Blog Article 

 RDAP Introduction 

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Michael Santos

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In today’s article, we offer more insight to help you understand the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). Every person facing a sentencing hearing in the federal system should learn about this program for a specific reason:

  • Congress authorized the Bureau of Prisons to grant time reductions of either 12 months / nine months / or six months to qualified candidates that complete the Residential Drug Abuse Program. It’s the only program in federal prison that results in a time cut.

RDAP Problem:

Many people going into the system do not understand the RDAP program. Some defendants worry that talking about substance abuse or alcoholism will make them look bad in front of a judge or other stakeholder in the system. Then, they go to prison and learn about RDAP. Yet as a result of their misinformation, they fail to qualify.


While going through 26 years in federal prison, I learned a great deal about how to prepare in ways to get the best outcomes. The Residential Drug Abuse Program did not exist when I began serving the sentence, back in 1987. Since then, the program has gone through many iterations. Despite the program’s existence for longer than 20 years, relatively few defense attorneys or people encountering the system understand how the RDAP program can be of help to them.

If you or a loved one is going into the system, make sure you learn everything possible to prepare for the best outcomes, and the earliest possible release date.

Introduction to RDAP:

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) offers the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) to people that qualify. As the link below shows, to qualify, a person must have a documented substance abuse problem:

According to the BOP, the 500-hour RDAP program help participants overcome many personal issues that complicate their prospects for success upon release. 

Again, qualified participants who complete RDAP qualify for a time cut, depending upon the length of sentence they’re serving. Further, RDAP also reduces the amount of time a person serves in prison by ensuring that each graduate receives at least six months of community confinement.

Drug Abuse Education Course (DAEC):

Besides the comprehensive, 500-hour RDAP program, the BOP operates other courses to help people overcome their challenges with substance abuse. For example, all federal prisons offer a voluntary 12 – 15 hour course called Drug Abuse Education Course (DAEC). Staff members designed the DAEC to help people learn about the consequences of drug and alcohol addiction. Theoretically, the DAEC should help people consider how drug or alcohol use influenced their bad decisions, including the commission of their crimes.

The Non-Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program (NRDAP):

Another less-intense course requires participants to participate in a therapy program that lasts between 12 and 24 weeks. Sometimes, administrators will require people to work through the NRDAP before they can participate in RDAP. Other people participate in NRDAP as an alternative to RDAP—because they didn’t qualify. As an incentive, people that finish

NRDAP a nominal monetary award, about $30. More substantively, case managers in the prison may reward successful graduates with more time in the halfway house.

Most people in federal prison, however, want to qualify and successfully complete The Residential Drug Abuse Program because it’s the only program that authorizes an administrative time cut of up to one year.


Congress authorized the RDAP program as part of the 1994 Comprehensive Crime Control Bill. At the time of the program’s implementation, I was locked inside the high-security penitentiary in Atlanta. I distinctly remember the way administrators roled it out, and I’ve seen how popular it became over subsequent decades. Congress codified the RDAP program at 18 USC §3621.

As a “residential” program, people relocate from the general housing population to a unit reserved for people that participate in RDAP. The housing unit, ordinarily, has less volatility. All participants want to earn their credential of completion so they can get the maximum benefit. That shared motivation means that fewer pressures exist in the residential unit that administrators reserve for RDAP participants.

While in the program, participants work through a structured curriculum that requires about 500 hours of  participation. Ordinarily, each cohort of RDAP participants remains in the housing unit for nine months. After completing the program, the people transition out to home confinement, a halfway house, or they transfer back to the general population—depending upon the length of their sentence. The RDAP course work lasts roughly four hours each day, five days each week. Participants may complete the programs through independent study or together in group sessions, as directed by the RDAP coordinator. RDAP relies upon techniques known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Essentially, CBT programs strive to help people develop more positive thinking and clean living habits. Through a series of lessons that include open-ended questions, videos, essays, lectures, reading, and personal accountability metrics, RDAP teaches the introspective techniques that Aristotle pioneered more than 2,000 years ago.

Participants work with mental health counselors at the BOP in a structured manner. They attend a predefined number of classes for instruction, individual counseling, and group therapy sessions. RDAP does not require participants to receive any medication related to program participation.

RDAP and Early Release:

The 1994 Comprehensive Crime Control Bill authorized the Bureau of Prisons to incentivize participation with time cuts. People that qualify and complete the program earn administrative time cuts—meaning that a judge does not participate in the decision. Rather, a prison administrator will advance the release date by up to 12 months.

The BOP publishes internal reports showing that people who participate in RDAP get the following outcomes:

  • Reducing relapses of drug or alcohol addiction;
  • Reducing tendencies for criminality;
  • Reducing recidivism;
  • Reducing misconduct;
  • Increasing the education levels;
  • Increasing employment opportunities upon return to the community; and
  • Improving health and mental health symptoms and conditions.

People that have not been sentenced may want to think about such desirable outcomes when crafting a mitigation strategy.

Admission to RDAP

People that want to participate in RDAP should think about the application process early—long before the presentence investigation interview. They may take other steps, such as working with a licensed professional. They need to document the record effectively in order to overcome BOP objections.

Once a person gets to federal prison, the person that wants to participate will submit a written request for an application interview with the appropriate staff member. The written request initiates the RDAP application process, prompting an interview with the facility’s RDAP coordinator or a drug treatment specialist. If the facility does not offer RDAP, an employee with the BOP’s psychology services staff will conduct the RDAP interview.

