Your Guide to Federal Good Time Credit

by | Legal information

You’ve probably heard the phrase that someone got out of prison on “good behavior” or “good conduct.” Explained that way, it almost sounds like someone’s mother decided to return their Nintendo a few days before they were supposed to come off grounding. Good time credit is a much more significant process, and the law surrounding good time credit can be difficult to understand.

If you’re looking to help an exemplary inmate who demonstrates that they’ve been rehabilitated and is unlikely to re-offend, you need to understand what good time credit means, how to check someone’s good time credit, and how to dispute unfair calculations of good time credit. Staying on top of the matter yourself assures that the inmate in question is being treated fairly.

What is Federal Good Time Credit?

Good time credit is written into law under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b). The simplest explanation of good time credit is that inmates who behave in an exemplary manner during their stay in the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) custody will have days, weeks, or months reduced off of their sentence in exchange for this compliance.

Who Can Receive Federal Good Time Credit?

Anyone sentenced to serve more than one year in federal prison is eligible for good time credit with a few exceptions. Individuals who are sentenced to spend the rest of their natural lives in prison cannot spend less than their natural lives in prison. Indefinite terms aren’t eligible for sentence reduction. People sentenced to capital punishment are obviously ineligible for any kind of release.

Inmates convicted after April 26, 1996 are subject to the stipulations of something called the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The PLRA factors educational requirements into “good time”. This means that good time is only awarded to inmates who already have or are obtaining a high school diploma or GED equivalent.

If the inmate did not have either before entering federal prison, he or she has to pursue one from prison. Time spent attending the classes and any measurable steps toward progress of ultimately obtaining a GED or diploma counts towards good time. You’re eligible while you’re attempting to achieve the goal – not only after you’ve achieved it.

Prisoners who do not pursue a GED or diploma are still eligible for good time credit, but they will ultimately receive less.

What is the Maximum Amount of Federal Good Time Credit?

“A prisoner who is serving a term of imprisonment of more than 1 year other than a term of imprisonment for the duration of the prisoner’s life, may receive credit toward the service of the prisoner’s sentence, beyond the time served, of up to 54 days at the end of each year of the prisoner’s term of imprisonment, beginning at the end of the first year of the term, subject to determination by the Bureau of Prisons that, during that year, the prisoner has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.”

On the surface, this seems like a maximum of 54 days a year, awarded at the end of every year. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Prisons fundamentally misunderstands how math works. It is not possible to obtain 54 days a year under the way they’ve structured the guidelines. The actual maximum is 47 days of good time per year.

The Bureau of Prisons may not be accurately following the statute, but they’ve always made their calculations the same way. The key to getting to 47 days instead of 54 days comes from what they count as time. They calculate based on days actually served, rather than the sentence handed out by the judge.

Federal good time credit eligibility kicks in at sentences of one year and one day in federal prison. They used the 366 day model to start, and subtracted the 54 days. This means that, if the prisoner were awarded maximum good time credit, their sentence would only be 312 days. This gives them the final figure of 46 days of good time.

But that also isn’t right. The math goes round and round until we get to the equation of 319 + 47 = 366. So a 366 day sentence should be 319 days of normal days, and 47 days of good days.

The simple answer is that BOP wants to prorate good time, awarding a certain percentage of time each day instead of days each week or each year. The math that the mandate lays down equates to getting 15% of your sentence reduced. The BOP uses 14.8% and prorates their calculations.

They’re factoring in the time you’ll never actually serve because you’re going to be getting out on good time credit and applying it towards the actual calculation, which means that inmates are only actually receiving 12.8% of the 15% the law says they are owed. They are technically awarding you 54 days every year. But 7 of those days exist in a distant future you will never live.

It seems like the discrepancy isn’t much, but on a 5 year sentence, BOP has an inmate staying more than an extra month above what congress wrote into law. That’s a whole month of someone’s life that the law says they’re entitled to live as a free person.

Is this confusing to you? Congratulations. You’re perfectly normal. This is a completely unnecessary garden path math equation based on mental gymnastics bath that doesn’t actually follow the mandate at all. But this is the way they’ve been doing it since 1988 and it doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon.

But how can they get away with it? The answer is as unsatisfying as “because I said so.” They just are getting away with it. Congress went out of their way to clarify that prisoners were supposed to serve 85% of their time and bank 15% of their time as good time if they were model inmates. Their clarification didn’t change anything.

It even went to the Supreme Court. In 2010, Barber v. Thomas was the argument that the calculations were different and the BOP was liable for miscalculating times. The judge on the case favored the BOP’s interpretation, and they were allowed to keep doing things the way they’ve been doing them. Despite the fact that Congress says they’re wrong.

