Dec 31, 2017
I’m Michael Santos with Prison Professors. Along with my partners, Shon Hopwood and Justin Paperny, we’re glad to provide more information about how to prepare for the prison journey. Earlier episodes have given extensive biographical information on us. Complete your own due diligence. You’ll see why we’re exceptionally well qualified to help anyone who is going into the system.
More importantly, we’re well qualified to help people who want to get out of the prison system successfully. Each of us succeeded after prison because we understood how to make good decisions as we worked our way through the journey. Always remember, the right decision at the wrong time is the wrong decision.
This episode is part of our series that we’re calling how to prepare for prison. In the previous episode, we explained a bit about the process. As Dr. Stephen Covey advised in his best-selling book, it’s always best to seek to understand before we seek to be understood.
In this segment of the Prison Professors podcast, we’re going to discuss the importance of understanding stakeholders in the criminal justice system.
Federal Prison Hierarchy
To succeed in the federal prison system, it’s crucial to understand how it operates. Our partner, Shon Hopwood, tells a story that might help us illustrate the point. When Shon began serving his sentence for armed bank robbery, he wanted out. Many people in prison want out.
Shon read a case that highlighted a favorable decision. He thought the legal ruling might apply to him. Shon wrote a motion and he filed his motion in a court that he thought would grant relief. The judge refused to accept Shon’s motion. Instead, the judge offered advice. He suggested that if Shon wanted to get relief in court, it would behoove him to file in an appropriate court that would have jurisdiction on his case.
Obviously, Shon went on to master the judicial system. As Steve Kroft of 60 Minute said, while serving his sentence, Shon became the most successful “jailhouse” lawyer in history. The legal briefs that he wrote for other prisoners resulted in victories in the district courts, circuit courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. His legal victories changed laws and resulted in liberty for many people in federal prison.
But if Shon did not learn how to master federal prison first, he would not have succeeded in mastering the federal judiciary, or become a skilled jailhouse lawyer. We must take first steps first. And for people going into the prison system, it’s essential to understand how the Bureau of Prisons operates.
Branches of Government
Like the federal courts, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is a massive bureaucracy. Many years may have passed since some of our readers took a class in civics. As a quick reminder, our nation has three bodies of government. They include the following branches:
Our elected members of Congress make up the Legislative Branch of government. They include representatives from each of the 500+ districts in the United States, and they include the two senators that represent each state. Those members vote on legislation in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Once they’re in agreement, the legislative bills go to the President. If the President signs the legislative bills, they become laws.
In our country, we have more than 90 federal Judicial Districts. For example, in California, there are four separate federal Judicial Districts—including the Northern District Court, the Central District Court, the Southern District Court, and the Eastern District Court. Each of those Districts is part of a Circuit. We separate those Circuits by geographic regions. For example , California is in the Ninth Judicial Circuit. New York is in the Second Judicial Circuit. We have the U.S. Supreme Court that presides over all Circuit and District Courts. We have more than 1,000 federal judges that preside over the various courts. Each of the judges strives to ensure that people receive due process—meaning, the judges strive to apply fairness in the courts for all.
The Executive Branch of government oversees the many different applications of government. Our president appoints people who oversee the different departments. For our purposes, we know that the Attorney General of the United States oversees the Department of Justice. And the Attorney General of the United States oversees the Director of the Bureau of Prisons. For that reason, we must understand how the hierarchy operates.
Politics and Prisoners:
Earlier, I encouraged you to complete your due diligence on my partners and me. That way you could assess the veracity of our claim to have mastered our time in federal prison. It takes a lot of discipline to grow in prison. In my case, I went through 26 years.
By the time that I met our co-founder Justin Paperny in the Taft Federal Prison Camp, our country was going through a historic election. The economy was in the tank, sliding into the worst recession in recent memory. Unemployment was on the rise. Justin asked me why I followed the political race so closely.
