A growing and troubling trend has emerged within the prison consulting industry: persons spending time in prison, being released, and opening their doors as prison consultants, when they really have no business doing so in the first place. This also applies to attorneys who have no real experience with the Federal Bureau of Prisons or state departments of correction, yet still advertise that they can assist with in-prison matters. While there are a few glowing examples of how this can work out for the best (Brandon Sample and Michael Santos are two examples of ex-prisoners, and Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert are examples of attorneys who know what they are doing), there are also firms which operate on hope, fear, and a swindler’s charm. One of the areas these swindlers profit immensely from is in allegedly brokering transfers for currently incarcerated inmates. This interview serves as a warning against such swindlers and aims to alert Prison Law Blog readers as to how the process actually works and how federal prisoners themselves can attempt to effect prison transfers on their own.
Jack Donson is the president of My Federal Prison Consultants (www.MFPCLLC.com). During his career as a Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Case Manager and Case Management Coordinator (CMC), Jack was an integral part of the prison transfer process. Currently, in Jack’s consulting business, he has come across many family members of prisoners who are concerned for their loved ones and have been scammed by nefarious “prison consultants.” Due to this growing trend, he has asked to speak publicly about this matter, and the Prison Law Blog is glad to provide the platform for him to do so.
Christopher Zoukis: To start, please introduce yourself again to the Prison Law Blog readership.
Jack Donson: My name is Jack Donson. I retired from Federal Bureau of Prisons’ in 2011 after a 23-year career as a case manager and case management coordinator. Currently, my principal employment is as the President of My Federal Prison Consultants (www.MFPCLLC.com), a Manhattan-based prison consulting firm. I’m also the Director of Programs and Case Management at FedCURE, a Special Issues Chapter of Citizens United for the Reformation of Errants (CURE). In addition, I serve as Executive Director for a new advocacy organization called Out For Good (O4G) and serve on the corrections committees of the ABD and NACDL. I am very much plugged into the federal prison reform movement, legislation, and the prison consulting arena.
Christopher Zoukis: What brought the issue of substandard prison consultants offering to sell prison transfers to your attention?
Jack Donson: I have been aware of inexperienced prison consultants dating back to the late 1980s. With the advent of the internet, it is easy for anyone to set up shop and sell their services. This ease of entrepreneurship is a good thing but is a two-edged sword. Those who traditionally would have had to go to a lot of effort to open their consulting doors can now do so fairly easily and inexpensively. As such, there is no real gatekeeper. This results in a declining level of quality and service.
As for the idea of selling prison transfers, I get calls all the time from families who paid a consultant for a transfer only to find out that they wrote a letter and/or an Administrative Remedy. Outside letters and Administrative Remedies are usually an impediment to transfer. I am aware of prisoner family members paying thousands of dollars to affect a prison transfer without any results. This leaves the victims despondent and feeling hopeless and helpless. Sadly, they only come to me after the fact. By then, I can help guide them as to how to seek a prison transfer, but they are already out several thousand dollars by that time. I do not accept business for a transfer issue unless there is a more technical classification issue which I believe can be corrected. The call I get the most is regarding prisoners who are just too far from their families. The BOP has a lot of discretion when designating offenders and given the crowding, it is not unusual for prisoners to be placed over 500 miles away. Although the BOP attempts to place offenders within 500 miles, it is not a mandate.
Christopher Zoukis: Is it possible for a prison consultant to affect a transfer within the Federal Bureau of Prisons?
Jack Donson: To start, there is no such thing as selling a prison transfer. Prison consultants do not have a special channel of communication or specialized paperwork which enables them to transfer a federal prisoner. What they can do is provide the prisoner and their family members with guidance on how to seek a prison transfer. They can also rescore the federal prisoner to ensure that they have been correctly scored by the prisoner’s unit team. You have to understand it from a technical perspective. The unit team, mainly the case manager, needs to type a referral after the recommendation to transfer is made by the unit team. That gets forwarded to the warden for approval then is emailed to the DSCC for a final decision. There are so many variables and nuances for each specific case that someone from the outside could not possibly know. Let me give you an example. I received a call one day from a family member that paid to have someone transferred to a facility in the Allenwood complex. After some research, I discovered there was actually a separate who had testified against the prisoner at Allenwood. That transfer destination would not, and will never happen, as long as the separatee is there. Technically, separatees are not discussed with prisoners but are a common reason why some prisoners cannot get to a specific desired location.
At the most, the prison consultant can contact the prisoner’s unit team or another Federal Bureau of Prisons’ staffer to discuss the matter. This could be to alert the applicable case manager to a disparity or error in the inmate’s Custody and Classification point calculation or to appeal to the case manager to approve the transfer for another reason. This is a matter of professionalism (in points) and compassion (in the asking of the case manager to grant the transfer). No special access or paperwork is required to do so. In fact, if the prisoner approaches their case manager, the chances of a positive outcome are increased. There is a risk when someone writes or contacts an institution such as the BOP, which is almost an isolated culture. As such, it ordinarily perceives outside inquires negatively, requiring additional work in responding.
Christopher Zoukis: What is the likelihood of such interventions succeeding?
