Can a general conquer the federal prison system?
The federal Bureau of Prisons faces a sea of troubles: Escalating medical costs, a prison population with little access to job training programs or computers, an institutional culture averse to change.
In steps Mark S. Inch, the retired two-star general selected by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month to run the Bureau of Prisons. Inch retired from the Army in May after more than three decades in the military, mostly as a police officer.
While some prison advocates are wary of a leader from an organization disgraced by the abuses at Abu Ghraib, others say a military man may have the courage and discipline to move a stodgy federal prison system toward reforms that have been stalled for years.
“He would provide strong leadership, demand accountability, transparency, and I believe he would be a general who has the ability to think outside the box,” said federal prison consultant Jack Donson, who does not know Inch but worked for the Bureau of Prisons for more than two decades.
In a statement after appointing Inch, Sessions called the retired general “uniquely qualified” because of his policing background and his time overseeing Army Corrections over the past two years. He replaces Thomas Kane, a 40-year veteran of the federal prison system who had been acting director since early 2016.
The Bureau of Prisons houses more than 187,000 inmates and employs more than 39,000 workers spread out across 122 correctional facilities, six regional offices, a headquarters, two training centers, and 25 residential reentry management offices. The BOP also has contracts with 11 private prisons.
Outside the military, not much is known about Inch, especially among those who have worked in the federal prison system, prisoner advocates and corrections officials. Will Inch be an ally for better prisoner education? Will he limit the amount of time prisoners are held in isolation? Will he rely on controversial for-profit prisons to house new inmates?
Inch hasn’t said. Prisoner advocacy groups have asked Justice officials if any hearings will be held to examine Inch’s background and priorities. They were told no.
Inch is the latest of several former generals the Trump administration has chosen for top positions that have been historically manned by civilians. Others include former national security advisor Michael Flynn and his replacement, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Retired Gen. John Kelly went from secretary of Homeland Security to President Trump’s chief of staff. Retired Gen. James Mattis serves as defense secretary.
“It’s odd to say the least to see another former military official take the lead on a civilian domestic policy issue,” said Ed Chung, vice president for criminal justice reform at the liberal Center for American Progress and a former senior advisor at the Department of Justice. “He’s kind of a mystery man way out of the blue.”
The Department of Justice declined a request for an interview with Inch.
From the beginning of his more than three-decade military career, Inch focused on policing and corrections. He studied Military Police Officer Basic and Advance Courses and was certified by the American Correctional Association, according to the U.S. Army. As a major, Inch helped train and reestablish Somali police forces after a civil war during the United Nations operation in Somalia, which was marked by a battle in the capital city of Mogadishu in 1993 where 19 U.S. service members and hundreds of Somali militia and civilians were killed. The battle was depicted in the book and film “Black Hawk Down.”
In 2008 and 2009, Inch served as chief of staff for a joint interagency task force in Baghdad, Iraq. Between July 2013 and July 2014, he served as the commanding general of the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force 435 — a military partnership with Afghan forces — in Kabul during Operation Enduring Freedom. He was responsible for detainee operations and rule of law development within the Army’s Security Sector.
In 2014, Inch was appointed Provost Marshal General, the top military police officer of the U.S. Army, and took command of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command and Army Corrections. He held the position until he retired from the military in May.
Many of the detention controversies that have dogged the military since the Iraq and Afghanistan war occurred before or after Inch was in a commanding position. He was in Iraq two years after control of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison was handed over to the Iraqis and all the detainees were transferred elsewhere. He was the commander of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, two years before Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years of confinement for downloading classified documents and videos that were shared with the WikiLeaks website. In January, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.
Religion has played a central part in Inch’s life. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical archaeology in 1982 from Wheaton College, a Christian college in Illinois. (He also holds a masters degree in geography with a concentration in Middle East/Africa from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a masters of military arts and science Degree from the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth.)
