When you get sentenced to time in prison, the purpose is to segregate you from society as punishment for your crime. While you sit behind bars and wait for each day to pass until you reach your release date, the world goes on without you.
Staying in touch with friends and family is a good thing for a prison inmate, and it’s considered an important part of rehabilitation. However, hearing about everything that’s going on in the free world–all of those major life events like weddings and babies–can be hard to hear about when you are being left out.
Nonetheless, I was happy to know that the people I cared most about in this world were living their lives and moving on–despite the stress and frustration that my case had brought into their lives. I still feel bad that something I got caught up in had such a negative effect on my family and friends for so long. But, I digress.
Just because you’re in prison, doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on absolutely everything, right? Surely prison inmates get furloughs so they can be with their family during major life events. Well, let’s find out when we answer today’s question–can you leave prison for a wedding?
In today’s blog post I will cover the following topics:
A prison furlough is essentially an authorized absence from a correctional facility. It’s when a prisoner is allowed to leave prison for a specific amount of time for a specific reason. When that time is up, the inmate returns to state or federal custody to continue serving their sentence.
Furloughs can be escorted–which means an officer will accompany the inmate. Or, furloughs can be unescorted. The most common reasons that an inmate would be granted furlough would be a medical reason, like to get surgery or have a baby.
An inmate can also get a furlough because of a funeral, or possibly to make contact with a possible employer to get a job upon release.
In the section about furloughs on the federal Bureau of Prisons website, they make it clear that a furlough is not an entitlement. It’s also not a reward for good behavior or successful programming or a means to shorten a criminal sentence. The purpose of furloughs, according to the BOP, is to “achieve specific correctional goals.”
“The reduction of recidivism by securing transitional needs and enhancing community reintegration prior to release,” is an expected result of the furlough program, as is the public being “protected from undue risk.”
The types of furloughs on the federal level include a transfer furlough, which is for the purpose of transferring an inmate from one facility to another. There’s also a non-transfer furlough, which can be either emergency or routine.
The emergency furlough allows an inmate to “address a family crisis or other urgent situation.” While a routine furlough can be for release planning, medical, or educational purposes.
A day furlough lasts 16 hours or less and is contained within a 100-mile radius of the prison. An overnight furlough can last three to seven calendar days, but can be extended.
Each state has its own rules about prison furloughs. But just because both the federal and state facilities have rules about it, doesn’t mean they happen often. During my four years in prison, I never heard of an individual in the facility–or the state, for that matter–being granted furlough.
The answer to this question is “no.” No warden or prison administrator will grant furlough for a wedding. Like I said above, furloughs are only considered during a family crisis or for medical emergencies.
There’s also the occasion when someone will get furloughed for educational or employment reasons, but weddings don’t fall into any of those categories.
Prisons could never function if they furloughed prisoners for events like weddings. In this day and age, it’s nearly impossible to get compassionate release for inmates who are dying. So, getting approval to leave prison for a weekend so you can dress up with your friends, enjoy an open bar, and dance to Old Time Rock and Roll at the reception isn’t going to happen.
I just turned 44 in November, which means the first presidential election I remember was in 1988 when republican George H.W. Bush was up against democrat Michael Dukakis.
I bring this up because this was the presidential election where prison furloughs were actually a topic of debate, thanks to a man named Willie Horton and an infamous Bush TV commercial.
This case and this commercial changed public perception about prison furloughs and hyped up the pro-death penalty, tough on crime narrative. It was an attack ad against Dukakis that still influences politics to this day.
The 30-second spot told the story of Willie Horton, who was serving a life sentence in Massachusetts for first-degree murder. But as governor, Dukakis had apparently approved 10 “weekend passes” for Horton.
On one of those furloughs, Horton committed the crimes of kidnapping, stabbing, and rape. The case pretty much sank Dukakis’ campaign. It also turned the public against the idea of furloughs.
According to The Marshall Project, “In the mid- to late-80s, all 50 states had furlough programs. These passes allowed inmates to leave the prison for periods of time ranging from a few hours to several weeks, depending on their sentence and their behavior in prison; while in the community, they could visit family, look for work, or participate in religious activities. Almost 10 percent of state and federal prisoners received a furlough in 1987.”
A 1988 New York Times article said that furloughs were not controversial because they offered incentives for good behavior. They were a way for inmates to reacclimate to life outside of prison.
“Use of furloughs for prisoners in the U.S. is widespread, successful, and relatively problem free,” the editor of a magazine for corrections professionals said at the time.
The Willie Horton ad and case changed all of that. In a 1989 speech, George H. W. Bush told the nation, “We need more jails, more prisons, more courts and more prosecutors” — and we definitely got them.
Then-Senator Joe Biden bragged at the time that Democrats took an even harder line than Republicans.
“One of my objectives, quite frankly, is to lock Willie Horton up in jail,” Biden said at the time.
President Clinton picked up where Bush left off, and then took it a step further with his 1994 crime bill. That piece of legislation (sponsored by Biden) fueled a prison-building boom, ended Pell grants for prisoners, and decimated prison education programs around the country.
Ever since, the concept of furloughs at the federal and state level have pretty much remained in the rule books instead of being put into practice.
Do you think prisons should bring back furloughs as an incentive for good behavior?
Sources: Inmate Furloughs https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5280_009.pdf Willie Horton Revisited https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/05/13/willie-horton-revisited George H.W. Bush "Willie Horton" Campaign Ad 1988 https://youtu.be/Io9KMSSEZ0Y Study Says 53,000 Got Prison Furloughs in '87, and Few Did Harm https://www.nytimes.com/1988/10/12/us/study-says-53000-got-prison-furloughs-in-87-and-few-did-harm.html
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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