Do you remember how the last out-of-state transfer of prison inmates went?
In 1999, the state sent 500 inmates to a prison in rural Virginia to ease crowding in the Connecticut system. They were later moved to another prison after two inmates died under questionable circumstances and numerous others complained of brutal and racist treatment. The transfer put tremendous strain on the inmates' families.
In 2004, they were brought back to the state. It turned out that by bolstering parole, probation and community treatment programs, as well as giving judges more leeway in how they sentenced nonviolent offenders, the inmates could be accommodated here.
An uncannily similar situation exists today at the state's only federal prison. The Federal Bureau of Prisons announced last month that it would soon begin transferring more than 1,100 female inmates from the Danbury federal prison to other parts of the country, mostly to a new women's prison in rural Aliceville, Ala. Danbury would again become a male prison, to relieve overcrowding in male correctional institutions.
On Wednesday, bowing to intense criticism, the bureau temporarily suspended the transfer program. The next step should be to end it permanently.
One wonders if all branches of the U.S. Justice Department are on the same page. Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder, responding to an almost 800 percent increase in the federal prison population since 1980, announced that federal prosecutors would no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
In addition, Mr. Holder introduced policies to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates, put more focus on prevention and find alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, to reduce the overall federal prison population. These are excellent ideas — states red and blue have been doing them for several years.
If this, as Mr. Holder said, is "smart on crime," then why not try it with Danbury?
The proposed transfer of female inmates from Danbury was widely criticized on humanitarian grounds because — as happened with the male Connecticut inmates in Virginia a decade ago — the distance (and lack of public transportation in Aliceville) would make it vastly more difficult for families to visit inmates. Danbury is the only federal women's prison in the Northeast, and is where most female inmates from the region are sent. It is accessible by public transit.
Experts say keeping and nurturing a family relationship is vitally important for inmates for several reasons, including the prevention of recidivism. As important as the lifeline to the family is for women, it may be more important for their children. "A mother's incarceration has a devastating effect on her family," wrote "Orange Is the New Black" author Piper Kerman, a former Danbury inmate, in Wednesday's New York Times. Danbury reportedly houses the mothers of 700 children.
Among the critics of the now-suspended transfer are 11 U.S. senators, including both of Connecticut's. Sen. Chris Murphy noted the women did something wrong to end up in federal prison, "but their kids didn't."
If proximity to family is important, why was a women's prison built in the middle of nowhere?
A key factor in the construction of the new $250 million Aliceville facility appears to be the forceful advocacy of the influential Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, who said it would be a boon to jobs and economic development in an impoverished part of his state.
There are less expensive economic development schemes than building prisons. The focus here ought to be on the inmates, not the guards. Danbury is a low-security facility. Most of the women there are in for nonviolent drug or property crimes — the kind of inmates Mr. Holder envisions not being in federal prison.
Then why wait? Do what Connecticut did a decade ago and look for alternative sanctions that will keep these women close to their families. There are sanctions other than prison.