June 14, 2019       


I am writing today with feedback as a citizen, stakeholder (FedCURE) and retired BOP employee with over 30 years of experience working directly with people incarcerated in the federal prison system. I respectfully request this feedback be considered and put on the record.

My perspective is unique because I was involved with training BOP correctional programs staff, auditing facilities, writing policy and classifying thousands of people since the 1980’s under the various classification manuals and current risk assessment tool. I have worked in all types of prison units including pre-trial, witness security (WITSEC) min, low, medium and high. I currently testify around the country on federal prison issues and train federal defenders and judges on the BOP in general. One of my passions is federal prison reform.  (CV attached)

I am providing feedback to various areas under review by the IRC. My primary focus is on the risk assessment tool.

I am strongly recommending you consider using the existing SENTRY classification tool (BP-338) with minor modifications given the practicality of seamless implementation, cost effectiveness, training and familiarity within the BOP culture. No additional staffing would be needed for this option.

Before I make my points, I ask you one question:

Can you right now explain the difference between “security level” and “custody level”? 

 This is the single most misunderstood concept even with BOP staff and is the key to understanding the applicability and efficacy of the current tool.  The security levels (min/low/med/high) should be of less emphasis than the custody level; (i.e., risk) – (Max/In/Out/Community).

 I can tell you with certainty, when individuals are classified under the current risk formula (BP-338); more often than not, the computer program recommends a reduction in “custody” which is totally independent of security level. Historically, certain cases with violence or of a high profile nature were identified as “Exception” cases so any reduction in custody, (aka: risk) required approval from a higher authority such as the warden. It is important to understand I am NOT referring to a reduction in security level with this reference and the aspect of custody should be considered the “risk level” and totally independent of security level.

 When I speak to advocates and academics inside the beltway regarding the current tool; they are unaware it includes dynamic factors, hence some of the opposition to the existing tool. The dynamic factors in combination with the static factors determine the recommendation regarding custody” with the treatment staff having the final determination on the decision to approve or deny the reduction. I will assume you understand the concept of the “variances” in the current SENTRY computer program scheme.

Without getting too much into the “weeds” of custody; think of custody as an equivalent to the reduction in recidivism (i.e.: risk) that is totally separate than the assigned security level (Min/Low/Med/High). The graduated, 4 level, custody classification system of Maximum, In, Out and Community is what determines the individual’s responsibility and what correctional environment they can be managed in. The current methodology is something the BOP can easily understand and implement. The FSA refers to risk as minimum, low medium and high which will totally confuse the agency culture because of the 4 level security level system.

To better understand this concept, one must understand this from a historical perspective. In the 1980’s, before the wide adoption of satellite camps, inmates who were classified as even medium and high security could be assigned “OUT” custody so they could be assigned gate passes to work outside the institution perimeter. At that time, it was a 6-level system (1 through 6), with custody levels 5 and 6 being the equivalent to today’s high security.  Even inmates with levels 4’s and 5’s were able to obtain gate passes because their risk level (i.e.: custody) was considered low.

 Analogy 1: A medium security person who was reduced to “Out” custody was determined to be a minimal/low risk of recidivism because we felt he had the responsibility to go outside the fence and work on the reservation with two hr. intermittent supervision. The BP-338 form/formula would recommend a reduction in custody and staff had to approve the custody reduction or deny it with reason using sound correctional judgement. As stated previously, some cases needed a higher review authority approval for a reduction. At that the time the BOP even had work/study release.

Analogy 2:  When the same person progressed and was under 2 years from release, we had the ability to approve “communitycustody to participate in community programs because we felt they had minimal risk (or the lowest risk) of recidivism. In fact, this methodology actually exists today; “John Smith” who is a “High” security level in a United States Penitentiary (“USP”) departs for the Residential Re-entry Center (“RRC”). Mr. Smith goes from “IN” custody to “COMMUNITY” custody immediately to participate in community programs at the RRC. Custody is discretionary depending on the risk factors entered into the computer program, and the unit team or the warden in exception cases has the authority to increase or decrease custody level at any time during the sentence regardless of the security level. Therefore, the lowest risk for recidivism would be “community” and the highest risk would be “Maximum”.

