Norton Holds Hearing on Status of Female Inmates

Shantella Y. Sherman | 6/11/2009, 12:28 a.m.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) conducted the first ever video conference dialogue between District residents, experts in the criminal justice system and D.C. women who are incarcerated at the Hazelton Secured Female Facility (SFF) in Hazelton, W.Va. The two-hour dialogue at One Judiciary Square on Thu., June 4, was designed to assess the critical needs of inmates who call the District home and the need for a successful re-entry program.

The panel of experts included Tonie Rhones, coordinator of Our Place; Reesa Motley, director of Fairview Halfway House; Gretchen Rohr, director, University Legal Services D.C. Jail Advocacy Project, and Cedrick Hendricks, acting deputy director, Court Services and Rahim Jenkins, former director, D.C. Re-entry Initiative. The women were afforded the opportunity to offer insight into their incarceration and also to ask panelists about available resources and services. Some of the topics that were addressed included the need for a 500-hour drug treatment program prior to release, available housing and childcare. The women asked panelists about the ability to continue to work towards obtaining their General Equivalency Degrees and their college courses.

Lashawna Etheridge-Bey, who has been incarcerated for 16 years, asked members of the panel to address her concerns that violent offenders were not allowed to meet parole examiners in person at parole hearings, but instead through video-conferencing. She also directed specific questions to Isaac Fulwood, chair of the Parole Commission, concerning whether members of parole boards truly believed in rehabilitation and whether violent offenders deserved second chances the same as drug offenders.

€When we go up for our initial hearings we do it through video conferencing. For me, not being able to see that person face-to-face is kind of scary. The examiner has my information, but [they] do not know me; all they have is my paperwork,€ Etheridge-Bey said.

Connie Smith said she was incarcerated in the 1980s on a violent crime during an alcohol-induced episode. Smith said that her recidivism has interrupted the good she has done in her life, as well as the lives of her family. She raised the issue of how to keep others like herself from entering, and then returning to prison.

€I still have no recollection of what happened up until this moment. All I know is that I got a charge of 15 [years] to life and I came home in 2003, got involved with a man; and he said I stabbed him and went to the parole board and [I] got 36 month for that. When I calculate my time, I wasted 20 years of my life because of bad decisions,€ Smith said.

According to the Women€s Prison Association€s Institute on Women and Criminal Justice 2009 Report, two-thirds of women in prison are there for non-violent offenses, many for drug-related crimes. It further stated that between 2003 and 2007, arrests of women for drug violations increased 29 percent, compared to 15 percent for men. Fifty-one percent of sentenced women were between the ages of 30 to 44, with 36 percent of those between the ages of 35 to 39 at midyear 2008. Stop the Silence, a non-profit organization working toward the treatment of child sexual abuse, reported data from The Survivors Healing Center in April 2009 that 80 percent of women in prison and jails have been victims of sexual and/or physical abuse.

The statistics mirror the reality of those taking part in the video dialogue, with the vast majority of Hazelton inmates convicted of drug-related violent crimes. Many spoke of poor relationships with men or violence precipitated by domestic abuse. And while many of the women were remorseful and prepared to serve their time, their rehabilitation is complicated by the location of many of the facilities housing African American female inmates.

In 2000, a contract was awarded to the Rivers Correctional Institute (RCI), which currently houses 520 D.C. inmates, but earlier this year the Bureau of Prison (BOP) opened the competition to companies as far as 500 miles from the District. Norton has been a long-time advocate of reforming the treatment of D.C. inmates housed out of state. In 2007, Norton said that the 7,000 D.C. inmates in 75 institutions nationwide were receiving €second-class€ treatment compared with the rest of the 200,000 inmates under federal control. She said that she traveled to several facilities and was able to assess the hardship such distances (some up to 12 hours roundtrip) placed on both inmates and their families.

€Only a BOP prison set aside for D.C. inmates much closer to the District will fully meet our needs. This is not an impossibility, but it can€t happen tomorrow. However, if there is any change from the 300-mile radius, it should certainly lower the radius to, for example, a 100-mile range, not stretch the limit,€ Norton said.

Currently, 222 women from the District are incarcerated in Bureau of Prison (BOP) facilities outside the District and 29 are in halfway houses. Norton said that she visited the Secured Female Facility (SFF) in Hazelton, W.Va., which houses 36 women from the District, last October.