Bring incarcerated D.C. citizens home

I want to eliminate mass incarceration, but this is a prison that must be built

The D.C. jail’s rehabilitation programs should be offered to all of the district’s incarcerated citizens

This post focuses on one of three DC-reform priorities to be discussed at an online teach-in to be hosted by the district’s attorney general at 5:30 p.m. ET Sept. 14. Register here.

The Black Lives Matter movement is calling for the end of incarceration. And as much as or more than anyone, I don’t want to see any more lives put on hold, like mine has been for 25 years — or, worse yet, destroyed because they are warehoused away from family and friends with little stimulation or development. But…I want a new prison to be built, by D.C. for D.C. residents. Here’s why.

The old D.C. prison in Lorton, VA

There are currently more than 1,800 people in the custody of the D.C. Department of Corrections, mostly awaiting trial, and another 4,100 (almost all Black) serving sentences in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities — known for being particularly harsh environments. (In fact, the district’s incarceration rate is higher than any state in the nation — and any country.) Why are we all held in federal prisons? Many D.C. residents don’t know that the district closed its only prison in 2002. Instead, D.C. contracts with the feds, which ships us to one or more of its 122 facilities across the country. I have spent the last 25 years in 14 federal penitentiaries — each of them a warehouse staffed by too few, poorly trained guards — that serve more like incubators for dysfunction and violence than for rehabilitation and transformation.

Map showing locations of federal prisons — most far away from D.C.

Most prisons are located in remote, rural townships (far further than the 500-mile radius mandated by the D.C. council), making it expensive and logistically difficult for prisoners’ families to visit. When I was shipped to Louisiana in 2002 at the age of 21, my mother could only afford to visit me one time. Imagine how devastating that was to a young man who was essentially growing up in prison. On top of this, because an inmate is only allocated 300 minutes of phone time per month and most penitentiaries are locked down for over half of the year, it is almost impossible to maintain strong family ties. (Family ties are essential to rehabilitation.)

Georgetown Prison Scholars participants

It wasn’t until 2018, when I was transferred to the D.C. jail from Florida for consideration for early release, that I finally was exposed to the benefits of rehabilitation — supposedly one of the purposes of imprisonment. I was accepted into the Georgetown Prisons Scholars Program (where I earned a 4.0 GPA), giving me the opportunity to interact with outside students/people who weren’t my “peers.” Through the exchange of ideas and conversation, my humanity was reconfirmed, helping immensely with my rehabilitation. For the first time in decades, I am interacting with people who treat me like a colleague, instead of in the dehumanizing way that is the norm in the federal system, forcing us to adapt to a subculture that identifies us as “undesirables.”

I was also accepted as a mentor in the Young Men Emerging Unit, where I mentor 18- to 25-year-olds awaiting trial. I use my life experience to allow mentees to learn vicariously through me and — hopefully — avoid following in my footsteps. This is real rehabilitation. And yet, these transformative programs are limited in their impact because the D.C. jail residents can participate for an average of only five months before they are shuffled off to the feds — where all that effort will be undone over years of neglect and dehumanization.

As much as I believe in decarceration, incarceration is not going away any time soon. And no matter what the reforms we manage to achieve in the future, at least some individuals will need to spend time in prison: They will commit a serious crime and must be taken out of their environment for a period of time, both as a consequence and to change their trajectory. Meanwhile, the current D.C. jail is decrepit and dilapidated — so much so it is unhealthy. So, why not make D.C. a leader and demonstrate what rehabilitation should look like?

I’m not calling for a typical jail and prison; those should be abolished. I am calling for a complex that is smaller but offers the full array of rehabilitation programs for which the D.C jail is known. This would be a huge step toward long-term decarceration and the reduction of recidivism.

How can D.C. afford this? Start by reimagining and reducing funding for the police, then splitting those savings between community programs like better schooling, housing, jobs and violence prevention in the neighborhoods that need them most, and a dignified, humanity-building model for rehabilitative detention. D.C. residents who stumble onto the wrong path would benefit from the transformative educational and programming opportunities the DC DOC offers — not only during the pretrial stage, but also while they are serving the long haul, when it is most needed. (Note: It’s estimated that for every $1 invested in prison education, taxpayers save $4-$5 in re-incarceration costs during the first three years post-release.)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s budget proposal called for $18.5 million for the police. That would have translated into more D.C. residents of African American descent incarcerated in federal prisons all over America, and the huge possibility of a quick return to prison upon release (the recidivism rate for D.C. residents is over 70% — clearly, the federal prison system isn’t “working”). African American communities are already over-policed; throwing more money after bad would only result in more arrests and destruction of lives — those of the incarcerated as well as their families. Fortunately, the D.C. Council instead cut the police budget by nearly $10 million. Now, we should use the savings to make a real difference.

For too long, Black men in prison from D.C. have been “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s time for the D.C community to recognize its responsibility to these largely poor men who grew up in the district’s mean streets and bring them back home — while showing the rest of the country how to do it.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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