By Christopher Zoukis
If it passes, the First Step Act will dramatically change life for thousands of inmates in America and will tackle, head on, some of the problems that lead people to prison and keeps them there.
There are many long-overdue items on the Act that includes banning the shackling of pregnant and postpartum women (was a woman in labor ever in danger or making a run for it?), providing ID cards for released offenders, placing offenders in prisons within driving distance of their families, and using a good behavior credit system that sees early release to supervised non-prison environments. These and other reforms listed on the Act would drain the glut on the overburden penal system and give released offenders a better chance at life on the outside.
However, the reform item on the Act that excites us here at Zoukis Prisoner Resources is the Act’s plan to, “Compel the BOP to match individual needs to programs, training, and services, so that men and women return home job-ready.”
That is perhaps the reform action item with the most impact because not only is it about education, and it’s about specifically applying that education in the most effective manner for the inmate.
Think about the implications of that.
In order for this reform item to come true, prisons across America would have to have training and education programs in place. Currently, more than 20 states do not have formal prison education programs. The Act would further encourage those programs to be varied. Right now, as prison education largely relies on the charitable acts of post-secondary institutions and volunteers, programs that are in place vary widely from prison to prison. For some, GED studies are available, for others, degree programs in liberal arts are in place. But while some inmates are getting caught up in philosophy and sociology, others are learning how to balance a budget and make healthy meals from low-cost grocery items. “Matching individual needs to programs, training, and services” would do a lot to push both formal and informal prison education across all states, giving inmates a chance to get what they need most, whether it’s a college education, life skills, or (more realistically) both.
The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization, devoted to covering the criminal justice system says supporters hail The First Step Act as a pivotal moment in the movement to create a more fair justice system,” and we couldn’t agree more.
But the First Step Act is not yet a reality, even though it is gaining positive traction. Currently, the Act has passed through the House of Representatives with overwhelming support (360-59). The next step is to see the Act pass through the Senate.
#FirstStepAct makes it easy for those supporting the proposed reform to influence where this Act goes next. Suggestions include Tweeting your senator, emailing a letter to your congressperson, or even calling your representative directly. #FirstStepAct has scripts and tools on its webpage to make the Tweets, calls, letters, or emails fast and easy.
The First Step Act is a great step forward and one of the most progressive sweeping prison reforms ideas we’ve seen in recent years. We will be closely watching the progression of this Act while hoping that it goes forward to the benefit of prisoners in every state in America.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.