The Injustice of Being a ‘State’ Prisoner in the Federal System
D.C. residents behind bars deserve better
By Pam Bailey
In 2001, the District of Columbia shuttered its lone prison, the Lorton Correctional Complex, seeking a way out of its financial troubles and eager to offload a facility that had become known for being violent and overcrowded. From that point on, District residents convicted of crimes were sent instead into the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) — a sprawling network of 122 institutions scattered across the country, mostly far from their families and friends.
Since I began communicating with D.C. residents in BOP facilities in 2019, seeking to “bring their voices home,” I have heard repeatedly how District residents are discriminated against in the federal system — not just by prison staff, but by many other prisoners. This is in part due to the reputation they earned (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) when they suddenly entered the federal system from the dog-eat-dog environment of Lorton and had to eke out their own place in the highly “tribal” atmosphere of the federal gulag.
It’s also due in part to the fact that (unlike other residents of federal prisons) so many of the individuals transferred from Lorton into “the feds” have indeterminate sentences — for example, 30 years to life. That means they can be kept for as long as life, but have a chance for release via parole (and now, via D.C.’s Second Look Amendment Act, for individuals who committed their crimes under the age of 25 and have been incarcerated for at least 15 years). The BOP, however, recognizes only the “life” part, leading to tragic consequences when it comes to access to programming.
And then it’s also due to another disparity that is the subject of a new class-action lawsuit filed by D.C.’s public defenders: District residents incarcerated for D.C. Code offenses (vs. federal charges) are “contract prisoners,” and thus their security level (which dictates their type of institution) is determined by a separate, “arbitrary and unequal” classification system.
Black prisoners bear the brunt of this disparity, the suit says. More than 95% of D.C. Superior Court defendants who go into BOP custody are Black, while only 38% of the overall federal prison population is.
What does this all mean in human terms? Below are some of their stories.
Stuck in the most restrictive prisons
Kevone Newsome: I was placed in a high-security U.S. penitentiary, USP Allenwood (Pennsylvania), when I came in, even though my points classified me as medium risk. USPs are more violent [than other types of prisons] and are locked down a lot more. I was told I was placed there because of the length of my sentence (48 years). Yet, I saw inmates in on federal charges who had life sentences and they were placed in medium-security facilities.
Initially, I was told I’d have to do at least 10 years in a penitentiary before I could go to a medium-security FCI [federal correctional institution]. But once I reached 10 years, they changed it to at least 12 years! I came into the BOP in November 2003 and didn’t make it to an FCI until December 2015, no matter what I did. Others have had it a lot worse. One of my homies came in [to a USP] in 1995 and couldn’t get out of there until 2018.
A lot of us D.C. guys are eligible now for a reduction of our sentences [under the District’s incarceration reduction and second look acts]. We need regular calls and visits with our lawyers. But the BOP won’t recognize that. Due to COVID, we haven’t been getting legal visits, so we have to rely on calls. They’re allowed, but not as regularly or for as long as we need. There are several of us here who are rushed off our legal calls by the unit team for no apparent reason at all. In my 20 years incarcerated, I’ve never seen staff rushing an inmate off the phone for a legal call after 30 or 40 minutes because it’s “too long.” And the thing is, the only seems to happen to those of us in for D.C. Code offenses. I’ve expressed my outrage to the unit team, but nothing is done.
James Parker: When I came into the BOP system as a first-time offender in April 1994, I was placed in a maximum-security facility and locked down for 26 months for no reason other than who I was (D.C. resident) and the length of my sentence (life). When I demanded to know why, the psychology staff said it was to “determine how I would react to being in prison.” During this time, I missed valuable filing deadlines in my case, which haunts me to this day.
In 2000, I was transferred to USP Lewisburg, where there were many programs I couldn’t take, because I was told I was ineligible due to the length of my sentence. Even 10 years later, when I finally made it to FCI Cumberland (Maryland), I encountered the same barriers. Most of the better classes are limited to those will go home within two or three years.
