Concerns raised over contact with children
WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Prisons has delayed moving inmates from Connecticut to the new women’s prison in west Alabama after several U.S. senators from the Northeast objected.
The delay means the Aliceville facility is well below capacity and is part of an emerging political debate over how far from their families female inmates should be forced to live.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has questioned the wisdom of moving 1,100 female inmates from a prison in Danbury to rural Pickens County.
“This transfer would nearly eliminate federal prison beds for women in the northeastern United States and dramatically disrupt the lives of these female inmates and the young children they often leave behind,” Murphy said in a recent statement announcing the delay.
Murphy and 10 other senators from the region have asked the Bureau of Prisons to explain the reasons for the transfer, and whether it will hurt inmates’ access to education and legal aid.
The senators — nine Democrats and two independents from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont — are also questioning the costs of the transfer and of converting the Danbury facility into one for male prisoners.
In June, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels Jr., encouraged federal inmates to stay in touch with their children as a key to helping them eventually re-enter society.
“There is no substitute for seeing their child, looking them in the eye, and letting them know that although incarcerated, they care about their children,” Samuels said then.
The senators said that will be more difficult to achieve for the inmates in the Northeast because Aliceville is more than 1,000 miles away from Hartford, New York and Boston, and not near a major airport. The closest train station is 45 miles away in Tuscaloosa.
“We understand that the small percentage of women inmates in the federal system means that some may well have to be at a distance from their homes, but of course, given the bureau’s policies, the goal should be to have them as close as possible to protect against a negative impact on inmates with small children,” the senators wrote in an Aug. 2 letter to Samuels.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons said the agency is working on a response.
In the meantime, the bureau is “continuing to manage the inmates at (Federal Correctional Institution) Danbury in accordance with our policies and operating procedures,” spokesman Chris Burke said.
The low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Aliceville started receiving inmates in July and had 332 as of Thursday. Its satellite minimum-security camp opened in December and has 213 inmates. At full capacity, the prison will hold 1,536 female inmates, plus 256 at the camp.
There are 238 staffers working at Aliceville, which will increase to 338 at full capacity, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., helped secure the federal funds to build the Aliceville facility. His spokesman said they are monitoring the issue and awaiting the Bureau of Prisons’ response to the senators’ concerns, but Shelby wants the inmates moved to Alabama.
“We don’t disagree that it’s important to keep prisoners as close to their families as possible, but given the overcrowding and safety issues and the risk posed to the guards, that has to be a significant consideration,” said Shelby spokesman Jonathan Graffeo.
There are more than 219,000 federal prisoners in the country and the system is 40 percent above capacity, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a recent speech.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, where Shelby is the ranking Republican, has expressed concern about overcrowding and an interest in finding alternatives to building more prisons.
In its fiscal 2014 spending bill for the Justice Department, which is not yet law, the committee directs the Government Accountability Office to analyze the growing cost of housing federal inmates.