City Desk

Visitation Slights: How Two Policies Stack the Deck Against D.C. Inmates

Visiting D.C. inmates became harder after the closing of the Lorton Correctional Complex.

Early in the morning on Dec. 4, 2012, Andre used a long-nosed revolver to rob a classmate with whom he’d had a long-standing beef. After holding up the victim on 5th Street NW, a few blocks away from Dunbar High School, Andre biked away with a SmarTrip card and a pair of pink Nike Foamposites valued at more than $300.

Once surveillance video led police to his mother’s house near North Capitol Street, Andre answered the door and allowed officers to enter the home. They recovered the revolver and the sneakers, and Andre was arrested for armed robbery. He landed in the D.C. jail that same day.

Five months earlier, Andre’s future had looked decidedly brighter. On a late July weekend, Andre and his family dined at Phillip’s Seafood & Restaurant on the Southwest waterfront to mark two milestones: Andre’s 18th birthday and the impending start of his freshman year at Virginia Union University in Richmond.

Like many young criminal offenders in D.C., Andre’s life could take several paths. The one his mother, Denise, has prayed for leads to rehabilitation, perhaps back to college, and eventually toward a career. Or Andre could become a recidivist, like the nearly half of criminals who return to D.C. and end up back behind bars within three years, according to the Council for Court Excellence. In part, research shows, that future will depend on access to family.

But for Andre and others, two criminal-justice policies in D.C. make the first path more remote, straining the ties between inmates and family members and increasing the chances they will return to lives of crime.

The same month that Andre turned 18, the D.C. jail replaced face-to-face meetings between inmates and visitors with video conferences. While Andre would spend nearly four months in D.C. jail before his April sentencing—he pleaded guilty in January—it may be much longer before he is able to see his mother face to face outside a courtroom. Partly because of the 2001 closure of the nearby prison in Lorton, Va., which used to house D.C. inmates, prisoners are now routinely held in federal facilities hundreds of miles away from home, sometimes as far away as Florida, Texas, or California. According to the Urban Institute, one in five D.C. felons is imprisoned more than 500 miles from the District.

Social science research has demonstrated that family visitation correlates strongly with reduced recidivism. But the District retains no control or influence over the facilities that house D.C. felons, what programs will be available to them, or how far away from the District they will be incarcerated.

In other words, D.C.’s restrictive jail policy and its subordination to the federal prison system make its returning criminals that much less likely to seek a new line of work.

* * *

Two months after Andre’s arrest, his mother appeared on the WRC-TV news, describing how the D.C. jail’s video policy creates distance between family members and inmates. When Denise agreed to appear on the Feb. 6 segment, she spoke on the condition that she not be shown on air. (She also asked that her and her son’s names be changed for this article, fearing neighborhood reprisals.) If they had shown her face, what the audience would have seen is a black woman in her late 40s. She has short-cropped hair. She has bags under her eyes that she attributes to the stress of her son’s incarceration. “Being in the same room,” Denise told News 4’s Tom Sherwood in a distinctive, mellifluous rasp, “is something you can’t replace.”

Denise’s voice adds a personal tenor to the chorus of criticism—from the District of Columbia Bar Association, from families of inmates, from the Washington Post editorial board, and from members of the D.C. Council—pushing for the restoration of in-person visits on the grounds that video conferences undermine rehabilitation. Critics say the current policy is inhumane and strains the family relationships that have been shown to promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism. Since many of the male inmates at D.C. Jail will eventually be convicted and serve out their sentences in faraway prisons, their time there may offer the only practical in person visit with family, argue lawyers with the D.C. Bar.

Half of the male prisoners in the D.C. jail are pretrial detainees charged with felonies who will spend an average of 205 days detained while awaiting sentencing, according to the D.C. Department of Corrections. Because of the video visitation policy, family or friends who want to visit an inmate must go to the former D.C. General Hospital in Hill East, which is next to the jail.
There, in the Video Visitation Center, they converse using a Skype-like system that family members have complained is highly impersonal. Visitors sit in rows of cubicles featuring screens and phone handsets. The inmate sits before a screen, and other prisoners are often visible in the background.