Jack Donson: This is a challenging question to answer since it depends on a number of factors. In my practice, if I find that the client’s points totals are incorrect, and correcting them results in the client being assigned to a lower security status, then the chances of the transfer being granted are significantly higher than not. Appealing to a case manager’s humanity or other non-concrete aspects of their personality is a longer shot but still better than an outside inquiry or administrative remedy.
It’s important to understand that having a prison consultant or attorney injecting themselves into the discussion can actually hinder a positive outcome for the prisoner. The first step should always be having the prisoner make the request, not an outside party. This is the best and most effective practice. I cannot stress enough about how one needs to keep a low profile in the unit and cultivate a positive relationship with the unit team. During the process of preparing clients for prison, I advise them to seek jobs that are going to place them in close proximity or daily contact with the unit team in order to better cultivate a relationship.
Christopher Zoukis: So you, and other prison consultants and attorneys, can’t guarantee a positive outcome to a prison transfer request?
Jack Donson: There is no guarantee in this area. If someone says that they can guarantee a transfer to a specific prison (or an initial designation to a specific prison), then they are lying, plain and simple. That is not a person to be trusted. Only retain a prison consultant or attorney for their guidance and experience because this is what you are obtaining by retaining them. There is no special paperwork to submit or a special connection to have. The request must go through the prisoner’s unit team. All consulting efforts thus are focused on obtaining a positive outcome through this channel; a channel the prisoner usually has the best access to. I have another story along these lines. I recently received a call from someone who was considering paying ‘a consultant’ for a transfer to camp from a low. They were “guaranteed”. The prisoner was an Alien with an ICE detainer. I told them to get the guarantee in writing. They faxed me the “guarantee” and it was basically a contract agreeing they would write a letter and then follow up with the Administrative Remedy, if unsuccessful.
Christopher Zoukis: Is a prison consultant or attorney required to obtain a favorable transfer?
Jack Donson: Absolutely not. In fact, the likelihood of transfer is probably greater if the prisoner is the point of contact with their case manager. While I could assist with ensuring that the federal prisoner’s Custody and Classification points are correct, and I can assist with guiding the prisoner through the steps of seeking a transfer, I have no special avenue of seeking a transfer which isn’t already available to the prisoner. This is true across the board. Don’t be fooled by hints of special access or transfer guarantees. These are the tools of the charlatans.
Christopher Zoukis: How does a federal prisoner go about seeking a prison transfer?
Jack Donson: The process is simple. The prisoner should speak with their case manager and request a transfer. When they do so, they should present the reason they desire to transfer and try to connect with the case manager. By being cordial and presenting a viable reason for seeking a transfer (e.g., being closer to home, participation in a specific education or rehabilitation program, etc.), their chances of gaining a transfer increase substantially. They should also make sure to request a transfer to a prison of the proper security level. If the prisoner seeks a transfer to a prison of an inappropriate security level, the transfer will be categorically denied, or they will be transferred, but to a different prison than the one requested. BOP staff are given guidance from the Central office from time to time regarding the transfer issue. Currently, facilities are discouraged from submitting “Nearer Release” transfers when someone is already 500 miles from their residence. In addition, they are discouraging “Program Participation” transfers because they are trying to standardize programming so each facility offers similar programs. I do not mean RDAP as there are significant costs associated with the activation of an RDAP unit so they will never be in every facility. One tip I can give is to keep your eye out for facility activations. Wardens receive activation memos when they are activating new facilities and it is usually easier to get transferred to a new operation, especially if you have construction skills, clear conduct and are not too close to release.
Christopher Zoukis: What official process is involved in seeking a prison transfer within the Federal Bureau of Prisons?
Jack Donson: The federal prisoner’s case manager must agree with the transfer and file the initial transfer packet. The transfer packet then goes to the local warden for approval. After approval is granted by the warden, the transfer packet is submitted to the Designation Sentence Computation Center (DSCC) in Grand Prairie, Texas. The DSCC makes the final determination on approving the prison transfer, revising and approving the prison transfer, or denying the prison transfer. The DSCC can change the timeframe of the transfer and can also change the transfer destination, if they desire to do so.
Christopher Zoukis: Any advice on improving the odds for a transfer being approved by the prisoner’s unit team?
Jack Donson: The best practical advice I can give is that the prisoner needs the respect and support of their unit team and the request must be within the policy parameters (i.e., seeking transfer to the correct security institution, a prison generally within 500 miles of their release destination, etc.). Laying low and being a fly on the wall is the best way. The prisoner should be careful of the company they keep so they are not associated with the people who are continually challenging authority. Generally speaking, if the prisoner is liked — or, at least, not disliked — by their unit team, their chances of having the transfer approved greatly increases.
Christopher Zoukis: If Prison Law Blog readers desire to get in contact with you to discuss prison transfers or other consulting matters, what’s the best method of communication?
Jack Donson: The best way to get in contact with me is through my website www.MFPCLLC.com. I can also be emailed directly at Jack(at)MFPCLLC(dot)com.
Editorial Note: If any Prison Law Blog readers discover they have been scammed by a prison consultant or attorney, or if they are seeking a referral to a legal professional (attorney or consultant), please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below or to contact us through the Contact Us feature. We are always willing to assist our readers with referrals, recommendations, and advice when we can do so intelligently.