As a prisoner, I explained, we must live with decisions that come down from the top. The president’s perspective on governing will influence the policies that he wants to set. As a prisoner, we must live with those policies. If the president believes that people have a capacity to change, the president will appoint an Attorney General that shares that liberal viewpoint. If the president believes that we need to preserve the systems that are in place, then the president will appoint an Attorney General that shares such a conservative viewpoint. Policy shifts in prison will reflect the perceptions of both the president and the Attorney General.
To illustrate, let us provide two recent examples of such change.
The Second Chance Act provided prison administrators with new discretion regarding halfway house placement. Prior to the Second Chance Act, leaders in The Bureau of Prisons could authorize prisoners to serve the final six months of their sentences in a halfway house. After The Second Chance Act, leaders in The Bureau of Prisons could authorize prisoners to serve the final 12 months of their sentences in a halfway house.
Obviously, from a prisoner’s perspective, 12 months in a halfway house would be better than six months in a halfway house. But it was up to the Bureau of Prisons to apply the law.
The U.S. Congress passed The Second Chance Act. But leadership in the BOP has discretion. When President Obama was in office, the Attorney General was Eric Holder. Under that administration, people in prison could have some influence on how much halfway house time they could receive. As a master of federal prison, I succeeded in putting myself on a pathway to get the full 12 months of halfway house. Similarly, as a master in the federal prison system, Justin succeeded in getting the maximum halfway house placement that was available to him.
In 2017, President Donald Trump appointed Jeff Sessions to serve as the Attorney General. Both President Trump and Attorney General Sessions had a different perspective. President Trump and AG Sessions had a conservative perspective, meaning that they believed that people should serve the maximum amount of time in federal prison. The 2017 administration cut funding to halfway houses.
But a master of federal prison would know how to cope with such change.
To prevail on maximum halfway house time—or any other matter pertaining to federal prison—Prison Professors urges people to understand the system. Pursue a strategy to get the best possible outcome, depending upon the political philosophy of the administration in power. The strategy that may result in success during a conservative administration may differ from the strategy that could result in success in a liberal administration.
To master federal prison quickly, make sure that you understand the political philosophy on both a macro and a micro level.
Directors of the Bureau of Prisons:
The Bureau of Prisons is a massive organization. It employs more than 40,000 staff members that serve in six different regions. Those regions include federal prisons in most states, halfway houses in all states, regional offices, training centers, and headquarters in Washington D.C. The Director of the Bureau of Prisons presides over the entire bureaucracy. He reports to the Attorney General of the United States.
For the nearly 200,000 federal prisoners, it’s important to understand the different roles in the BOP. What is the role of the Director?
Well, the Director must make sure that the prison system is operating in accordance with the wishes of the Attorney General. And the Attorney General wants the Director to operate the Bureau of Prisons in accordance with the political philosophy of the President.
The Director is not going to express concern for individual prisoner issues. Rather, the Director focuses on systemic policies. When prisoners attempt to seek relief from the Director, the prisoner reveals a lack of understanding for how the system operates. Masters understand the system. And they learn how to succeed, given the limitations of the system itself.
Unless a prisoner wants to advocate for systemic change, it doesn’t make sense for him to advance arguments at the highest levels of the Bureau of Prisons. In fact, doing so can cause problems. Leaders know that the right decision at the wrong time is the wrong decision. Although people in prison may see many injustices on a systemic level, as masters, we should always have a very clear perspective. How are we defining success? What battles are we striving to win? What price are we willing to pay in pursuit of success over our battles.
By focusing on victory as we define victory, we know where to concentrate our energy. It rarely works in our interest to seek relief from the highest levels of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
To oversee the Bureau of Prisons, the Director relies upon a large team. That team includes a Deputy Director, several Acting Directors, and several Regional Directors. It would be highly unusual for any of those directors to make decisions regarding any individuals in prison. Rather, the directors rely upon their subordinates. We should expect the subordinates to make decisions in accordance with the political philosophies of the people in power. Directors set policies and oversee budgets. Subordinates carry out those policies.
