No, Lori Laughlin Did Not "Choose Her Prison"

Ignorant Faux-Populist Journalism Promotes The Carceral State

LeBron James and I are pissed.

The objects of our ire are related, but not identical. Mr. James is angry about reports that Lori Loughlin, actress and helicopter-mom-to-the-point-of-wire-fraud, will get to serve her two-month prison sentence at the facility of her choice. Mr. James is angry — and righteously so — at a criminal justice system that favors the rich and grinds up the poor. I’m angry because lazy, willfully ignorant clickbait-chasing journalists promote that amoral system in the guise of faux populism.

Mr. James was reacting to an article in Vanity Fair, which was in turn sourced to an article in Us Weekly, indicating that Ms. Loughlin will serve her sentence at a low-security facility of her choice in Victorville, California. Us claimed:

According to the document, the Fuller House star will “be designated to a facility closest to her home in CA, preferably the camp at FCI Victorville, if commensurate with the appropriate security level.”

While the Bureau of Prisons will have final approval of her request, federal prison records show the 56-year-old already has a registration number assigned to her.

Vanity Fair upped the outrage factor by listing the recreational and educational opportunities at the Victorville facility:

According to the FCC Victorville Satellite Prison Camp inmate handbook, the facility offers a wide array of recreational programs that wouldn’t look totally out of place at a wellness retreat. The prison offers yoga, Pilates, painting, calligraphy, crochet, origami, ceramics, cartoon drawing, and music lesson for instruments such as the saxophone, accordion, and ukulele. Should Loughlin be considering a career change, there’s also vocational training available, including bicycle repair, forklift operations, dental assistant training, and waste management.

These articles — like the flood of follow-ups that followed them, including many articles describing Mr. James’ reaction — are calculated to provoke outrage that a rich person got to choose her own prison and enjoy cushy conditions.

This is ignorant nonsense, and an excellent example of how criminal justice journalism can be both willfully uninformed and reflexively carceral.

Here’s how federal sentencing works. The federal judge sets the sentence, which may include a term in custody. Then the United States Bureau of Prisons decides where the defendant should serve that sentence. That decision includes an assessment of the appropriate security level, based on the crime of conviction, the defendant’s criminal record, their involvement with drugs or violence, their immigration status, and a variety of other factors. It also includes consideration of whether they have any special medical or rehabilitative needs, where their families are, and the availability of beds in the facilities. This process is called “designation” to a facility. No matter where they were convicted, federal defendants can be designated to federal facilities across the United States depending on suitability and need.

Defendants can, and routinely do, ask their federal judge to recommend that they be designated to a particular region or even a specific facility. Usually defendants ask that the judge recommend a facility within driving distance of their families. That’s a good thing. Staying in contact with supportive family members lowers the risk of recidivism and bad behavior in prison. That’s why Congress passed, and President Trump signed, the First Step Act in 2018. One of its terms requires the Bureau of Prisons to designate prisoners within 500 miles of home when possible. Federal judges can’t tell Bureau of Prisons where to designate someone. But they can recommend it, and they routinely do so, usually with the explicit caveat that it’s only a recommendation. That’s more or less what the federal judge did in Lori Loughlin’s case, as reflected in her Judgment and Commitment Order filed this month:

The judge’s recommendation “if commensurate with the appropriate security level” is absolutely unremarkable.

Moreover — contrary to the implication that Lori Loughlin chose a prison for its wine list — she didn’t have much of a choice. Women make up only 7% of the federal inmate population, and relatively few facilities allow women. California has only a handful. There’s Dublin, up north, where Felicity Huffman went — but that’s far from Loughlin’s home. There’s the Metropolitan Detention Center downtown, where people awaiting trial and sentencing are, but that’s high-security. There’s the Metropolitan Correctional center in San Diego, where inmates are kept pending trial and sentencing, but that’s high security too. So, it’s accurate to say Lori Loughlin “chose” her prison, in the sense that she asked for the one lower-security facility in her half of California open to her. Because it was close to her home, and she’s a non-violent offender with no record, it was overwhelmingly likely where she would have been designated even if she hadn’t asked and the judge hadn’t recommended it.

[Also, for the benefit of Us Weekly and Vanity Fair writers who don’t know and didn’t bother to find out, Loughlin’s “registration number” was likely assigned when she was charged, and doesn’t have anything to do with whether she’s been designated or where she will be designated.]

The United States leads the world in mass incarceration. We’re also absolutely terrible at rehabilitation. Even though research strongly supports the proposition that education in prison reduces recidivism and more than pays for itself, we’d rather spend more money to punish than less to rehabilitate. Even though research shows recreational activities decrease inmate violence and lawbreaking and improve health and safety, and experts design prison activities with that in mind, we view them as coddling. Our law and order culture wants prisoners to suffer, and regards suspiciously anything that treats prisoners as human.

The press, we are frequently told, is hopelessly liberal. But any criminal defense attorney knows that’s a simplistic lie. The press is a reflection of our culture, and our culture is deeply punitive. The vast majority of federal inmates (to say nothing of state inmates) are far less privileged than Lori Loughlin. That legion of inmates, disproportionately poor, disproportionately black and brown, are the ones who suffer when vapid clickbait reinforces our inclination to scorn rehabilitative and educational and recreational facilities in prison.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan skillfully used the image of the “welfare queen” — a deeply troubled woman collecting welfare while driving a Cadillac and wearing furs — to stoke resentment of social safety nets. The press was complicit. It usually is. Using an outlier to foment populist anger at “privilege,” then turning that anger as a weapon against decent treatment of the least of us, is traditional and effective. Wouldn’t it be nice if the press wouldn’t fall for it (the charitable interpretation) or deliberately employ it for clicks (the more realistic one)?