Roofing, paving, artisanal bread: Feds look to kick-start law that will free hundreds of inmates

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Set in the foothills of the soaring Rocky Mountains, the mud-colored cluster of Depression-era structures has been a fixture in the federal penal system for decades.

Although just 10 miles south of Denver, notoriety has rarely found its way here except on the occasions when the Federal Correctional Institute Englewood’s worn cellblocks have housed the likes of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling and disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich

Now, the 320-acre  compound – distinguished by coils of razor wire and guard tower – is poised to play a leading role in a major criminal justice experiment.

Justice Department officials, including newly-installed Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, have cut a path to this unlikely place in recent days to tout a series of rehabilitation programs that could be key to supporting the early release and re-entry of waves of federal inmates set to be released as part of a criminal justice overhaul approved by Congress last year.

Inside Englewood, a culinary arts program is training aspiring chefs to pump out artisanal breads, pastries and cakes. An architectural drafting operation, manned by inmates, has produced designs for hundreds of chain restaurants and is assisting with a flood prevention project for the Port Authority of New York.

The prison’s signature enterprise, however, may be its most promising. Thirteen inmates are part of a roofing and road paving crew that travels the country more than seven months of the year tending to repairs and new construction at federal government installations scattered from the Great Lakes to New England. The crew members, many of whom have acquired valuable commercial drivers’ licenses while in prison and the skills to operate heavy machinery, have saved the federal government nearly $30 million in labor costs during the past three years, federal authorities said.

Inmate Little Lee Ragsdale, 36, at the Englewood Federal Correctional Institution. He was convicted on drug offenses and is serving time in the facility. "I never thought I would get a chance to do something like this in prison," said Littlelee Ragsdale, a 36-year-old Wyoming man who is in the midst of a nine-year term for methamphetamine and heroin distribution. "This a great opportunity for a real career outside of here. It's not just one of those jobs to get by. Re-entry (to the free world) is now a realistic goal."

 (Photo: Ross Taylor for USA TODAY)

“I never thought I would get a chance to do something like this in prison,” said Littlelee Ragsdale, a 36-year-old Wyoming man who is in the midst of a nine-year term for methamphetamine and heroin distribution. “This a great opportunity for a real career outside of here. It’s not just one of those jobs to get by. Re-entry (to the free world) is now a realistic goal.”

Leaning on the promise of Englewood’s programs and others like them scattered across the Bureau of Prisons system, Attorney General William Barr later this month is expected to unveil a tool that could shave years from the sentences of non-violent offenders like Ragsdale as part of the First Step Act, a sweeping law designed to reduce the federal prison population while easing offenders’ transition back to their communities. Congress approved the law last year with support from both parties.

Barr is set to lay out rules on July 19 for evaluating federal inmates that could speed their path toward releaseOn the same day, a separate provision of the law will prompt the release of an estimated 2,200 non-violent offenders based on a re-calculation of the credit they receive for good behavior while in custody.

The new law represents a sea change in criminal justice policy which once advocated for the harshest punishments possible for offenders, including non-violent drug addicts who were swept up in en mass during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s. The reversal, largely driven by spiraling prison costs and racial disparities in the enforcement of such punitive measures has garnered support of an unusual political alliance: At the vanguard is Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, and the man he hopes to unseat, President Donald Trump.

“My visit here is an indicator of the fact that we are working very hard on the First Step Act to comply with both the law and what we think Congress and the people who sponsored the bill intended,” Rosen said in an interview with USA TODAY following a two-hour walking tour of the Englewood campus. “We’re pushing it hard; I’m putting my personal attention on that. The attorney general is, too.”

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen (center) tours the Englewood Federal Correctional Institution with Hugh Hurwitz (at left), acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. At right is the warden of the facility, Brad Greilick. (Photo: Ross Taylor, for USA TODAY)

More than 1,000 freed so far

The vast federal prison system has long been a drag on the government, soaking up more than a quarter of the Justice Department’s $28 billion budget.

Even though its prison population has dropped since 2014, with 180,664 inmates, it is still the largest penal system in the United States. The system holds more than seven times as many inmates as it did in 1980, at the start of the nation’s drug war and a “tough-on-crime” strategy that featured mandatory minimum prison sentences for repeat drug offenses that doomed some inmates to more than two decades behind bars. More than 45% of federal inmates are now serving terms for some type of drug offense, by far the largest offense grouping in the system.

