UPDATE: Monday WTNH-TV published a report that the partial federal shutdown has delayed the transfer of inmates from the Danbury prison.
Over the objection of several senators, the Federal Bureau of Prisons Monday plans to resume its plan to transfer all of the inmates out of the Danbury women’s prison and convert it to a men’s prison.
Bureau Director Charles E. Samuels Jr. said in a letter to the senators Friday that he will lift the suspension on the transfers and begin moving the women to prisons in West Virginia and Philadelphia, Texas, Minnesota, Florida, Alabama or California. He said the bureau is evaluating each inmate's situation and trying to move the women closer to their homes.
News this summer that the prison planned to convert Danbury to a men's prison and ship the women to prisons in Alabama and elsewhere raised the hackles of prison advocates and several senators who worried that the inmates would be moved to other parts of the country, making it hard for their families to visit. Fifty–nine percent of the Danbury inmates have a child under the age of 21.
The senators, led by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, wrote to the bureau and asked officials to suspend the plan until the bureau could answer several questions. The senators also questioned the $1.1 million cost of the transfers, particularly at a time when the federal government is shut down.
In Samuels' response, he said he appreciates their concerns and assured them that the bureau “remains committed to keeping inmates as close to home as reasonably possible in order to assist with maintaining family ties and preparation for reentry.”
He said the department decided to convert Danbury to alleviate overcrowding in men’s prisons, which are 38 percent overcrowded. The bureau said it recently opened a new women’s prison in Alabama, giving the bureau the extra capacity it needed to relieve overcrowding in female prisons. As a result, Samuels said, the bureau would be able close one of the prisons for women inmates – in Danbury - and convert it to a men’s facility.
Beatrice Codianni, a former Danbury inmate who is now editor of a national criminal justice website, was upset by Friday's news. She called the conversion shortsighted and harmful to inmates and their families.
“Not only are their sentences so obscenely long, now they’re going to rip them away from their families,” she said. “I know the suffering that the women are going through. And all just to make room for men.
"I just think it’s a damn shame that they don’t have the foresight to see the problems that they’re going to cause in the future," Codianni said.
Piper Kerman, author of the best-selling book "Orange is the New Black," a memoir about her year serving time in Danbury, was also dismayed.
"I'm appalled that despite calls from the community, U.S. Senators and district court judges for the Danbury FCI plan to be reversed, the BOP seeks to make a devastating displacement for a thousand women and their children. It seems like a classic example of an irrational bureaucratic decision," Kerman said.
Samuels said the prison bureau had already transferred 98 female inmates out of Danbury the week of Aug. 19 to facilities close to their release residences or to residential drug abuse treatment program. Another 43 will be released by January, and still others who qualify will be moved to the minimum-security camp next to the Danbury prison.
Meanwhile, 391 inmates from the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic states will be moved to facilities in Hazelton, W.Va., and Philadelphia. The bureau estimates this will bring 243 of the 391 inmates closer to their homes than they were at Danbury.
Another 282 inmates from other parts of the country will be moved to Texas, Minnesota, Florida, Alabama or California. The remaining 447 inmates are not U.S. citizens and will be transferred based on factors other than their address, such as security needs, medical needs and overcrowding considerations, he said.
But these answers did not satisfy the nine senators from northeastern states who signed the letter to the prisons bureau. They wrote back Friday with more questions and have asked for a continued delay and a meeting with Samuels.
“We’re asking for a meeting to talk about alternatives that are wiser and fairer,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Blumenthal said the conversion would be a detriment to the inmates and their families and that he would prefer keeping a female prison in the Northeast.
“I believe very strongly - as a former federal prosecutor as well as a senator - that these transfers are very unwise and unfair,” Blumenthal said Friday. “They contradict one of the core purposes of the federal prison system, which is to preserve and enhance families and provide pathways forward to inmates seeking to better themselves and avoid repeating criminal activity.”
It is unclear whether the federal budget standoff will delay the transfers, but that seems unlikely since federal prison staff are exempted from the government shutdown. BOP spokesman Chris Burke said he was not available to comment on the transfers because of the lapse in appropriations.
Staff writer Ana Radelat contributed to this story.