Now, going on my 28th year, I’m eligible for release via D.C.’s Second Look Amendment Act, yet I have had access to very little programming.
Dominique Outlaw: They say [we can’t go to a lower-security prison] because of our sentence length, but there are people with 50 years or even life sentences in FCIs. I’ve been in over 20 years and have 14 points [low enough to qualify for low security] and I still can’t get a transfer to an FCI.
Lack of access to programs
Kevone Newsome: Even when I got to my first FCI, some things didn’t change that much. Even though I have a chance coming up to get out [due to D.C.’s Second Look Act], I’m not considered eligible for a lot of programs because of my sentence.
Plus, D.C. code offenders aren’t eligible for good-time credits under the [federal] First Step Act. We’re penalized like everyone else if we do anything they don’t like, but we don’t get the same benefits for participating in educational classes and “productive activities” (like certain jobs). Those who are FSA-eligible are given priority access to certain programs. So, we’re shut out.
William Jolly: As a D.C. inmate, I was refused admission to an electrical program on the first day of class. Once the teacher saw I had a indeterminate sentence from D.C., he told me he was giving priority to inmates who had closer release dates. My parole date was about seven years away at the time, but he focused only on the “life” on the back end of my sentence. I was pushed back again recently for the same reason, when I tried to get into a class that’s part of the Challenge Program.
Yes, we have life on the back end of our sentences, but some of us have parole dates or IRAA/Second Look hearings that are very near. My parole hearing is in 2024, just two years away. But it’s hard for me to get into any meaningful programs. I’ve been trying for a while to learn a trade, like HVAC or electrical, that I can use once I’m home. Without any meaningful trade skills in my jacket, the parole board will be more inclined to deny me. They’ll look at me as someone coming out of prison after 30 years with no training, and who thus will most likely reoffend no matter what I do.
The Kafkaesque World of Prison ‘Rehabilitation’
I can’t get treated for PTSD, much less enroll in a class that will enrich my mind.
Antonio Barnett: I’ve been in almost 29 years, and I’ve been trying to get into a victim-impact class for the last five years. The institution I’m in now (FCI Butner Medium II, North Carolina) has a lottery system for deciding who gets to take classes. But since I’m a D.C. prisoner with life on the end, they won’t allow me to attend. Nevertheless, when I go before the parole board, they ask why I haven’t taken that program yet. They don’t want to hear why.
‘Don’t bother to apply’
Robert Barton: Being in for a D.C. code offense has stopped me from getting good jobs, like in commissary, health services, R&D (receiving and discharge) and psychology.
One such blatant example occurred when I applied for a vacant orderly job. After an initial interview, I was all but guaranteed the position. But when I met with the lead supervisor, he flat out told me I would not be hired. Since I met or exceeded the qualifications for the position and had not been in any trouble for years, I asked him why I wouldn’t be considered for the job. He blatantly told me that he hadn’t known I was from D.C. and he didn’t hire D.C. inmates for “these types of positions.”
Michael Boone: While working in the commissary in USP Canaan (Pennsylvania), I was asked by my boss where I was from because he had never seen an inmate with a 000 at the end of his number. I told him I was from D.C., and he said, “Had we known you were from D.C., you wouldn’t be working in here.” I asked why that was, and he stated, “None of you guys are worth anything. I’ve been hearing about you guys for years and all I heard are bad things. You kill people, you’re rapists, you rob people and start trouble. They shouldn’t have brought you guys into the federal system.” After that, our relationship turned progressively worse as he kept picking at me, trying to find a reason to fire me. Less than 90 days later, I lost my job. I was charged with possessing drugs on the job and sent to the SHU. But no drugs were found in my possession or in my cell. I was found guilty anyway and lost my visiting privileges for four years, telephone and email rights for two, and 1,000 days of good time.
Medical care at a cost
James Parker: D.C. contracts with the FBOP to house and care for us, but we have to pay a $2 co-pay for any sick call we make. That may not seem a lot, but it sure is when you have next to nothing. That’s why Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced her bill [in February] to prohibit the BOP from doing that.
