EDGEFIELD, S.C. — 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 at FCI Edgefield, a prison in rural South Carolina, will change 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 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 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, .
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.
Barr said the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons are both “all in in terms of making it work.”
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.”