This post, written by Pam Bailey, Rob Barton’s collaborator, focuses on one of three reform priorities to be discussed at an online teach-in to be hosted by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 14. Rob initiated this first in what we hope will be a series of dialogues, and will participate. To register, email email@example.com.
James Dunn is a unicorn. Despite the highly dysfunctional environment of federal prisons, he spent 29 years in this belly of the beast without even one disciplinary infraction. He completed every education and development program in which he was able to enroll, and above and beyond all that, he taught classes to fellow residents and mentored those younger than him.
And yet…James was denied parole three times. Why? To the extent they offered any explanation at all, the members of the U.S. Parole Commission simply revisited his original crime, a murder and drug charge more than 20 years old. The obvious rehabilitation James had experienced over the years seemed not to count at all.
James was fortunate. Thanks to the D.C. Council’s passage of the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA), he was given a genuine “second look” and released last year. What is he doing today? He works as a “violence interruptor” with Murder Free DC, an initiative of Father Factor, Inc., which is collaborating with the attorney general’s office to “Cure the Streets.”
“We go into the communities we grew up in,” he explains. “My job as an outreach worker is to work with high-risk individuals, the ones who are carrying guns, shooting people or who have been shot, and attempt to transition them off the streets onto another path. We find them the resources they need, whether it’s education, drug-abuse treatment, mental health, a job, whatever is needed, within a 90-day period. We share our stories with them, letting them know, ‘Man, we aren’t the police. I’m somebody who was just like you. I’m trying to save you from going down my same path.’ Criminal behavior is learned behavior; you’re not born with it. It’s like a disease. And when these young people get in trouble, they listen. Many of them don’t want to be out there, but they feel like they don’t have any alternatives, you know? They feel trapped. I show them a way out.”
James speaks from experience. He can relate to these young men because he was just like them.
The making of a teenager in trouble
He grew up in northeast D.C.–in poverty, during the crack epidemic. At around the age of 12, his mother married a man he didn’t like. Up until then, the mother and son had been very close. Until everything changed. “I took to the streets about that time, trying to find love, I guess,” he says.
It’s an age when peers have an outsized influence. Older guys manipulated him into holding a stash for them or delivering drugs to different places. Soon, he was selling too.
Violence was another constant backdrop on the streets. The District was known as the nation’s murder capital.
“Every day, somebody I knew was getting killed and it was all over the TV news. One of my best friends was killed when I was around 15. That traumatized me to the point of vowing I wasn’t going to let anybody do the same to me — which is why I started carrying a gun,” he recalls.
It was, you could say, a “perfect storm.” He was just 16 when he was arrested for the first time, on a charge of gun possession. That was the time when a violence interruptor could have made all the difference. But then he committed a murder and was caught with crack.
“That small window between the ages of 15 and 17 is when my life of crime started. Something triggered in me,” he recalls.
Into the gulag
James agreed to plead guilty to both charges, receiving 10 years for the federal crack charge and 15 years to life for second-degree murder. At the age of 17, he went to prison — still a minor struggling to figure out who he was, but now locked up as an adult.
“I was still a kid when I committed my crimes,” he says. “There is a lot of research, case law and Supreme Court rulings demonstrating and supporting the fact that most people age out of violent behavior. I was 15-16 years old when I made my mistakes. I don’t want to trivialize the crimes I committed, but I didn’t have a history of hurting people and it wasn’t who I was.”
Over the next 20 years, James was transferred to about 10 different prisons, from Georgia to California. Although James had a strong support system in his mother, sister and a few friends, they could only visit when he was close to home.
“That’s why D.C. needs its own prison,” says James. “When guys are sent all the way to Colorado or somewhere and then are also treated so terribly, it almost breaks their spirit and makes them think, ‘I don’t have nothing to live for. I might as well just do whatever to survive.’ But when you’re closer to family, it’s easier to be more focused on programming. It gives you hope, more motivation to better yourself. You know ‘I’m right here, I’m close. I’m almost home.’ And it’s a lot less strain on the rest of the family too.”
Still, James requested many of his moves. He was desperate to use his years behind bars to learn and develop in any way he could. In the “feds,” quality programming wasn’t easy to find.
Looking for rehabilitation
“To keep my sanity, I sought transfers so I could take classes. I took training programs in HVAC and plumbing, for instance. I also enrolled in a faith-based program called Life Connections. We explored alternatives to violence, how to manage your emotions, etc. I graduated from that program as valedictorian, and it was transformative for me. I met mentors there who I’m still in contact with today.”
That’s what rehabilitation should look like. But, says James, most of those programs have since been eliminated — including Leavenworth’s Life Connections.
“They’re constantly defunding these programs. So, there’s nothing really there for residents to do. We used to say, ‘we’re doing dead time.’ So we tried to do what we could on our own, by teaching each other. I taught a stock market class, for example. But those kinds of things aren’t recognized; we don’t get certificates that are marketable outside.”
Parole: a false hope
In 2010, James finally got his first parole hearing — via the U.S. Parole Commission, since D.C. has transferred control to the federal government. (The District abolished parole altogether in 2000; the cases of anyone convicted prior to that year are heard by the USPC — which is totally impervious to any input from a D.C. government that today is much more progressive.)
The guidelines established to assist in these decisions indicated James should have been paroled. The examiner who presided over the hearing agreed. However, the final decision is made by the commissioners and they denied James, simply saying his past crimes were too serious. Come back in three years, they said — although without an explanation of what he should do differently.
He continued to pursue whatever education he could, keeping “clean” of any infractions. James then returned and was denied again, this time with instructions to return in five years.
“I’m a religious person, a strong Christian. But it was devastating — not just for me, but also for my family. I was slipping to the point where I felt I couldn’t go on. I was wavering on the brink of insanity,” he says.
That pattern repeated a third time, in 2018.
“I had certificates, I was a mentor, I had won awards, I had collected multiple letters from people supporting me, even good words from the BOP (federal Bureau of Prisons),” recounts James. “The examiner again recommended parole, but the commissioners said no. In total, I was delayed 11 years until I was ‘saved’ by IRAA last year.”
Something is wrong with a parole process when the decision makers ignore the recommendations of their own examiners, when who a petitioner is today is given less weight than what occurred more than two decades before, and when the deciders of a human’s fate are not held to account by anyone. No institution should be able to act with impunity.
The ask: Sign this petition so we can deliver a message to the USPC that this is not the way justice is served. And then return control over parole to the D.C. government, while re-examining the system from scratch.