Local Criminal Justice System Under Fire
Ex-offenders, concerned family members and community activists gathered to raise their collective voice against the deplorable living conditions that plague inmates in the D.C. Jail and local halfway houses.
A group of 50 assembled in the main meeting room at the Benning Neighborhood Library in Northeast, for a two-hour open discussion about the abysmal conditions and disproportionate arrests and convictions for African Americans who live in the District, the evening of July 26.
"The fact of the matter remains that in this city, we're dealing with a situation where almost 90 percent of people who get arrested for anything are African American," said DC Prisoners' Project Director Phil Fornaci.
Debra Rowe, acting executive director of Returning Citizens United, a nonprofit that assists ex-offenders who have recently returned home, moderated the two-hour discussion. A panel of four speakers included: the Rev. Kelly Wilkins of Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Southwest, Fornaci and social justice advocate Doshen Martin-El. Initially, former D.C. Department of Corrections Director Walter Ridley had planned to address the group but health issues prevented him from attending.
Panelists rattled off a list of concerns brought to their attention about the conditions at the D.C. Jail in Southeast. For example, some of the facility's walls are covered in mold, which creates respiratory problems; overcrowding – cells intended to house only two inmates, currently house three. And, some of the sections of the jail don't have any windows.
Add to that list of grievances, there's a new District procedure that has family members and inmates up in arms.
D.C. Jail's new visitation policy sent a collective moan throughout the room. The news created unlimited chatter among guests but even more criticism. Family and friends will no longer to be able to visit with inmates in person but rather, through a live video feed. The change in policy, which took effect on July 25, met with resistance from guests who say that it's unfair. Rowe said visitors will also be charged $9 per visit.
"For a child who goes over there to visit a parent, it's good for them to see them through the glass and put their hand [on the glass] and feel a connection," said Rowe, 58. "There will be no privacy because they're monitoring each and every video call. That's a major concern."
Martin-El works as an ex-offender and HIV advocate in the District and used the forum to share her personal experiences, which she recalled weren't always the best.
"There was a time [when] I was a real criminal," said Martin-El, 68. "I went from the status of being an inmate, to a resident, to a pure and complete convict. I've been locked up several times and served extensive time in jail. I just got tired. I came out and went into a program, similar to the ones we're talking about now, and they just turned me around and helped me with my life."
But she didn't stop there.
She talked about her rehabilitation and credited it with changing her life.
Issues at the Hope Village Halfway House, located in Southeast, also drew the ire of the group. Hope Village serves as a transitional facility that houses returning citizens who are about to reenter society. While there, they must find gainful employment or risk being sent back to prison. Rowe and Fornaci raised concerns about the practices and procedures of the all-male halfway house.
Rowe recalled a story of one Hope Village resident who secured employment with Pepco in February, but had to decline the offer because Hope Village officials wouldn't allow him to drive a vehicle.
"He was happy and proud. [Pepco], then told him that he could not drive until April. He was hired by [another company] to work on-call and Hope Village [officials] told him that he could not be on-call," she said.
A question and answer period ended the forum and also allowed guests an opportunity to voice their opinions. One returning citizens shared his jail experience.
"The conditions are horrible as far as the heating and the living spaces," said Al Christopher Allen, 31, who served nearly a year in the D.C. Jail for a non-violent offense. "The medical [treatment] is terrible and you're locked down most of the day. It's jail so it's not supposed to be nice, but people [correctional officers] don't know if you're in there for a misdemeanor and they treat like you're a murderer."