Gerald, a childhood friend from Washington, D.C., is serving a life sentence at the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, a prison 15 miles from my home in Merced, California.
A few years after I moved to Merced, I received a text from Gerald. I hadn’t heard from him since he had gone to prison decades earlier on charges related to cocaine distribution in the 1990s. He had heard from a mutual friend that I had written a book and asked if I could send it to him.
When he sent me the address, I saw Gerald was in Atwater, one town over from Merced. I sent him my book and took the 20-minute drive to visit him on his birthday.
Visiting has been suspended since March at all federal prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These restrictions are needed: at the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution, two-thirds of the inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Gerald told me that, at USP Atwater, they are only letting inmates out of their cells a few hours a day and that they are wearing masks.
According to Gerald, there are about 40 inmates at USP Atwater from Washington, D.C. I chose to move 2,800 miles away from my hometown to teach sociology and research the effects of mass incarceration as a professor at the University of California- Merced.
Inmates have no choice and must go wherever the Federal Bureau of Prisons send them. When they are sent to faraway places, it becomes nearly impossible for their friends and family to visit them.
The closest airport to USP Atwater is Fresno Yosemite International Airport, 70 miles from the facility. There is no public transportation at the Fresno Airport nor are there any transit routes to USP Atwater.
A visitor would have to rent a car and stay a night or two in a hotel. The trip would cost a minimum of $1,200 and would take at least four days. This is a far cry from the 30-minute bus ride that visitors took from downtown D.C. to Lorton penitentiary before it closed.
In 1997, Congress passed the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act. This Revitalization Act was designed to reinvigorate the local economy by transferring some financial control to the federal government, including the management of D.C. residents convicted of crimes. The local prison, Lorton Reformatory, was ordered fully closed by the end of 2001, and all adult prisoners with felonies were sent to federal prisons around the country.
Today, a person convicted of violating the D.C. Code is no longer sent to a local prison, but instead will be shipped off to a federal facility anywhere in the country. The Revitalization Act indicated that D.C. residents would be within a close radius of Washington, DC, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons has not complied with this promise.
With one in every 100 persons in the United States behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With a rate 65 percent higher than the national average, Washington, D.C. has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. and therefore in the world. Everyone sent to prison from D.C. is sent to a federal facility.
By 2010, a quarter of the 6,000 D.C. Code offenders in federal prisons were housed at facilities over 500 miles from the city. Despite a 2010 congressional hearing and a promise from BOP to house D.C. Code offenders at closer facilities, between 2015 and 2018, 20 percent of people sentenced to prison for homicide were sent to prisons farther than 500 miles away, including one to USP Atwater.
Sending D.C. Code offenders — or any inmate — hundreds or thousands of miles away from their loved ones has severe consequences both while they are incarcerated and when they return home.
With the shelter-in-place restrictions in place that prevent millions from spending time with people who don’t live in their household, perhaps they can now be a bit more empathetic to what it feels like for the thousands of D.C. residents who have a loved one behind bars.
For many D.C. residents, the only way they can communicate with their incarcerated father, brother, uncle, cousin, sister, or mother is by phone, email, or text as travel to a facility hundreds of miles away is not feasible. Yet virtual connections are no substitute for in-person visits.
The research on in-person visitation in prison makes it clear that in-person visits are helpful for some prisoners, although the quality of the visit matters. A study of prison visitation in Iowa published in 2019 found that one additional visit per month would reduce misconduct in prison by 14 percent and time served by 11 percent. The study also found that when prisoners receive visitors they are 15 percent less likely to recidivate.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that the right to have a family should be protected by society and the state. When the BOP sends inmates hundreds or thousands of miles from their family, they are effectively denying them the possibility of seeing their mother, wife, children, or other family members ever again.
This is an additional punishment beyond their criminal sentence.
It is also punishing for their family members. For some, this distance means they may never again have in-person contact. For others, it means they must take an onerous and expensive trip across the country to spend a few hours with their loved one in a small prison visitation room. These long distances also create significant hindrances upon release.
The travel restrictions associated with COVID-19 and the increased risk associated with airplane travel magnify these issues associated with housing prisoners thousands of miles from their homes. It is time for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to comply with the guidelines set forth in the Revitalization Act and house prisoners close to home.