The bastardization of these calculations also happens to be costing the government a significant amount of money. If 200,000 federal prisoners are eligible for the credit and they’re each spending 7 extra days behind bars a year, that’s an extra 1,400,000 days of expenses a year. The average cost to house a federal inmate for a day is $99.45. The BOP’s bad math costs the federal government $139,230,000 a year, and well over a billion a decade.

If this is particularly frustrating to you, perhaps it’s a good idea to call your local legislator and ask if they’ve even heard of Federal Good Time Credit or seen the BOP calculations. Take a very long time explaining it to them to be sure they understand why it’s a problem for freedom, the law, and the national budget.

What Constitutes “Good Time” and Who Keeps Track?

All good time is calculated by a special center in Texas called the Designation and Sentence Computation Center. Private prisons used to do their own calculation of good time, but private prisons are being phased out through executive order. Those contracts won’t be renewed, and all inmates will become inmates of Bureau of Prisons facilities.

Good time credit is awarded to any inmate that adheres to the educational requirements and doesn’t get into trouble for anything. A completely unremarkable day in prison, that’s a good day. As long as the inmate is obeying all of the rules and staying out of altercations, they’re eligible for good time credit.

When and How is Good Time Credit Added to a Sentence?

Good time credit is calculated and awarded within 15 days of the end of the year. Someone whose sentence began on October 5 will be awarded their good time credit by October 20 every year after their first year in prison.

The rules change with partial years. A sentence of 18 months in federal prison ends before two years, so they can’t wait to calculate it. The BOP has six weeks to calculate good time leading up to the end of a sentence.

If, for whatever reason, the BOP fails to calculate your good time before their 15 day or 6 week period runs out, they have to give you their version of all of it. Even if you didn’t earn it, you’ll still be awarded the full 47 days of your mandated 54 days. This is only advantageous if you would have been awarded less.

How Do You Find Out How Much Credit You Have?

Prisoners are entitled to look at something called their Central File. Their central file is documentation of their entire stay in prison. All Central Files have the same table of contents:

1. Sentence Data/Detainers/IFRP

2. Classification/Parole Material

3. Mail, Visits, Property, etc.

4. Disciplinary, Work, and Education Reports

5. Release Processing

6. General Correspondence

Section 1 of the Central File will have notes about good time credit. Section 4 will have disciplinary reports. If the inmate has nothing under disciplinary reports in section 4 and little to no good time in section one, this is a sign that something is wrong.

Can Good Time Credit Be Taken Away?

The BOP will keep a running record of an inmate’s disciplinary action and use that record to reduce their potential maximum good time credit throughout the year. They will ultimately be awarded less than 47 days if they were involved in any disciplinary situations.

Once good time is awarded to an inmate, it usually cannot be taken away. The BOP can retract good time if they find out that the prisoner was involved in something serious during that year and just didn’t happen to get caught. Those chickens can come home to roost and history can be rewritten to include undiscovered indiscretions.

It can also be taken away for anything that the BOP calls “good cause”, which is generally interpreted to mean rioting, refusing to work, or hunger strikes. Since BOP has a reputation for interpreting rules however they please even when they’ve been told otherwise, they can technically call anything “good cause”.

What if an Inmate Disagrees with the Calculations?

Technically, all inmates awarded 47 days of good time should disagree with the calculation because it’s less than what the law says they’re allowed. Many inmates have their hands tied, both literally and figuratively. Before they can challenge a good time allotment in court, they must first go through the BOP’s “administrative remedy process”, which is long for “red tape.”

The BOP doesn’t want to deal with the consequences of miscalculated time, so they make it as difficult as possible for inmates to challenge what they were awarded. These barriers to entry are designed to keep inmates from filing complaints.

Do You Need Legal Help With Federal Good Time Credit?

Inmates at Tucson’s Federal Correctional Institution on S Wilmot Road should be awarded their good time credit by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, also on S Wilmot Road. If someone you love or care about is an inmate there, you want to make sure they’re being awarded their good time credit as they deserve to be.

The BOP has a responsibility to keep accurate records of awarded good time, disciplinary actions, and rescinded good time with details. There should be a clear reason for every move they make.

If you believe there are errors in calculations or problems with the inmate’s Central File, contact Damianakos Law right away. Elias Damianakos is a former prosecutor. He understands this situation from both sides and is prepared to aggressively defend inmates who are being denied the freedom they deserve. Advise the inmate to remain on their very best behavior, even though he or she may be very upset with the situation. Let us speak up on their behalf.

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