Thursday, November 28, 2013
Twenty-five years ago, the New York Times reported on the North Dakota system of Thanksgiving holiday furloughs for prison inmates. A furlough for an inmate is a temporary, unsupervised release. The state had released fifteen prisoners to spend Thanksgiving with their families. Although many states offered prisoner furlough programs at the time, North Dakota was expanding its program when others were decreasing or eliminating theirs, drawing criticism and casting a spotlight on the state.
Although holiday furlough programs had been in operation for decades, recent current events and a prominent political attack ad had created increased scrutiny on the relatively successful program. During the 1988 presidential race, George Bush, Sr., highlighted the prisoner furlough program as part of his criticism of opponent, Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, where a murderer raped a woman while out on furlough. Massachusetts was the only state at the time to allow convicted murderers serving life sentences to apply for holiday furloughs. Dukakis had been particular supportive of the program, lauding it as a hallmark of his administration. Then, in April of 1987, the furloughed convicted murderer, Willie Horton, made headlines when he attacked a Maryland couple in their home, savagely raping Angela Barnes after beating her fiancé into unconsciousness. Although Horton was later captured, the resulting controversy led to increased restrictions on furlough programs, and the Bureau of Prisons reduced furloughs by 50%. In 1980, 47 states permitted furloughs, but by 1998, that number had dropped to 31. California, for example, granted 14,000 furloughs in the early 1970s, but none in 1998. Despite the bad publicity, however, Tom Powers, warden of the North Dakota Penitentiary, claimed that “…furloughs have proven to be productive on a national scale. Every single one has been successful [in the state and] we feel pretty good about the program.”
Although the program has continued to decline since the Horton-Dukakis controversy, holiday furloughs still take place in the state, primarily as a means of strengthening community and family ties for inmates during their rehabilitation. However, convicts serving sentences for violent crimes and life-terms are no longer allowed to participate in furloughs at any of the country’s correctional facilities.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Petersilia, Joan. 2003 When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry: p. 98. Oxford University Press: New York.