With the passage of legislation more than 30 years ago, supervised release replaced probation aimed at keeping tabs on individuals upon their exit from the federal prison system.
However, in contrast to the past, supervised release mandates that returning citizens regularly report to a probation officer well after having completed their original sentence and follow a set of strict guidelines or face the risk of being sent back to prison.
Recently, a motion filed by a returning citizen during what’s known as Black August — an annual remembrance of Black resistance movements and political prisoners — poses the latest challenge to the federally-supervised release program, questioning its constitutionality.
One woman, whose name has been withheld at her request, believes the terms of her release have made life on the outside much harder to navigate.
“It doesn’t make sense to have supervised release when I’m doing more time outside than I’m doing inside,” said the Northwest resident who works part-time at a local supermarket.
After a futile attempt to appeal her release conditions through a public defender, she submitted additional documentation to a Prince George’s County court. By then, she had entered the 20th month of a three-year term.
Upon her release from a nine-month stint in West Virginia’s Federal Prison Camp in late 2017, her journey took her to a halfway house, Jubilee Housing in Northwest and then to a friend’s home where she slept on a couch. The contract to which she agreed, requires drug testing and a payment of $100 in restitution fees, both monthly. Additionally, she must seek permission to travel outside of the D.C. metropolitan area.
It’s a lot to handle for a woman who earned a master’s degree from a now-defunct university and aspires to launch a small business. In fact, she says the stipulations continue to hinder her professional advancement.
“The hardest thing to tackle is finances,” she said.
Since her release, she’s obtained a certificate in hospitality and tourism from the University of the District of Columbia and has currently enrolled in a workforce program and an entrepreneurship class for returning citizens. Still, hurdles remain, particularly as she seeks to earn another master’s degree — one which she believes will help her better manage her burgeoning nutrition business.
“I wish I could go back to school,” she said. “I started last year but stopped because I didn’t have the funds. I also stopped because of compliance because they [require] certain things — I had to go to meetings. When you’re in certain environments, you’re confined.”
The woman interviewed counts among members of the Coalition to End Supervised Release, formed in June to object to a federal program that, by 2015, had nearly 115,000 returning citizens under its jurisdiction — 99 percent having left the federal prison system under supervised release — the other one percent adhering to terms mandated by older parole guidelines.
Since the turn of the century, the proportion of returning citizens under supervised release has significantly increased due to policy changes by Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2017 shows that two-out-of-three individuals on supervised release faced recidivism — returning to prison due to violations in less than two years.
District residents coming home from federal correctional facilities have experienced the brunt of these stringent guidelines says Emily Tatro, deputy director at the Council for Court Excellence as nearly half of the District’s prisoners find themselves incarcerated for violations of probation, parole, or supervised release.
“If you’re arrested for anything, it triggers a violation regardless of how that arrest plays out,” Tatro said. “Your new case has to go through court and starts a revocation process. Even if your arrest doesn’t end in a new conviction, you could get revoked.”
“Another category [involves] technical violations — breaking the [terms] of your supervision which could include refraining from substance abuse, staying away from different people and property or maintaining employment and housing,” she said.
Policy Changes Under Debate on the Local Front
Upon their return from summer recess, members of the D.C. Council will discuss bills that would make those serving long sentences for violent crimes committed as youth eligible for early release and expand voting rights to incarcerated D.C. residents. The former has elicited strong responses including a campaign to sway public opinion against early release initiated by Jessie K. Liu, Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
Meanwhile, members of the Coalition to End Supervised Release continue to organize around their goal. Last month, they hosted a meeting at the Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Library in Northwest. On Aug. 21, coalition members attended a town hall hosted by the District Task Force on Jails & Justice at the DC Bar, also in Northwest. On August 31, they will pass out information about their campaign at Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters’ annual cookout at Upshur Park in Northwest.
The Cease Fire cookout will culminate a bevy of activities during Black August. The occasion has also served as a call to remember and act in the spirit of Black political prisoners, particularly the late George Jackson, an activist, author and founder of the Black Guerilla Family.
For Coalition to End Supervised Release founding member Jabari Zakiya, Black August could yield more present-day relevance with concerted efforts to dismantle a system he likens to enslavement.
“Black August celebrants need to understand supervised release and inform people in prison to know their rights under supervised release before they come home,” Zakiya said. “They could also start an end prison campaign so that Black people understand and learn how to maneuver in getting rid of supervised release.”
“The biggest thing they could do is inform people who are about to be sentenced so they can challenge supervised release at their sentencing hearing. Public defenders might not know there’s no mandated requirement for supervised released. That’s why defendants need to speak up for themselves and challenge the judge,” he said.