The Future of Early Release for Sexually-Abused Inmates
Compassionate release in the United States began as a way to free specific inmates for humanitarian purposes. It was mainly reserved for terminally ill inmates – those not viewed as a threat to public safety, reducing the costs of incarceration (1). The federal penal code specifically states that people can be freed early for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” but this has historically only been done in the cases of serious illnesses (2).
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, incarcerated people with preexisting conditions became especially vulnerable to death or serious illness. The First Step Act, passed in 2018, was created as a response to the acceleration of requests that allowed prisoners to file motions for compassionate release to federal courts. Before this, only the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons could petition on behalf of a prisoner, which was incredibly rare (2).
The First Step Act only applies to federal prisons, which currently hold 216,362 prisoners, in contrast to state prison systems that incarcerate over 1.3 million people. The shockingly high number of prisoners in the state system make it clear that even with the future of the First Step Act, state legislatures must act for the vast majority of American prisoners to reap similar benefits (3).
The pandemic’s impact may have expanded the use of compassionate release to women abused behind bars under the preexisting First Step Act. In 2020, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco began to encourage victims of assault by prison employees to apply for the compassionate release program amid revelations of abusive prison environments. It has been reported that in at least 19 of the 29 federal facilities holding women, there have been instances of abuse towards female prisoners by Bureau of Prison employees (4).
In late January, Aimee Chavira reported sexual abuse and misconduct at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin (Northern California) and requested compassionate release. This case is the first of its kind to go through the system and is being seen as a key test by prisoners’ rights groups (5). It serves as possible insight into what compassionate release could look like in the future for sexual assault victims.
Chavira was convicted on a drug charge and is scheduled to be released in 2026. Given her nonviolent criminal history, she likely poses no serious threat to public safety if freed. However, her petition for release was rejected despite the judge’s acknowledgment of “extremely concerning” behavior on behalf of prison officials; moreover, prison officials say they do not dispute her allegations (5). The case itself shows the possibility of early release being extended to victims of sexual abuse. But the verdict shows the complex tangle of regulations that still exist, preventing such release.
In a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee report, Briane Moore, a victim of assault at a women’s prison in West Virginia, stated “I was sentenced and put in prison for choices I made – I was not sent to prison to be raped and abused” (6). The findings and testimonies of this report brought to light the deeply disturbing internal issues of the Bureau of Prisons and the widespread sexual abuse within the prisoner system. Over 8,000 internal affairs misconduct cases have yet to be investigated and inmates have made 5,415 allegations of sexual abuse against prison employees (4).
With the rising exposure of internal sexual misconduct within the prison system and the effects of COVID-19, the future of early release is incredibly different. Once a method to support the sick and elderly, compassionate release now has the potential to become a means of liberation for sexual assault victims. However, it is possible that the culture around release could prevent this from becoming a reality, as federal officials still deny the vast majority of requests. From 2013 to 2017, only 6% of compassionate release applications were approved and 266 inmates died in custody after requesting compassionate release (7).
Additionally, the statutory language within the doctrine of compassionate release has not changed and remains ambiguous and open to interpretation. The terminology, “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” leaves room for subjectivity and if judges continue to consider requests in the same manner as the Bureau of Prisons, vast changes in compassionate release policies appears unlikely (8).
Potential compassionate release for sexual assault victims can be compared to another major incarcerated group affected by the First Step Act: the opportunity for people serving outdated sentences regarding crack cocaine crimes to bypass mandatory minimums. However, in many older crack cocaine cases, federal prosecutors have opposed resentencing or are seeking to reincarcerate people who have been released early (9). If victims of sexual assault are treated in the same respect, then the theoretical guidelines of the First Step Act will carry little weight.
With the recent case of Chavira, inmates may feel unmotivated to apply for compassionate release, creating a culture of tolerance towards inhumane suffering. Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, writes, “Why make the standard so high for someone who risks so much retaliation and hardship in making a complaint to begin with?” If women experience the rejection of others who came forward with their incidents, then the fear of retaliation will most likely overtake the hope of early release (5).
Growing evidence of prison mismanagement and abuse has the potential to jumpstart the movement for compassionate release as many atrocities become publicized. Cases such as that of mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, who was murdered just hours after his transfer to a violence- plagued prison in West Virgina, demonstrates the incompetence within the federal prison system. Furthermore, high profile cases such as the contested suicide of Jeffrey Epstein bring the agency’s failures to the forefront (1).
Recent publicity surrounding this subject has made the challenges of the prison system clearer to the American people and forced the Bureau to begin accepting responsibility. This could lead to a widespread change in prison culture, hopefully opening the door for victims to have their experiences heard.
Monaco publicly stated, “I am deeply concerned about the instances of reported and proven misconduct by BOP employees, including egregious instances of sexual misconduct” (10). She also criticized the way in which cases of inmate abuse continue to be investigated and the reluctance to rely on testimony. The combination of change in institutional thought as well as the opportunity to petition federal judges for early release could lead to a culture of compassionate release for inmates experiencing sexual assault (1).
The historical corruption within the US prison system undoubtedly raises questions about the future of compassionate release and creates hardships regarding the acceptance of testimonies. However, ongoing movements against the American culture of incarceration, accompanied by the exposure of its abuse and corruption, may help victims gain momentum. The impact of the First Step Act and one’s availability to directly petition federal judges is still ambiguous, but the law still provides a way for victims of sexual misconduct to request a compassionate release.
1. Johnson, Kevin. “Officials Considering Early Release for Victims of Sex Assault in Federal Prison.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 17 Dec. 2022, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2022/12/12/early-release-sex-assault-victims-prison/10881799002/.
2. Clasen-Kelly, Fred. “Frail People Are Left to Die in Prison as Judges Fail to Act on a Law to Free Them.” NPR, NPR, 21 Feb. 2023, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2023/02/21/1157058152/sick-elderly-people-left-to-die-federal-prison-law-judges.
3. Initiative, Prison Policy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie | Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie.html.
4. News, Crime and Justice. “DOJ May Grant Early Release to Some Sexually-Abused Inmates.” NCJA, NCJA, 14 Dec. 2022, https://www.ncja.org/crimeandjusticenews/doj-may-grant-early-release-to-some-sexually-abused-inmates.
5. Thrush, Glenn. “Justice Dept. Struggles to Carry out Early Release Program for Abused Inmates.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Feb. 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/22/us/politics/federal-prisons-inmate-abuse.html.
6. Law, Victoria, and Victoria Law. “Sterilization Survivors Who Won Reparations Now Face Another Challenge-Getting It.” CCWP, 6 Jan. 2023, https://womenprisoners.org/author/redcarpet/page/2/.
7. Thompson, Christie. “This Program Lets Sick, Old Prisoners Die at Home. Why Is It Rarely Used?” The Marshall Project, The Marshall Project, 7 Mar. 2018, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/03/07/old-sick-and-dying-in-shackles.
8. “Compassionate Release.” Nieman Law Group, 11 July 2022, https://niemanlaw.com/compassionate-release/.
9. 135. “What Is the First Step Act - and What's Happening with It?” Brennan Center for Justice, 4 Jan. 2019, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/what-first-step-act-and-whats-happening-it.
10. “Report and Recommendations Concerning the Department of Justice.’” Department of Justice, https://www.justice.gov/d9/pages/attachments/2022/11/03/2022.11.02_bop_sexual_misconduct_working_group_report.pdf.