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 How The First Step Act Influences A Federal Prisoner’s Life 

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Michael Santos

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If you want to know how the first step act influences a a federal prisoner’s life, consider the changes this legislation brings.

At Prison Professors, we consider The First Step Act to be a positive influence. The First Step Act opens opportunities for every person in federal prison. Specifically, it requires the Bureau of Prisons to open new opportunities for people to improve the quality of life inside.

I can give some perspective on how The First Step Act would have eased my life while I served 26 years. Every day while I was inside, I worked to prepare for success upon release. I documented that journey extensively in various books and in extensive writings available on the Internet. Yet regardless of how hard I worked, the Bureau of Prisons did not have a mechanism to incentivize anyone who was on a path to pursue excellence. Indeed, staff members would say:

• We don’t care anything about your life after your release. We only care about the security of the institution.

The First Step Act changes that mantra. With the First Step Act, Congress has mandated the Bureau of Prisons to place more emphasis on improving outcomes of the criminal justice system. And it has created a clear mechanism that will help prison officials achieve that goal.

From my perspective, this opportunity for every prisoner to have some power to influence his or her life is a big deal. By opening opportunities for people in prison to work toward clearly defined goals, we incentivize people to pursue excellence. This systemic change will improve the quality of life for people in prison.

Rather than feeling helpless, The First Step Act opens opportunities for every person in federal prison to begin building a record that demonstrates his or her commitment to lead a law-abiding, contributing life. The more credentials a person earns, the more opportunities that person can open.

Non-violent prisoners will rely upon provisions in The First Step Act to return home to their families sooner. All prisoners will benefit from other incentives that include:

• Access to more telephone time
• Access to higher spending limits in the commissary
• Access to more visiting opportunities
• Access to more email time
• Access to maximum amounts of time on community confinement
• Access to more programming and job training that will open opportunities upon release.

The First Step Act does is not a cure all to the injustices of mass incarceration. As the name implies, it’s a first step. But as someone who served more than a quarter century inside, I can speak for the entire team at Prison Professors in saying that it’s news our team welcomes.

I entered the federal prison system in 1987 and I lived as a federal prisoner until 2013. When I started in the system, the Bureau of Prisons confined about 30,000 people. When I concluded my sentence, our nation’s prison system confined more than 200,000 people. I saw the growth and I saw how slowly changes came—particularly positive changes.

The most popular positive change was the Residential Drug Abuse Program, now known as RDAP. That program allowed some people an opportunity to advance their release date by a full year. But more than a decade passed from the time discussions of RDAP began, to the way that the Bureau of Prisons interprets the program today.

Expect a long rollout for the First Step Act, too.

It’s a first step. And it doesn’t reduce sentence lengths for anyone. But It does include benefits that will improve the quality of life for everyone who is going into the prison system.

Our team at Prison Professors will continue publishing content to help family members and new prisoners understand more about this historic legislation.

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