The First Step Act, signed into law by Trump last year, is an attempt to both chip away at the spiraling incarceration costs and better prepare offenders for release by driving down rates of recidivism.

The law gave judges more discretion in sentencing non-violent drug offenders, and eases some of the long mandatory-minimum sentences for convicts with only minor criminal records. It allows the government to more easily release seriously ill inmates and seeks to reconcile extreme sentencing disparities between people who sell crack compared to powdered cocaine. That provision alone has already freed 1,093 inmates and led to shorter sentences for 1,540 others. 

Longtime advocates for such criminal justice reforms, who also have often been the fiercest critics of the Justice Department, are encouraged by the recent action but are wary of the challenges confronting full implementation of the law.

“I think they are doing their best to get prepared,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has long highlighted the impact of harsh sentencing policy on families of the incarcerated. “The real test will be in the implementation of all of the different pieces.”

Ring said more attention and money will be needed to support job training and drug treatment programs. He said his group remains disappointed that several classes of offenders will be excluded from qualifying for increased credits for good behavior that can be earned by participating in rehabilitation programs. Those groups include: inmates convicted of terrorism, human trafficking, sex crimes, weapons-related offenses, some fraud crimes and drug traffickers.

“There is going to be some frustration,” Ring said, referring to the excluded classes of inmates.

Hugh Hurwtiz, acting director of the federal prison system, also acknowledged that the exclusions represent a looming inmate management test for prison staffers.

“How do you manage inmates who are getting the credits and those who are not? That will be a challenge as we roll this out,” Hurwitz said.

The roll out also comes at a time when the prison system is grappling with persistent staffing shortages. To make up for a shortage of guards, officials have ordered teachers, nurses, kitchen workers and other staffers to serve as correctional officers.

The practice, known as augmentation, has drawn staff away from rehabilitation programs that officials are now touting. It also has prompted criticism from some members of Congress who regard the practice as potentially dangerous.

Rosen, the deputy attorney general, said provisions of the new law “will put additional demands” on prison staffers and he indicated that Justice was reviewing staffing across the BOP. But he believed that current personnel levels were not jeopardizing safety.

“Everyone who is trained to work at a federal prison learns to participate in the security role,” he said. “But we’re looking at that and plan to do whatever makes sense.”

President Donald Trump hailed the first major rewrite of the nation's criminal justice sentencing laws in a generation. Lawmakers reached agreement this week on the bipartisan First Step Act, but it still needs to be voted on by Congress. (Nov. 14)
AP

‘I plan to start my own company’

Dressed in a neatly pressed prison uniform, Littlelee Ragsdale looked the part of an inmate eager to turn the page on a troubled life.

Ragsdale, who was convicted of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, did not hesitate last week when called on to address Englewood’s special guest – the deputy attorney general of the United States – to describe how his experience on the prison’s roofing and road paving crew could change his life when his sentence is complete in 2023.

“I have a wife and three girls,” Ragsdale began, adding that his work as a heavy equipment operator had prepared him to assume a new role of responsibility for a waiting family. “I plan to start my own company.”

Even with the help of Englewood’s program, Ragsdale’s path will not be easy.

Ragsdale’s brush with law enforcement authorities in 2016 was not a one-time mistake.

The former oil field worker has a criminal record that dates to 2001, including burglary and car theft, according to a Wyoming prosecutor familiar with his current case. Past social media posts and photographs also appear to show a fascination with firearms, including an image in which he posed with array of hand guns and rifles.

“If you want re-integration to be successful, you need to think about re-integration at the point of intake in the prison system, not just at the end,” said Jeff Mellow, a professor of criminal justice at New York’s John Jay College.

“When they are ready to leave, you really want to make sure that the first 90 days go smoothly. If they keep hitting that wall in a search for housing or a job many will eventually give up. You only have to think about people who make New Year’s resolutions. How long do they last? To be successful post-release, it’s so important to have all the resources in place.”

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen smiles while meeting with other officials after the completion of a tour of the Englewood Federal Correctional Institution in Colorado (Photo: Ross Taylor, for USA TODAY)

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