For instance, I can recall an Aryan Brotherhood member on my caseload who had committed manslaughter who was assigned a gate pass (i.e.: low risk) because of the time that had elapsed since the instant offense, his programming, behavior and ensuing release date. The 338 custody classification system recommended the reduction, the unit team supported it and the warden approved it because of the “low risk”. That situation explains the general concept how almost anyone can be considered and approved for a minimum or low risk so it is already within the agency framework for implementation. From my recollection that person became a mentor after release and was involved with “Kairos” prison ministry.

The BOP has lost that concept within the culture because of the adoption of satellite camps. There are no longer incentives or practical reasons to reduce a person’s custody, so you will see a majority of the classification cation forms that recommend reductions in custody at low, medium and high security facilities are arbitrarily denied. In addition, even in camps people are often denied community custody routinely which inhibits community program development like work & study release.

It’s important to remember when the data is keyed on the BP-338 (PPG7), the computer always makes a recommendation regarding the new custody (increase, decrease, or same). It’s the unit team’s final decision to approve the recommendation because there is a tendency in the program to recommend a decrease when it may not be warrant when all factors are assessed.

Summary: It is my contention, statutorily even people with medium and high security could be the lowest risk living in camps and participating in work and/or study release under the existing classification framework.

 A concern I have from a field perspective is the exclusion of certain people from earning the extra good time. The FSA has the potentially be discriminatory and the white collar lobby surely is behind aspects of this legislation.

 Ineligible Prisoners:

Let’s look at the “violence” definition and people excluded from earning the extra good time. This aspect of the FSA is extremely confusing because the BOP has a policy entitled “Categorization of Offenses”, PS # 5162.5, which is the policy to determine who is excluded from receiving program benefits based on the nature of their crime as a “Crime of Violence” or as a “Director’s Discretion” case.  Why would we have an entire, meticulous policy on this subject but create another arbitrary list of exclusionary crimes referenced in this bill? Never mind the USSC Manual/Guidelines, categorical approach, etc. which also determines violence.


I am going to assume the authors here were unaware that the aforementioned BOP policy exists and/or they do not realize the BOP has SENTRY “CMA” computer assignments for violent crime classification and the WALSH Act (sex offender cases). It’s confusing to say the least why we would have a separate list when this is already in the policy and agency practices? Note: in my humble opinion, we should remove ALL the Director’s discretion exclusions because it inhibits people from receiving Drug treatment due to the inability for early release.  People are punished for their crimes by the length of the sentence and should not further be further punished when in the system. ALL people should be eligible and be able to earn the benefits regardless of the crime aside from Life sentences. We did not make such distinctions under the old law when it came to extra or statutory good time. 

Recidivism reduction Programs:

With regard to recidivism reduction programs, this bill focuses too much on the programs over the individual’s treatment plan, abilities and criminogenic needs. We all know what happens when the BOP incentivizes a program like RDAP (Residential Drug Treatment). The waiting lists grow, the populations compete for program entrance and even create false stories in the pre-sentence reports to obtain program placement. Aside from the non-existent programs in the first place, the less savvy and marginalized population are denied program placement as they compete for acceptance. The end result is frustration, program manipulation and delays in programming. I’ve actually seen hundreds of people who didn’t need or qualify for RDAP had they not created a fictitious history prior to the PSR interview. It is a cottage industry today. This makes institutions less safe and benefits the white-collar types.

The actual BOP philosophy and policy consists of a comprehensive correctional treatment plan that addresses multiple deficit areas that are vital to rehabilitation and recidivism reduction. What is important to this concept is that as long as the inmate is making satisfactory progress towards the individualized, comprehensive correctional treatment plan, they should receive program benefits (i.e.: extra time) despite if the “program” itself is classified/determined as one that reduces recidivism.

This concept takes the focus off of program itself and the inmates “shopping’ for the magic program where the incentive is more important than the program benefit. While it is practical to have evidenced based, recidivism reducing programs; someone of border line intelligence should earn the good time regardless of what program they complete regardless of the program classification.

It is not a one size fits all situation. One person with cognitive deficiencies and poor impulse control can be awarded for simply participating in the GED and staying out of trouble vs a person of higher intelligence and no behavior issues would need to address their deficits by different programs fit for their own criminogenic factors.

In addition, comprehensive correctional treatment plans also address multiple deficit areas like education, behavior control, vocational training and substance abuse. Evidenced based programs “proven to reduce recidivism” must be utilized but only as part of the total comprehensive correctional treatment plan.

