Leroy Nolan has spent the last 26 years behind bars at a federal prison for a drug conviction. In the prison factory, he works making T-shirts, backpacks and other products that are later sold to government agencies, nonprofits and others.
But what has become a decades-long routine for Nolan behind the barbed wire, steel gates and concrete walls of FCI Edgefield, a prison in rural South Carolina, will all change on Friday when he walks out the front door. The 67-year-old is among about 2,200 federal inmates who will be released that day by the federal Bureau of Prisons under a criminal justice reform measure signed into law last year by President Donald Trump.
The measure, known as the First Step Act, gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders, eases mandatory minimum sentences and encourages inmates to participate in programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism, with credits that can be used to gain an earlier release.
On a visit this past week to Edgefield — a facility with a medium-security prison and minimum-security camp — Attorney General William Barr took a firsthand look at some of the programs in place, from computer skills to cooking, auto mechanic training and factory work. He met with prison staff and a handful of inmates, including some who will be released early under the First Step Act.
Barr’s visit signaled a major policy shift since his first stint as attorney general in the early 1990s, when he exuded a tough-on-crime approach, advocating for more severe penalties, building more prisons and using laws to keep some criminals behind bars longer. Barr has said he will fully support and carry out the law.
Trump has touted the overhaul as a rare bipartisan effort to address concerns that too many Americans were imprisoned for nonviolent crimes as a result of the drug war. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, helped persuade him to get behind the measure and clashed with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who did not see criminal justice reform as a top priority.
In the culinary skills class at Edgefield, the aspiring chefs told Barr about how they earn restaurant-level food preparedness and safety certificates so they can immediately try to find work once they are released.
Inmate-chef Eddie Montgomery helped prepare a spread of chicken, blackened fish, green beans and mashed potatoes, which he offered to Barr, while explaining how the program was “top notch.”
“It’s delicious,” the attorney general said, as he chomped down.
During a tour that lasted nearly three hours, Barr also met with a prison psychologist, inmates who act as mentors in faith and drug-treatment programs, and with instructors who help prisoners create resumes and participate in job fairs. Passing through the narrow hallways, Barr peeked through the windows of some classrooms where inmates were completing computer skills and GED programs. In one room, where older computers and typewriters lined the walls, Barr chatted about re-entry programs and heard from mentors who teach their fellow inmates how to prepare for the job interviews.
But some of the prison’s programs — like the culinary arts and auto repair programs — tend to be very popular among inmates and have wait lists. As he walked through Edgefield, Barr told Hugh Hurwitz, the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons, they needed to make sure there were enough programs available to a wide swath of inmates.
“We’re focusing on building on the programs, the re-entry programs we need, and getting the funding to do it,” Barr said in an interview this past week with The Associated Press.
For inmates like Nolan, who was first sentenced in 1994 to life behind bars before it was reduced to more than 30 years, the First Step Act is a welcome reform. He’s set to be released Friday after serving about 85% of his sentence.
“I made the mistake of getting into drugs,” Nolan told Barr and the state’s two senators, Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, who accompanied the attorney general on the Edgefield tour. “You’re good role models.”
The Justice Department has been working to meet the deadlines set by Congress for the First Step Act and is expected to unveil a risk-assessment tool this week that will help to evaluate federal inmates and ultimately could speed up their release.
Barr said the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons are both “all in in terms of making it work.”
“I’m impressed with how it’s going,” Barr said of the First Step Act’s implementation. “While there are a few things I probably would have done a little bit different, I generally support the thrust of the First Step Act.”
Under the resentencing provisions of the law, more than 1,600 inmates have qualified for a reduced sentence and more than 1,100 have already been released, a Justice Department official said. This is in addition to the 2,200 to be released on Friday after earning credits.
Advocates have called for stronger oversight of the implementation by both the Bureau of Prisons and the Justice Department and say Congress and the Trump administration need to fully commit to providing the necessary funding.
“We have concerns it might not be implemented appropriately,” said Inimai Chettiar, legislative and policy director at the Justice Action Network.
“The sentencing provisions are things that are much more clear cut,” she said. “The people who are already put in prison and are trying to get out by participating in programs, those programs also need to be funded too. If there’s no funding it is going to severely limit the ability for the federal government to reduce their prison population.”