The D.C. Department of Corrections argues that the system expands access to inmates, reduces contraband smuggled into jail, and saves the District $420,000 a year. Opponents say the benefits are outweighed by the social costs.

The visitation policy has caught the attention of several D.C. councilmembers. Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser, Ward 2’s Jack Evans, Ward 1’s Jim Graham, and Ward 8’s Marion Barry introduced legislation in February that would restore in-person visits.

The bill “is a great step forward in ensuring detainees at the D.C. jail have appropriate access to humanitarian visitation options,” says Philip Fornaci, the former Project Director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “Seeing one’s parents, children, spouses, or other loved ones on a computer monitor is not the same as seeing them face to face.”

* * *

After Andre pleaded guilty to armed robbery, which carries a minimum mandatory five-year sentence, his sentencing date was set for early April. Denise says she immediately began to worry about where her son would be jailed.

Were Andre convicted of a state felony anywhere else in the country, he would be sent to a prison in the state in which he was convicted. But since D.C. has no state prison, those convicted of D.C. felonies are treated like federal prisoners.

The current system was set in motion when Congress passed the Revitalization Act of 1997. Under this law, those convicted of felonies under the D.C. Code are transferred to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton explained in a House subcommittee hearing in 2010, “The District of Columbia said, ‘Take this package off of us. We can’t pay for it.’ The District had good reason to do that. It was carrying a state function that no city in the United States carries: State prisons.” As a result, Congress placed a state prison system within the federal prison system for the first time in U.S. history.

The law also led to the closure of the Lorton Correctional Complex in 2001, leaving D.C. inmates without a nearby prison that family members could easily access. As a result, the Bureau of Prisons now houses many D.C. felons hundreds of miles away.

Speaking at the 2010 hearing, Harley Lappin, the former director of the Bureau of Prisons, acknowledged the current system is failing to accommodate the kind of visits that could be crucial to rehabilitating D.C. inmates. “It is unfortunate that a long, long time ago we didn’t see the value of inmates being closer to home and before we built prisons, we built them in locations that were closer to where the inmates were coming from,” Lappin said before the House Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia. “Unfortunately, that did not happen.” At the time of that hearing, nearly 5,700 D.C. prisoners were housed in 33 states in facilities owned or leased by the federal government, often hundreds of miles away.

A recent Minnesota Department of Corrections study that used a regression analysis of 16,420 offenders released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2007, showed that in-person visits reduced recidivism by strengthening family ties and facilitating post-release reintegration. The findings suggest that “revising prison visitation policies to make them more ‘visitor friendly’ could yield public safety benefits by helping offenders establish a continuum of social support from prison to the community.” The Minnesota Department of Corrections report follows previous studies conducted in Florida and Canada that similarly found prison visits had reduced recidivism.

When coupled with housing inmates far from home, the video visitation policy may deprive District felons of seeing loved ones for decades or perhaps the rest of their lives. Recent Urban Institute surveys of family members found long-distance incarcerations to be the single greatest barrier to staying in touch with relatives.

“I would do anything for my children,” Denise tells me. “But if Andre was sent far from home, it would put too much of a hurt on my checkbook to go visit.”
Despite Denise’s prayers, the D.C. Superior Court judge handed Andre a four-year sentence that, under D.C.’s Youth Act, will allow him a clean record upon release. At his sentencing, Denise raised her hand when the judge asked if anybody had anything further to say, but the judge didn’t appear to see her.
“I wanted to ask him to drop the sentence,” Denise says later.

Denise shares that sense of powerlessness with the District: While D.C. lacks statehood, some state constitutions grant citizens a right to rehabilitation. Take Alaska: In the 1997 case Brandon v. State Department of Corrections, the Supreme Court of Alaska ruled that since a prisoner’s transfer to Arizona effectively prevents visitation, a key element of rehabilitation, such out-of-state incarceration would jeopardize his right to rehabilitation. In this case, Alaska’s highest court blocked the prisoner from being housed thousands of miles away from home.

