Free Copy of Earning Freedom
Shortly after I arrived at the Lompoc Prison Camp in early 2021, I had a meeting with my Case Manager. This is a Bureau of Prisons (B.O.P.) official whose job description includes making sure inmates take advantage of any educational programming that could benefit their personal growth and provide any potential credits for time served. Although I had a relatively short sentence, I was encouraged to try to sign up for any programming that interested me.
I went to the library and found the “First Step Act – Approved Programs Guide” (Program Guide). The First Step Act was enacted in 2018, but the Program Guide was dated October, 2019. On the inside cover, it described the guide as a collection of the B.O.P.’s “robust reentry programs, designed to ensure that all sentenced inmates have the skills necessary to succeed upon release.” The B.O.P had assessed 13 areas that impact an inmate’s ability to live a healthy and productive life upon reentry: Anger/Hostility; Antisocial Peers; Cognition; Dyslexia; Education; Family/Parenting; Finance/Poverty; Medical; Mental Health; Recreation/Leisure/Fitness; Substance Abuse; Trauma; and Work. The Program Guide went on to provide detailed descriptions on over 30 Evidence Based Recidivism Reduction (EBRR) programs including Anger Management, Criminal Thinking, Emotional Self-Regulation, Life Connections, and Post-Secondary Education. It also listed over 50 Productive Activities which are a combination of classes and activities covering a broad range of interests such as English as a Second Language (ESL), Health and Wellness, Money Smart, and Trauma Education. Although the majority of the offerings were clearly designed for inmates who lacked higher formal education and who may have had behavioral, trauma, or substance abuse history, there were a handful that looked interesting to someone like myself with advanced education. I was excited to sign up for a few classes.
One of my fellow inmates who bunked near me worked in the library which was under the Education Department of the Camp. When I asked him about a few of the offerings that I had identified, he quickly let me know that of the 80+ EBRR and Productive Activity offerings in the Program Guide only a handful were offered at Lompoc. When I inquired as to why, he said it was a combination of teaching restrictions because of COVID-19 and the fact that the First Step Act’s practical implementation at the institution level had never really taken place (from his experience at Lompoc). There were regular offerings for the popular substance abuse programs such as RDAP (Residential Drug Abuse Program), but those required criminal history involving drugs or alcohol which did not apply to me. The only other offerings available were classes in ESL, Parenting, Crisis Management and financial education (Money Smart). There were also 2 community college classes offered in psychology and trauma education. However, these were only offered sporadically throughout the year. Since there were such few offerings and with limited class sizes, given the number of inmates at the Camp, it was difficult to get registered right away. While it was mildly disappointing for me as my goal was to take 1 or 2 classes during my short sentence, I felt bad for those with much longer sentences who not only desired to improve themselves and benefit from these programs, but who could significantly benefit from credits to their time served.
Given the limited offerings, I began to do some additional research on The First Step Act. I have co-authored several books that are taught in churches and faith-based schools throughout the country. The Camp Chaplain graciously allowed my publisher to ship copies of the books to the Camp. I was able to recruit multiple groups of 10 to 15 men to commit to a 10-week class on each book. While I made it clear to the men that they would not immediately receive any credit under the First Step Act for these classes, I promised I would be working to try to get them approved and perhaps earn retroactive credit. The Camp Chaplain arranged a meeting with the Director of Education regarding the process to get these book studies approved under the First Step Act. Without the use of a computer, I drafted the required program descriptions, pre and post-tests and other materials for each class. The Camp Chaplain helped to type and print the materials and they were submitted to the Director of Education. He told me that it was a potentially long process that required multiple approvals at various levels.
Several months after submitting the forms, I received the exciting news that I would be released early to Home Confinement under the CARES Act. Coincidentally, at approximately the same time, the Camp Chaplain tendered his resignation to the B.O.P to pursue a job in another state. Before I left the Camp, I checked with the Director of Education for an update on the status of the certification of the classes, but he did not have any new information.
On January 13th, I was surprised when I was notified of the Department of Justice’s announcement that they would finally be implementing the Time Credits that provides eligible inmates the opportunity to earn 10 to 15 days of time credits for every 30 days of successful participation in EBRR Programs and Productive Activities. While the net impact to me was minimal in that it reduced my sentence by 2 to 3 months, I knew it would have a huge impact on many of the men I served with during my short time at the Camp. In addition, I began to think of the men who had faithfully completed the book studies that I led and hoped that those classes would eventually get approved for First Step Act credit thus providing additional retroactive benefits to both me and them.
Finally, I am hopeful that with the D.O.J. ‘s announcement both at Lompoc and across the country there will be an increase in the actual offerings for both EBRR Programs as well as Productive Activities. There are several inmates who desire personal growth and would be motivated to attend these classes even if there were no time credits given. The reality is that most men are motivated to attend these classes and programs for the time credits. However, as I saw with the men who voluntarily attended the classes I led, they were enriched by the curriculum and regardless of their motivation to attend, they benefited from the experience. If the stated goal of the First Step Act is truly to equip inmates with skills to help them be successful upon their release, perhaps this goal will finally become a reality.