As a general rule, to qualify for RDAP, the person must have at least 24 months remaining on his/her sentence. Also, as stated earlier, the person documentation of substance during the 12 months preceding the offense.

Other RDAP qualifications include:

  • Literacy: To successfully complete the program, the person must know how to read and write.
  • Immigration status: To complete the program, the person must not have an immigration detainer—meaning the person will not face deportation.
  • Criminal History: The person must not have a history of violence or weapons.

As long as the person qualifies, the underlying crime doesn’t have any relevance to program participation. For example, a person may serve time for a wire-fraud or bank-fraud conviction, yet the person may still qualify for RDAP. Further, the judge may or may not recommend participation in RDAP—though it’s always favorable to have a judicial recommendation.

A person that prepares well will document the history of substance abuse or alcoholism early, the pre-sentence investigation report (PSR) would be a great place to start. That report should show a history of substance abuse or alcoholism that meets a specific threshold, and the record should make clear the problem existed 12-months before arrest. The more evidence a person provides to show a history of substance abuse, the greater the chances for admission.

To succeed through prison, I trained myself to think from an administrator’s perspective. I encourage people going in to anticipate that administrators in the BOP view all people in prison from a cynical perspective. Make sure to create a thorough record, or get guidance from people that can help.

BOP staff members will review a person’s PSR before scheduling an interview for admission to RDAP. The staff considers the PSR to determine whether a person meets the criteria for abuse or dependence using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V).

Unfortunately, many people don’t reveal their problems with addiction or alcoholism when they meet with a probation officer for the PSR. The person may not even disclose a history of addiction or alcoholism with a defense attorney. Some people believe that admitting addiction problems will prejudice them in the eyes of the Court. Yet if people fail to document the history, the person will not qualify for RDAP and the incentives that may follow.

Again, a person should anticipate that both probation officers and BOP staff members may work to obstruct efforts to qualify for RDAP. The more a person learns about the program, the more qualified the person becomes to overcome objections.

People that fail to qualify for RDAP should discuss their options with a defense attorney or with someone that has experience in navigating challenges in the Bureau of Prisons. As always, a person should complete due diligence, making sure that a person is not masquerading as an expert.

Defense attorneys may serve the interests of their clients by learning more about RDAP, and building a record to help the client qualify. During the sentencing hearing, for example, the defense attorney may ask the sentencing judge to recommend RDAP in the “Statement of Reasons.” The judge can make a finding that states the defendant had a substance abuse problem during the past 12-months and that the judge wants the defendant to get treatment while in prison.

Due to the potential for early release, some BOP officials may conspire to disqualify people from RDAP benefits. For example, any staff member can manufacture a scenario that would result in a disciplinary infractin that disqualifies a person from RDAP. People should always remember that many staff members believe that prisons should keep people confined, and they do not support programs that result in people getting out early.

Officials may ask people when they first learned about the RDAP program and if they know the benefits under §3621(e). Defense counsel, therefore, should ensure clients discuss, but not exaggerate, any details related to drug or alcohol abuse in the 12-months before being arrested. This admonition holds for the RDAP admission interview as well.

BOP Program Statement 5330.11, §2.5.8(2) indicates “recreational, social, or occasional use of alcohol and/or drugs does not rise to the level of excessive or abusive drinking does not provide the required verification of a substance abuse disorder.” At the same time, members of our team have found a case from Oregon indicated a “finding [of] social use of alcohol sufficient to warrant RDAP admission.” Kuna v. Daniels, 234 F.Supp.2d 1168 (D. Or. 2002).

The problem with trying to litigate the way into RDAP, of course, is time. By the time a person gets into court and a judge issues a ruling, the person may already be released.

We recommend that people learn everything possible, and speak openly with the defense attorney, the probation officer, and the BOP about drug or alcohol dependence.

RDAP Controversy over Eligibility:

Significant controversy surrounds RDAP ineligibility determinations by the BOP and the a person’s qualification for early release. After several lawsuits, the BOP modified the criteria for eligibility for early release for successful completion of RDAP. Officials intended to exclude violent offenders by giving discretion to BOP through §3621(e)(2)(b). BOP policies may deny early release to people convicted of crimes of violence or a felony offense that:

  1. Has an element of actual, attempted, or threatened use of physical force against another person;
  2. Involved the carrying, possession, or use of a firearm or explosives;
  3. By its nature or conduct presents a serious potential risk of physical force against another person; or
  4. By its nature or conduct involves sexual abuse offenses against children.

People who received a two-level adjustment in their drug offense guideline score for possession of a dangerous weapon are also ineligible for early release.

Time Cuts from RDAP:

Time cuts for those who qualify and complete RDAP depend upon the length of time a person serves:

  1. People serving 30 months or less receive a six-month reduction;
  2. People serving 31 – 36 months receive a nine-month reduction; or
  3. People serving 37months or longer receive the full 12-month reduction.

The above-mentioned time cuts are in addition to credit a person earns for avoiding disciplinary infractions while in prison. In addition to the time off, people also transfer to a halfway house program (home confinement) for a minimum of six months, and possibly 12 months.  


We highly recommend that people facing a sentencing hearing learn more about RDAP, and have frank conversations with qualified professionals about how they can qualify. By qualifying for the program, a person may get help with addiction demons and also earn an earlier release from a federal prison sentence.

The RDAP program is the only program that results in an objective time cut in federal prison. Yet a person would be wise to learn about other mitigation strategies that may help. We encourage participants to learn more from the digital content we offer through all of our web properties, including:

Be sure to visit our corresponding YouTube channels, too. We produce new digital content every day.

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