As the Department of Justice began transferring more than 6,000 people incarcerated on drug charges out of federal prisons on Friday, rights campaigners celebrated the development while also expressing concern for those whose imminent release may not mean freedom at all.
Of those people slated for transfer on Friday and Monday from 122 Bureau of Prisons facilities across the country, one third are not U.S. citizens and will be sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and likely deported.
Of the 4,348 people who will not be deported, 80 percent will be placed in halfway houses or forced into home confinement. The other 20 percent will be placed under the supervision of probation officers.
James Kilgore, who spent six and a half years in prison and authored the book Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, told Common Dreams: "While any actions that reduce the number of people held behind bars are welcome, this release prompts a lot of questions."
"What programs are in place to assist the people released to be able to find work, re-connect with family members and integrate into the community?" Kilgore posed. "Most will be returning to households and neighborhoods that are already feeling the pinch of economic and social crisis as well as over-policing. My fear is that these quick-fix, quick release programs will land people into the depths of poverty and homelessness."
"On top of this," Kilgore continued, "there is the promise to put many under electronic monitoring with house arrest, another draconian regime which hardly equates with freedom. So let us celebrate the release, but let us keep an eye on what happens to these individuals, beyond whether or not they end up back in prison."
What's more, many expressed concern about what will happen to those handed over to ICE, particularly given reports of widespread human rights abuses within immigrant detention centers.
"Now, our broken immigration system creates another punishment—one of permanent separation from their homes and family," said María Rodríguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "Our nation should be focused on ways to dismantle the criminalization of people of color in our criminal justice system, including our immigrant detention system."
According to a Human Rights Watch report released in June, under U.S. President Barack Obama, the war on drugs has driven a surge in deportations of non-U.S. citizens, ripping families apart for alleged drug possession—including the most minor amounts and in many cases years after the fact.
"To say we are taking this great step releasing people from prison, well, a third of those people are being put in another prison and then released to exile," Cristina Parker, immigration programs director for Grassroots Leadership, told Common Dreams.
Friday's development follows a decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission last year to reduce the sentences of people in prison for drug charges by an average of two years—and apply the reform retroactively. At the time, the agency—which is under the federal judicial branch—predicted that the policy change could result in the release of up to 46,000 of the roughly 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses.
Separately, Obama has granted clemency to a total of 89 people imprisoned on drug offenses—a number that has been criticized as dismally low.
Meanwhile, many others are completely left behind. With 2.23 million people currently held in U.S. prisons and jails, America is by far the biggest jailer in the world—accounting for only 5 percent of the global population but 25 percent of the number of people incarcerated.