And by the way, we can never get any medical help on a weekend, even if we’re in agony with a toothache. You’d have to be about to drop dead to get any help.
Us vs. them treatment
Calvin Sumler: Those of us from Washington, D.C., are definitely treated differently throughout the BOP. It’s been this way at least since 1996, when I first entered the system. I believe it’s because there’s a stereotype about individuals from Washington. We speak our minds and tend to fight for our rights no matter what. And we’re stereotyped as being more violent. The BOP isn’t used to people standing up for themselves. Sure, there are others like us, but we’re more collectively that way.
So, there’s an us-against-the system feeling. They purposely target us and try to make us an example by treating us worse than everyone else. If you’re from D.C, it feels like we have a target on our backs. It really adds to the stress of being incarcerated. I’ve even been outright told by officers that they can’t stand incarcerated individuals from the District of Columbia. It’s almost a personal hatred.
When I was at USP Leavenworth [Kansas], whenever someone from D.C. got into a fight with another incarcerated person, the other guy was sent to the hole (special housing unit, or SHU). But the D.C. guy went to the doghouse. That was a unit where all the Cubans who entered the country illegally were confined, and it was bad. There were rats and birds and a huge population of spiders.
Robert Barton: Staff always tell us that we’re the worst of the worst and they don’t like to deal with us. They encourage other inmates to be hostile to us, by putting in their heads that we’re aggressive and will try to take advantage of them. This hurts us in several ways: We not only have to be on guard against the COs, but with people from other places as well.
Michael Boone: Once, I was locked down while in the visiting hall. One of the COs charged me with jacking off (masturbating) around a staff member, just because I had a hole in my pocket. Later, I got the shot dropped down to destruction of property, because another staff member who worked in my unit every day knew I didn’t do things of that nature. He came to my hearing and told the DHO (disciplinary hearing officer) that it was not my character. The guy who charged me said he did it because he knew I was from D.C. and we had a reputation for doing that. But it’s rare for one officer to contradict another one.
Dominique Outlaw: When D.C. people go to orientation [at a new prison], we’re told that if you’re not in a gang or a “car,” then you’d better get a knife. But when you arm yourself and get caught with a weapon, you’re charged and get extra time. And it’s mostly D.C. inmates who get charged.
I believe the main reason we’re scored worse than federal prisoners is that we’re [here on] contract. It’s like they want to set the “tone” for us, especially the inmates who came from Lorton. Lorton had a stigma, and the people who came from there acquired a reputation of being among the worst. Plus, [D.C. people] refuse to play the game. We don’t have a “shot caller” [official leader] and we don’t deal with the police [prison administration]. So, there’s no easy line of communication between them and us. That’s why a lot of coalitions were formed when D.C. inmates first came into the federal system [after Lorton was closed].
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The COs and [prison] administrations create hostile situations by going to one group of inmates and telling them they heard that the D.C. inmates are planning to move on them, hoping that they’ll then do it to us. When we figure out what they’re doing, things smooth out. And that’s when the COs do a sweep. They shake you down and you get caught with weapons. All because their plan didn’t work.
Unable to move closer to home
Calvin Sumler: BOP policy says that if we’ve been in general population for 18 consecutive months without any disciplinary infractions, we’re eligible to transfer closer to home, if there is bed space. Well, I’ve been in general population at other prisons with no infractions since 2016. But the unit team where I’m at now [at FCI Hazelton, West Virginia] tells me I have to start all over again before they’ll put me in for a transfer. I showed them the policy and they refused to look at it!
I hope the class-action lawsuit succeeds. But the problem is greater than discrimination against those incarcerated for D.C. code offenses. The even greater evil is the abusive, punitive, destructive culture throughout the federal BOP. When D.C. finally rebuilds its aging jail, it also must expand it to include a local correctional facility to which District residents can return, instead of being lost and invisible in an unaccountable modern gulag.