An inmate transfer program that began in 1977 aimed at returning foreign nationals held in U.S. federal prisons to their home countries to reduce inmate populations, cut costs and aid rehabilitation is not working, according to a government report that says few inmates are ever actually transferred.
The Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, in a report Wednesday, says only a handful of foreign nationals from 76 countries who signed a transfer treaty are returned home each year. In fiscal 2010, the report says, slightly less than 1 percent of the 40,651 foreign inmates in federal prisons were transferred home.
The Justice Department incurred $15.4 million in unnecessary incarceration costs from fiscal 2005 through fiscal 2010 because of the untimely processing of requests for inmates ultimately transferred, the report says.
While there were "several reasons for the low transfer rate," the report says the most significant was the transfer treaty with Mexico, which imposes what the Inspector General's Office called "significant restrictions" that result in few inmates ever being accepted for transfer consideration. The report says Mexico has shown "a reluctance to take back all of their nationals."
The report says that from fiscal 2005 through fiscal 2010, foreign inmates made 74,733 requests to be considered for transfer to their native country and Bureau of Prisons case managers determined that 67,455, or 90 percent of them, were ineligible. The report says 81 percent of the ineligible requests came from Mexican inmates incarcerated for immigration violations, though the bureau could not fully support that all those denials were appropriate.
The International Prisoner Transfer Unit, a Justice Department agency that helps investigate inmate transfer requests, does not evaluate applications consistently and, according to the report, does not provide adequate information to inmates about why applications are rejected.
The report says that from fiscal 2005 through fiscal 2010, the transfer unit processed 7,278 applications forwarded by the Bureau of Prisons for consideration and it denied 5,071 - or 70 percent - of them. The report says many of the denials were "because it presumed Mexico would deny these inmates due to restrictions established by Mexico."
The report says transfer unit analysts often did not use their own criteria in deciding requests and, when the criteria were used, some transfer applications were denied while others in similar circumstances were approved.
"We believe improvements could be made to increase the number of inmates determined eligible for the treaty transfer program," the report says, adding that the Bureau of Prisons must improve its ability to effectively communicate with foreign inmates, continually make them aware of the program and ensure it accurately determines whether they are eligible.
As of May 2011, the report says there were 26,281 foreign inmates from treaty nations that had not applied to the transfer program. The most common offenses among those inmates were drugs, immigration and weapons or explosives. The most common country of citizenship was Mexico (85.4 percent), followed by Honduras (3.8 percent), El Salvador (3.6 percent), Guatemala (1.9 percent) and Canada (1 percent).
In a response to the report, the Bureau of Prisons concurred with many of the 14 recommendations made by the Inspector General's Office, but did take exception with others.
It said it had only a limited role in determining eligibility and suitability for the transfer program, which is voluntary on the inmates' behalf. It also disputed the claim that the department had lost $15.4 million in unnecessary incarceration costs, saying incorrect figures were used in reaching that conclusion.
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