War on Drugs

Congressman Asked Bureau of Prisons Three Times About Nonviolent Offender Who Later Died in Maximum Security Lockup

A congressman forwarded messages to the Bureau of Prisons from Rick Turner's family begging for his relocation. Two were ignored.


Before Rick Turner died in federal prison earlier this year, a member of Congress sent sent three messages to the Bureau of Prisons from Turner's family begging for Turner to be transferred somewhere safer.

Reason obtained correspondence showing that the office of Rep. Rob Wittman (R–Va.) forwarded three messages from Turner's family to the Bureau of Prisons between October and December of last year and asked for more information on his case. The first two inquiries were ignored.

As Reason previously reported, Turner was found dead in June in his cell at USP Florence, a maximum security federal penitentiary in Colorado, less than a year after arriving there. Family members say he feared for his life in a violent, gang-controlled prison that he should have never been sent to in the first place.

Turner was sentenced to a mandatory 40 years in prison for his role in a Virginia methamphetamine trafficking ring. Federal prosecutors hammered him with firearm enhancements and drug charges that magnified his sentence by decades after he turned down a plea deal and was found guilty at trial. The judge in Turner's case called his sentence "excessive" and "wrong," and one of the jurors wrote last week that he would have nullified if he'd known Turner would receive 40 years.

Although Turner had no prior criminal record or history of violence, he was sent to a maximum security penitentiary because of the length of his sentence. If he had been sentenced just a few months later, after Congress reduced some of the mandatory minimum laws he was sentenced under, or if he had received a lighter sentence like the rest of his co-conspirators, all of whom took plea deals, things might have been different.

On Oct. 4, 2018, Turner's sister, Mandy Turner-Richards, wrote to Rep. Wittman's office asking for the congressman's help in getting Turner transferred to another facility, saying he was receiving death threats.

"Due to the gang presence in maximum security prisons, Rick has received constant threats against his life as he refuses to be in a gang," Turner-Richards wrote. "Rick wants to remain unaffiliated and focus on bettering his life, but this seems to be impossible in his current setting. I ask for your help in contacting the Bureau of Prisons in regards to transferring my brother to a lower security prison where he will be able to safely engage in programming and focus on getting better."

Wittman forwarded Turner-Richards' message to Jennifer Edens, the chief of legislative affairs for the Bureau of Prisons, and wrote, "I would appreciate you reviewing the enclosed documentation and providing me with any information that may be helpful to my constituent."

Wittman's office sent another inquiry on October 22, but received no response to either request. On December 6 Wittman's office forwarded another letter from Turner's sisters begging for their brother to be transferred out of USP Florence.

"My family is not famous, nor do we know any superstars, and we do not have a lot of money to hire expensive legal representation," Turner-Richards wrote. "I know you are fully aware of the financial burdens put on families with incarcerated loved ones. With my brother not having a violent bone in his body, we can not comprehend why he was sent to a max security prison where he is not able to even do the therapies and things that Honorable Judge T. S. Ellis sentenced him to do. The RDAP [Residential Drug Abuse Program] program that he was sentenced to enroll in is not even available in the max security prison."

The Bureau of Prisons finally responded on December 13. A legislative affairs specialist wrote that, under the rules, Turner would have to serve 18 months in the prison's general population with a clean disciplinary record before he would be eligible to apply for a relocation.

"Additionally, policy does not recognize/provide hardship transfers," the Bureau of Prisons official wrote. "Therefore, nearer January 2020, Mr. Turner needs to submit a request to his Unit Team for a nearer release transfer."

FAMM, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposes mandatory minimum sentences, has called for an investigation into Turner's death.

"What more can a family do?" FAMM President Kevin Ring says. "They got a member of Congress to notify BOP that their brother feared for his life, and the BOP responds with boilerplate policy language. BOP has the authority under current law to keep a nonviolent offender like Rick out of maximum security institutions. They didn't use it. We want to know why, and we want this to stop happening."

Vice reported last week that Turner's attorney got the government to agree to a post-conviction motion in which Turner would waive his right to appeal and agree to testify for the government in exchange for a reduced sentence. But that process promised to drag on for months.

Turner-Richards told Vice her brother said to her, "They'll kill me before that."

Turner's cause of death has not been publicly released yet. The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment.