The Heartbreaking Mistake of Believing in the Justice System

Image courtesy of Elenarot via Wikimedia Commons.

The Heartbreaking Mistake of Believing in the Justice System

One thing I’ve always found interesting about the justice system in the United States is how many people believe in it. I’m not talking about believing in it in the sense that they know it exists. Of course that’s true. But in this country, perhaps more than anywhere else on Earth, people truly believe that the justice system is trying to do right.

I’m not talking about police, prosecutors, judges or even the general public. Even the people charged with the most heinous crimes imaginable believe that the justice system is trying to do right. This belief is why people talk to police even though they have the right to remain silent. If the police hear my side of the story, we think, they’ll do the right thing.

This belief is also why Troy Ash, a man currently serving time in Terre Haute FCI in Terre Haute, Indiana, wrote U.S. District Judge J. Phil Gilbert, the judge who sentenced Mr. Ash to more than ten years in prison, a letter.

“I hope this letter finds you doing well,” Mr. Ash started his letter. “I needed to write you because during my sentencing hearing I had promised you I would keep you posted on my progress in prison.”

Those are the words of a man who believes that the justice system is trying to do right. The justice system’s response? Motion denied.

In the summer of 2022, Mr. Ash pleaded guilty to two drug crimes and one firearm crime.

In 2021, a grand jury indicted Mr. Ash on conspiracy to distribute heroin, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and felon in possession of a firearm. Because he had previously been convicted of a serious drug felony, Mr. Ash faced a steep sentence as a repeat offender.

In July of last year, Judge Gilbert, a federal judge in Illinois, sentenced Mr. Ash to concurrent prison terms of 126 months for the two drug offenses and 12o months for the firearm offense. While Mr. Ash likely won’t spend the full ten and a half years in prison, the reality is that he will spend a long time behind bars.

But, according to the letter Mr. Ash wrote Judge Gilbert earlier this month, the judge’s comments during the sentencing hearing appeared to have an impact on Mr. Ash. Specifically, as I mentioned earlier, Mr. Ash took serious a promise he made to the judge to keep him up to date on the progress he pledged to make during his sentence.

“I hope this letter finds you doing well,” Mr. Ash started his letter. “I needed to write you because during my sentencing hearing I had promised you I would keep you posted on my progress in prison.” Unfortunately, Mr. Ash explained, progress in prison isn’t always easy — or, in some cases, possible.

Image courtesy of formulanone via Wikimedia Commons.

When Mr. Ash made good on his promise to keep the judge posted, he had some concerns.

When you read Mr. Ash’s letter to Judge Gilbert, however, it doesn’t take long for you to realize that Mr. Ash was having trouble making the progress behind bars he hoped he’d be able to make. “Since being here [on] Nov. 11, 2022,” Mr. Ash wrote, “I haven’t been able to get a job nor program because all the facility jobs such as plumbing only employs 4 workers, the paint shop only employees 5 workers, the electric shop only employs 4 workers, the laundry only employs 7 workers, [and] Unicor is full and has a 2 year waiting list.”

“Unfortunately on all of these jobs the workers have been on them for years and whenever there is an opening most of them are filled by a friend immediately,” the letter continues. “I’ve been trying to get a job in the kitchen, but there’s a long waiting list.”

According to Mr. Ash, he couldn’t even participate in educational programs: “There’s no educational programs at all, because there’s a shortage of staff and no teachers.”

For Mr. Ash, the experience at Terre Haute FCI was basically sitting around and watching T.V. and playing games. “I am in a cell unit with 158 inmates,” he wrote. But “only 10 inmates have job. The other 148 inmates just sit around and watch T.V. daily or play cards, all day.”

Mr. Ash wants to stay productive and, as a result, reduce his risk of recidivism — and, as a result, his sentence.

For Mr. Ash, he hoped he could be a little more productive during his time behind bars. “My hope was I would be sent somewhere, where[] I could program by earning extra good time through the First Step Act. Or take classes or a trade that would lead to the betterment of my future,” he wrote. “Instead, I am at a prison that is totally stagnant and simply warehousing inmates.”