None of the above can be accomplished unless the BOP follows their own policy on a meaningful program review process rather than a hurried, sign the paper and get out philosophy. BOP administrators need to understand it the fundamental breakdown of the team process due to staffing jeopardizes public safety just as much as an escape, if not more. The sad part of this is that there needs to be a re-examination of the unit management concept and either scrap it or staff it as historically intended. The agency’s art of pretending they practice unit management principles can be easily debunked by a review of nation-wide practices. The most profound non legislative recommendation to reducing recidivism is to return to manageable case-loads of 100 people per case manager and counselor and conduct classification meetings like it was intended with a multi-disciplinary team which also includes the personal attendance of the psychology services and the education representative. This relationship development fosters safer institutional environments and protects the public.           

The BOP policy regarding this process is governed by Program Statement 5322.13, Inmate Classification and Program Review (Program Statement 5322.13) which utilizes a comprehensive correctional treatment plan concept, instead of singling out a “Program” for an incentive approach.

When an inmate arrives at a federal prison facility, he/she receives an Initial Classification meeting within four (4) weeks of arrival (referred to as “Team”). At that time, feedback is solicited from the Psychology Services representative and Education Advisor, and a comprehensive correctional treatment plan is established with short-term and long-term goals for the inmate.

For example, a comprehensive correctional treatment plan for an inmate may specify the following: attend General Education Development (“GED”) courses for twenty (20) hours a week, with the long-term goal of GED completion in one year; complete the basic drug education program within 6 months with the long-term goal of transferring to a Residential Drug Abuse Program (“RDAP”); pay the assessment of $100 by paying down $25.00 monthly which satisfies the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (“IFRP”). Further, the RDAP, the most desired single program, exemplifies the need for a comprehensive correctional treatment plan. This incentive-based program is not offered everywhere and the maximum program benefits are sometimes missed given to late enrollment dates due to waiting lists at many institutions. In addition, there are literally cottage industry type businesses creating drug abuse histories prior to the pre-sentence interview in order to qualify to attend the program. These offenders are occupying needed beds better utilized for inmates with actual abuse histories. Therefore, program shopping and manipulation may be curtailed with an individualized, comprehensive correctional treatment program.

Mentorship Pilot programs: I am a strong supporter of expanding the Tier 2 volunteer program but it is hard to fathom how the agency is going to develop pilot programs and expand tier two volunteers to justice involved individuals when there are already many impediments to the volunteer program in general. Community members and organizations seeking Tier 2 credentials are often denied and are unaware of such clearances exist. Expanding a viable Tier 2 volunteer system with community entities like religious organizations, educational institutions, and other NGO’s is the practical solution for mentorship. Many people are unaware of the volunteer policy even exists:



Unrealistic incentives

It is unimaginable the BOP has the necessary RRC infrastructure to comply with this legislation. The BOP recently terminated 16 contracts nationwide and ordinarily places even high risk inmates for less than a 6 months in the RRC.

The agency never honored the spirit and intent of the Second Chance Act of 2007 to begin with. It is well documented and pointed out even by the DOJ-IG that inmates with low risk receive longer placements than high risk inmates and direct home detention is extremely under-utilized, including the Federal Location Monitoring program administered by the AOUSC.

There is insufficient infrastructure for such a good time incentive without a massive and costly expansion of existing and new contract facilities.

 More Visiting/phone: The BOP does not have the infrastructure to facilitate more visiting and telephone privileges. It is also disingenuous to refer to “more email“, when email is already unlimited. There is a limited number of telephones and computers in each unit to facilitate this incentive. In addition, the BOP does not have the staffing and existing visiting room space to facilitate more visiting.

It should be noted all these incentives are “at the discretion of the warden”.

The incentives also signal to me the privatization lobby has planted the seeds to get video technology in every prison which can enable the agency to curtail in person visiting. That is just another way to gouge the inmate population and marginalized families similar to the telephone exploitation.

Transfer closer:  This incentive is also disingenuous as the bill stipulates “if space available”, etc. The BOP finds it hard to place people within 500 miles with the existing facility infrastructure so this additional, discretionary incentive simply won’t happen.

These incentives are science fiction. They will collectively create a false expectation resulting in frustration and unsafe institution environments. 

I respectfully request this feedback be considered and I would be happy to address any issues, questions or clarify any of the content! I am also attaching the notes from my Colson Task Force testimony which covers some of these same areas.


Jack Donson