But D.C. prisoners don’t have state constitutional rights. District residents enjoy only the rights bestowed by the U.S. Constitution. And unlike in some other countries, the Constitution doesn’t include a right to rehabilitation.

For now, Denise has received a measure of relief. In May, Andre learned he’s one of the relatively lucky ones: He would be jailed in an East Coast federal facility that is less than 200 miles away. Denise may be able to see her son in person when he celebrates his 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd birthdays.

In the meantime, D.C. families like hers will continue to meet with loved ones via video, and pray they’re not sent far away.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • DCNative

    Perhaps if these loved ones cared...or werent dysfunctional themselves...these folk wouldn't be there in the first place? But now they complain about strained bonds? Yet another reason Muriel Bowser does not need to be mayor.

  • Ward-8

    Waaa, Waaaa, I go around robbing people and know Society want let me see or touch my Moma and will send me to a far away place, as a result of the lack of family bonding, I may do the same thing again.Give me a break, Stupidity have consequences, I have zero sympathy for these knuckle heads or family members who are more concern and want pity when their child is locked up than correcting, directing and supervising their children when they were running around in the streets.

  • Judith Claire

    If our tax dollars were well spent,we would turn our jails into vocational schools...instead, we waste the lives of our young people and we waste our tax dollars.

  • Typical DC BS

    Tattoo "THIEF" on his forehead and let him loose.

  • name

    I feel for his momma, but being exceptionally soft on crime is as "DC" as a trip to the Washington Monument or hating cops. The fact that this guy got jail time tells you this was definitely not his first time to the rodeo. In DC, we bend over backwards and thumb f- ourselves to avoid publishing any youth arrest information, so there's no way to tell how many people this kid held up <18. I'm pretty sure he didn't wake up one day at 18 and decide to become a criminal.

    Maybe just maybe, if DC was TOUGHER on first time and petty crime, then we wouldn't have MD and VA criminals driving into DC SPECIFICALLY TO COMMIT CRIMES. Maybe our children would grow up not being victimized and then turn into perpetrators. Maybe if the other kid had been arrested early on for his indiscretions, our friend here wouldn't have been victimized. Either way, he still made a choice he knew was wrong, because he thought he'd get away with it.

    See that's the thing, having more criminals on the streets breeds more criminals. It becomes a way of life and the only progressive thing is to protect kids from this type of monster.

    Also, praying isn't going to help your kid. Moving somewhere else or finding a father figure or a role model might.

  • Dick Wezawick

    His mother sounds soooo stupid!!!

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  • Art

    So, the kid who got robbed at gun point got one mention in in one sentence. The kid who committed the robbery and his mom get an entire article. Sounds about right.

  • anons

    I tried reading the entire article but I got about halfway down and I realized "Who the eff cares"?

    Your precious boy (lets get real, he is an 18 year old man) committed armed robbery. Full Stop.

    I find it really hard to care how "difficult" it is for an inmate like him to see his mother. If he was so attached to her and needed her around daily, I would suggest not committing armed robbery.

    Andre didn't just "become" a thug who robs people with guns one day. His entire life prepared him for it and his chance of doing it or something similar again near certain, and nothing his mother does now (should h ave been done years ago) is going to change that.

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  • drew

    Maybe you don't have sympathy for criminals, and it can feel good to be "hard on crime." What most people don't take the time to recognize is that it's actually to our benefit to help these people. It is expensive to have them locked up, and rehabilitation and reentry programs keep our streets safer when they're released.

    Visitation is a major part of whether or not someone will reoffend. It helps keep them connected to the outside physically and psychologically, and gives them a support network to lean on when they get out and need food, shelter, and a source of income.

    That being said, this article has flawed logic in that there is an incorrect leap from fact to assumption. Studies show that visitation reduces recidivism, but there have not been any studies on how video visitation compares in that aspect. The article assumes that video visitation has a negative affect on recidivism, when in truth, it may be more helpful than most realize. Video visitation is safer, and less costly, which can allow jails to increase quotas. It also includes a scheduling system that makes the whole process easier for visitors and the jail.