The federal prison system has a big problem with a small number.
Between the years of 2009 and 2014, the Bureau of Prisons released 461,966 individuals back into society. But 1% of these individuals were released later than their sentences called for, found a BOP Inspector's General review released this week.
That adds up to a total of 4,183 people held past their release dates. These people are "deprived of their freedom without just cause during the days they are over-serving," reads the report. Further, the report notes that "when untimely late releases occur, the harm to the inmate can be significant and irreparable."
Quickly, that 1% becomes a glaring problem in our justice system.
"If my client was white I have no doubt that this would never have happened," said Steve Meshbesher, an attorney for the man whose case was credited for initiating the review. "The federals prisons don't give a hoot about black and Hispanic inmates, and who do you think this is happening to?"
In 2014, Meshbesher's client Jermaine Hickman, a then-33-year-old black man, was released from federal prison an astonishing 406 days after his release date. An ensuing lawsuit was settled for $175,000, one of four similar cases in which the federal government settled between 2009 and 2014. Demographic data about those released late is not available.
"There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. It was basic arithmetic and somehow, they made a mathematical mistake," Meshbesher told Fusion.
Troubling as his case is, the report found, it is an extreme outlier. Of all the cases reviewed, only 152 cases—including Hickman's and two others who were held over a year too long—were attributed to staffing errors.
The broader problem, found the report, was an informational breakdown with other law enforcement entities.
"[P]oor communication with outside entities — including local jails, courthouses, state departments of corrections, Native American reservations, the U.S. Marshals Service, and others — resulted in [BOP] staff not obtaining complete and accurate sentencing information or interpreting sentencing information incorrectly, leading to untimely releases," reads the report.
Vital information related to time served, credits earned, retroactively reduced sentences, and even basic information about which day the sentence should initially be calculated from are routinely mucked up, according to the report.
The communication errors were so bad that BOP officials were unable to identify exactly what went wrong in several cases. Only that something went wrong, somewhere along the line.
In recent years, similar complaints have become a talking point for people advocating for criminal justice reform. Notoriously, the federal government has not kept track of police-involved shooting cases, even forcing FBI director James Comey to comment that it's "ridiculous" that he can't give the public solid numbers on many people are shot by police.
Even basic crime statistics are not shared across federal, state and local levels; the FBI compiles data from police departments across the nation, but it is not mandatory to do so. Similar issues plague programs that track open arrest warrants—huge communication gaps across all levels of law enforcement allow criminals to simply cross state lines to evade justice.
"It's a national problem, at every level," said Robert F. DiCello, a Cleveland-based attorney who was worked on several federal cases where inmates were kept past their release date.
"Just in the last few years we got digital court filings here in Cleveland," he told Fusion. "It's incredible how slow things are moving. Back in 2012 if someone from the state or the federal government wanted some records they would have to travel to the actual courthouse to get them like we were back in 1945 or something."
For the unlucky 1% of federal inmates who are locked up for too long, missing time with family is not the only consequence.
A side effect of this issue noted in the review is that people are being released back onto the streets without going through a proper re-entry process. Classes on personal finance, employment training, release requirements and procedures and other fields might be foregone by these unlucky inmates. That puts the communication errors even more at odds with the Obama Administration's recent push for a renewed focus on re-entry programs.
"My client did not get any re-entry program classes," said attorney Meshbesher, of his client Hickman, whose case sparked the review. "They came in, gave him a plane ticket and said 'get out of here.'"
The BOP review was the first of its kind on a national level. Reading it, you get a sense that the sheer size of the American justice system is becoming its own stumbling block.
“I’m still in ‘freedom shock,’ ” Hickman said in an interview shortly after his sudden, yet late release. “That’s lost time I’ll never get back, lost time with my kids and family, lost time that they never get back, as well.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.