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Where do federal sex offenders go to prison?

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner was just sentenced to 21 months in prison for sexting with a 15-year-old. At sentencing, his lawyer asked that he be sent to FCI Schuylkill in Pennsylvania. That seems to have been a mistake: Schuylkill is a medium-security prison, filled with violent offenders and replete with restrictive rules. Schuylkill has a satellite camp, but as a sex offender, Weiner is not eligible (he gets the “Sex Offender Public Safety Factor” and therefore must go to a secure facility). There are low-security federal prisons that would be far more pleasant and conducive to the year-and-a-half or so of introspective atonement that Weiner will endure while he waits to go to a halfway house. The New York Times wrote about Weiner’s placement in federal prison, but, unfortunately, just about everything in their story was wrong.

The bottom line is that “designation” to a particular federal prison is a complicated process with far-reaching consequences. Experiences in federal prison vary widely. Camps like the ones at Schuylkill and Otisville are unsecured and generally not unpleasant places to be. Contrast that with the “ADX” at Florence, Colorado, which is reserved for the most dangerous criminals in the United States and drives many of its residents mad. The Bureau of Prisons decides where you will go in the weeks after sentencing at a central facility in Grand Prairie, Texas. They rely on the Presentence Investigation Report (known as the PSR) for facts about you and plug those into a formula that determines your security level. It is essential that the information in the PSR is accurate as any mistake could change which facility you end up in. There is a small industry of experts who keep up with the daily changes in conditions within the Bureau of Prisons and can advocate for a particular designation. The process is laid out in this 108-page BOP policy.

The New York Times missed most of this in talking about Weiner, whose situation is not too different from many first-time federal offenders, including people convicted of child pornography. Being a former congressman and pledging himself to “a rigorous curriculum of rehabilitation and therapy” probably make no difference at all. Whatever his lawyer may have believed (and it does not seem like they thought about it beforehand), there is zero chance he would have been assigned to a prison in New York City: the three federal jails in New York are reserved for inmates who are awaiting sentencing or witnesses for the government, plus a small cadre of trusted inmates near the end of their terms who work in the local jails.

Also, at least if you ask the Bureau of Prisons, the recommendation of the sentencing judge does matter — check page 7 of the 108-page policy. People involved with the designation process say they take judicial recommendations very seriously, but emphasize that they won’t override security concerns (i.e. even if Judge Cote meant to designate Weiner to the camp at Schuylkill, the BOP would not follow that because of their security-based policy to consider all sex offenders a public safety risk).

Finally, Weiner may want to think hard about how he expresses his “commitment to rehabilitation” within the prison walls. While it is true that BOP offers sex offender treatment in prison, experiences vary — and the Fifth Amendment right to silence does not carry a lot of weight. Inmates in sex offender programs are surrounded by other sex offenders. They are pushed by counsellors to admit to doing more than they admitted to in court. After all, the philosophy goes, not everyone gets caught for every crime they ever committed. While sex offender treatment has been shown, as a general matter, to be effective, the programs offered in prison are akin to the food on offer there — not something you would want to partake of unless it was absolutely necessary. Weiner may want to order in.