estimated recidivism rate of 19.8% for similarly situated pre-FSA releases.