Without programs or activities, however, Mr. Ash can’t earn any First Step Act Time Credits: “It’s impossible for me to get the First Step Act here because there’s no programs which would allow me to earn extra good time credit.”

On the one hand, Mr. Ash’s references to First Step Act Time Credits might be self-serving. After all, certain groups of people in Bureau of Prisons custody can use First Step Act Time Credits to shorten the amount of time they spend behind bars, on home confinement or, at least in some jurisdictions, on supervised release. So, it’s certainly plausible that Mr. Ash’s complaints are selfish in that he simply wants to go home sooner.

On the other hand, the entire point of the First Step Act was to incentivize participation in evidence-based recidivism reduction programming and productive activities. Participation in both of these things, the logic behind the once-in-a-generation legislation went, makes it less likely that people like Mr. Ash will reoffend upon release.

Image courtesy of Benoît Prieur via Wikimedia Commons.

Regardless of Mr. Ash’s personal motives, it’s hard to argue against his logic: reducing his recidivism helps everyone.

Even if Mr. Ash’s motives were completely selfish, the benefits of his participation in programming and activities, i.e., reducing his risk of recidivism, extend to everyone. Some of these benefits are obvious; others less so. On the obvious side of things, it’s hard to think of something more obvious than less crime.

But less crime also means lower taxes. Taxpayers don’t have to pay law enforcement to investigate and arrest Mr. Ash. Taxpayers don’t have to pay judges, prosecutors and court-appointed attorneys to work through the court process. And taxpayers don’t have to pay for his incarceration.

Of course, saving taxpayer dollars will never be the primary goal when it comes to our country’s justice system. After all, a government agency (the BOP) that spends “$7,275.6 million” — that’s $7.275 billion, but the Department of Justice puts it in millions to make it sound smaller — every year (and likely even more now) clearly isn’t pinching pennies.

But the BOP literally describes itself as “an agency like no other.” It boasts that it “protect[s] public safety by ensuring that federal offenders serve their sentences of imprisonment in facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and “provide[s] reentry programming to ensure [the] successful return to the community” of everyone in its custody.

In fact, according to the BOP, it “provides a myriad of inmate programs to address criminogenic needs such as those related to substance abuse, education, employment and more, thereby ensuring inmates’ successful transition to the community.” Thus, the BOP says, it deserves credit for the fact that “the federal recidivism rate has declined over the past couple of decades and is now 20% lower than the rate of many large state Departments of Corrections.”

The justice system’s response to Mr. Ash’s letter was as clear as it gets: Motion denied.

But, at least according to Mr. Ash, he’s not seeing the “myriad of inmate programs” that the BOP promises it offers. Instead, Mr. Ash, like 100 or more of his peers, “just sit around and watch T.V. daily or play cards, all day.”

That leads me to perhaps the most heartbreaking sentence from Mr. Ash’s letter: “It’s time for me to change but how can I effectively strive for change, when change isn’t being offered here at all?” That’s a good question.

So, what was Judge Gilbert’s response to Mr. Ash’s letter? He called the letter a “Motion to Transfer” and denied it in a two-page order one week after he got it in the mail.

“This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Troy L. Ash’s (‘Defendant’ or ‘Ash’) Motion to Transfer,” Judge Gilbert’s order begins. But, after noting that “Ash state[d] that Terre Haute has no educational programs, and indicate[d] that it is impossible to get ‘First Step Act here because there’s no programs which would allow’ him to get ‘extra good time credit,’ ” Judge Gilbert denied the “motion,” holding that the BOP, not courts, determine where people are placed.

And that was it: “Ash does not provide a vehicle or reason for the Court to override the discretion Congress has placed in the BOP to make placement and transfer determinations. Such a request must be made at the BOP and institutional level. For this reason, the Court DENIES Ash’s Motion to Transfer (Doc. 241).”

That’s our justice system’s response to the people who believe in it. That’s our justice system’s response to someone who raises legitimate concerns about what a multi-billion-dollar federal agency is doing. And that’s our justice system’s response to someone who promises to keep a judge “posted on [his] progress in prison.”

Motion denied.

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