RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Women who survived abuse inside federal prison want their freedom. Advocates for survivors are calling for early release. The issue is part of a hearing today before the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Here's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Mistreatment of women inside the federal prison in Dublin, Calif., has been an open secret. It took years before prosecutors charged five people, including the warden and a chaplain, with crimes.
SUSAN BEATY: I personally have spoken with over three dozen people who were sexually abused in various ways.
JOHNSON: Susan Beaty's an attorney in Oakland, Calif., who represents survivors from the prison, now known for its notorious rape club. Beaty says many of the women were especially vulnerable.
BEATY: We've heard from a lot of survivors that staff intentionally targeted noncitizen women for abuse because of their added vulnerability. I've heard so many stories about staff saying to people, I've looked in your file. I know you have an immigration hold. I know that once your sentence is up, you're going to be deported, and you're not going to be a problem for me.
JOHNSON: Beaty's working with a half-dozen women on request that they be freed through a program known as compassionate release. That program allows prisoners to ask for early release because they face extraordinary or compelling circumstances. It used to be that was up to the Bureau of Prisons to decide. But the prisons hardly ever grant anyone compassionate release, even people with terminal illness. So four years ago, Congress gave prisoners the option of asking a federal judge. Kevin Ring advocates for people in prison and their families.
KEVIN RING: We believe that judges across the country should have as much discretion as BOP does to decide what's an extraordinary and compelling circumstance.
JOHNSON: Courts have interpreted the issue differently, and the Supreme Court declined to weigh in, so it's up to the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make the final call. Judge Carlton Reeves is chairman of the panel.
CARLTON REEVES: The compassionate release is probably the most important priority that we have.
JOHNSON: The Justice Department agrees the panel should decide what counts as a compelling reason for early release, but DOJ hasn't yet proposed any boundaries. Some prosecutors worry compassionate release could make it more difficult for women who agree to testify against their abusers because defense lawyers could call that a benefit and use it against them in cross-examination. DOJ is also calling on the sentencing panel to toughen punishments for prison workers who sexually abuse people in their custody. Advocate Kevin Ring wants the Justice Department to step up and do more for survivors.
RING: They were not sentenced to being raped in prison, and not only were they raped - they turned around at great cost and cooperated with the investigation of this warden and this chaplain. And you're going to say we have no power to give them relief, that they're supposed to heal inside a prison?
JOHNSON: Whatever the Sentencing Commission decides, Ring says it needs to leave room for extraordinary circumstances.
RING: We've had a global pandemic. We've had this rape club in Dublin. Like, these are things that they did not foresee coming and they're not ready to handle.
JOHNSON: Mary Graw Leary is an associate dean at the Catholic University School of Law.
MARY GRAW LEARY: What the victim community is trying to underscore is that compassionate release is a very narrow mechanism created to respond to a very narrow situation, and it should retain that identity.
JOHNSON: Graw Leary leads a victim advisory group for the Sentencing Commission.
GRAW LEARY: It is not the mechanism to address broader issues with regard to prison conditions.
JOHNSON: She says all victims deserve protection but that it's up to Congress to stretch the definition of compassionate release beyond its narrow boundaries. The Sentencing Commission is expected to issue its plan on compassionate release early next year.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.