In an introspective and revealing interview published in March by a military blog, Inch said that he suffered from sleep problems and symptoms of post traumatic stress after serving in Somalia. He sought help from a Christian counselor and chaplain, and said it took him five years to recover. He indicated that the experience left him with a great deal of empathy for a generation of soldiers who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.
“It probably took about two years to see the real fracture lines that that period of the deployment and post deployment had in my marriage,” he told MP Project Junto, a blog for military police. “It brought my late wife and I to the point of knowing that we needed help. We went to a family life chaplain at Fort Carson. And it really wasn’t until the next assignment in Japan that I remember Barb and I sitting having a glass of wine on the back deck and she looked at me and said, ‘We’re really back at a good place.’ And we were. And we were for the next 15 years of marriage before she passed.”
Inch’s wife, Barbara Corinne Inch, died in 2012 after a 15-month battle with cancer. Barbara, who spent more than two decades in the military, met Inch when he served as her unit’s evaluator in 1984. They married the next year. An obituary posted on Legacy.com said Inch credits Barbara with his “rise from First Lieutenant to General Officer.”
Inch has since remarried. His wife, Bette Stebbins Inch, works as the Senior Victim Assistance Advisor for the Department of Defense, according to the Army.
Advocates for reform wonder if Inch’s empathy for soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder might also make him empathetic toward the plight of prisoners.
Donson, citing a “leadership void” at the agency, said he hoped Inch would streamline the agency’s top-heavy administration and begin recommending more elderly or infirm prisoners be eligible for BOP’s “compassionate release” program, designed to free up prison space and reduce medical costs associated with caring for these prisoners.
Last fall, the federal Inspector General’s office reported that only five inmates were granted compassionate release in fiscal year 2016, despite a rapidly growing list of applications from aging baby boomers. Applicants seeking compassionate release must get approval from the BOP before the request goes before a judge, and prisoner advocates say most requests never go that far.
The Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, a bipartisan panel established by Congress to find ways to improve the federal corrections system, visited the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, where members saw several “fragile, elderly, and infirmed people and others in very poor health,” according to a report early last year.
Task force members learned of many men who had petitioned for compassionate release but were denied despite serving time for drug sentences based on crimes committed “literally decades ago.”
“BOP is so cautious and afraid,” Donson said. “It’s easier to deny things.”
A report released late last month by the Government Accountability Office showed that the BOP’s health costs rose 37 percent from fiscal year 2009 to 2016 — an increase per prisoner of more than $2,200.
“BOP lacks or does not analyze certain health care data necessary to understand and control its costs,” the GAO report stated.
Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor of criminology, law and society, and a former assistant attorney general who was on the Colson task force, said she hopes Inch can be the “change agent” it desperately needs.
Other prison reformers hope Inch pushes the Bureau of Prisons to give prisoners nearing release more time in halfway houses to better prepare them for release, a move endorsed by Congress. The agency has told prisoner advocates it doesn’t have enough housing to fully comply.
The agency consistently faces criticism for not doing enough to get prisoners ready for reentry. In May, Families Against Mandatory Minimums released a survey of more than 2,000 federal inmates that found just 3 percent had access to computers. Trying to get a college education in prison was nearly impossible, and job skills programs are only available to inmates who are nearing release. The survey found that nearly all continuing education classes are led by fellow prisoners with little teaching experience.
“What are we doing with these people when they’re locked up?” Mary Price, FAMM’s general counsel, asked. “One of the things we ought be doing is rehabilitating them, and that’s one of the big pieces missing here.”
Another Inspector General’s report released in July found the Bureau of Prisons grossly lacking in the number of professionals needed to treat mental illness. It found that only 3 percent of the federal inmate population was receiving mental health treatment in 2015, even though an internal study estimated that 19 percent of inmates had a history of mental illness. The agency’s chief psychiatrist, meanwhile, estimated that far more people were suffering from a mental illness than the bureau was reporting.
If Inch wants to address these shortfalls, he will have to be creative. The fiscal year 2018 budget includes the elimination of 14 percent of the Bureau of Prison’s staff — 6,100 jobs.
This article was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.