Federal Prison, an Overview:
We know that the Bureau of Prisons is a massive bureaucracy. It includes many different divisions. People who want to master federal prison should broaden their understanding of how it operates. The more people understand, the more likely they become to get on the best trajectory.
Masters seek to understand more so that they can influence more.
Although a later chapter discusses custody and classification levels in detail, we can provide a brief overview here. The Bureau of Prisons categorizes in accordance with security levels. Consider the following:
Mastering the federal prison system requires some knowledge of the different types of institutions. The more we know about the Bureau of Prisons and the staff, the better we can position ourselves to get to the best possible environment.
All secure institutions include the following staff members:
The warden is the CEO of the institution. Wardens have an enormous amount of influence with regard to how the prison operates. Some wardens make themselves approachable. To the extent that a person in prison positions himself well, he can influence the warden’s perception.
As a prisoner, it’s crucial to begin with a clear understanding of success. Exercise discretion when it comes to approaching a warden—or anyone else. Lay the groundwork first, before asking the warden to intervene on anything. Understand that the warden has enormous power with regard to every person in the prison. In the various books that Prison Professors have written, we described how wardens influenced our success through the journey. Pay close attention to the extensive amounts of back work that we did, and also note how we were selective when requesting assistance.
The associate wardens are part of the warden’s executive staff. They oversee various departments within the prison. For example, the Associate Warden of Programs will oversee unit staff. The Associate Warden of Operations will oversee facility management. The population level of the prison will influence how many AWs are available.
Department heads oversee specific departments. For example, the Unit Manager oversees all case managers. A Unit Manager reports directly to the Associate Warden of Programs. The Unit Manager will ask inmates to resolve matters directly with the case manager.
Line staff includes case managers, cook supervisors, counselors, landscape foreman, maintenance leaders, and others who work in various departments. They report to their respective department heads.
Case managers oversee all matters that pertain to a person’s case. Once the judge sentences a person “To the custody of the attorney general,” that person becomes an “inmate” as far as concerns the system. And case managers will have direct oversight of the inmate. The inmate will not have a lawyer. The inmate must learn how to advocate for himself effectively. Case managers will be a key person to influence. Although policies guide decisions, there is always some discretion. A master will learn how to influence staff members in the Bureau of Prisons in a positive way.
Counselors in federal prison do not offer the type of counseling that someone outside of prison would expect. Rather, they perform jobs like approving visiting lists and assigning jobs. It’s best to understand the limited role that counselors play in federal prison. That way, people spare themselves the disappointment that comes from expecting too much.
Influence and Manipulation
At Prison Professors, we discuss the long-term approach of influencing a positive outcome. That differs from shortsighted efforts to manipulate staff members. To influence does not mean to manipulate.
For obvious reasons, staff members are extremely cynical. Every day, staff members in prison work with convicted felons. Many of those people have criminal mindsets. That is why staff members expect inmates to lie. They expect inmates to do or say anything that will ease their burden. Masters of the system do not whine or complain about this reality. Rather, they learn how to work within the system, and how to succeed in spite of the challenges.
Masters know that the Bureau of Prisons invests a considerable amount of resources in staff development and staff training. Part of that training teaches staff members how “to be firm but fair.” The Bureau of Prisons wants to make sure the public is safe, the prisons are safe, and the staff members are safe. As such, it’s extremely conservative. Training encourages staff members to rely upon policy when making decisions, and it trains them to interpret those policies conservatively. For that reason, it’s crucial for masters to understand all policies. By understanding the opportunity costs that come with every decision, masters can make better progress than those who flounder.
If you want to master federal prison, work through all of the programs available through PrisonProfessors.com. You will learn our strategies for making exceptional progress in prison. More importantly, you will learn how to succeed upon release.