The Case for a D.C. Prison

While Washington D.C. does have a local jail system – the Central Detention Facility and the Correctional Treatment facility – our nation’s capital does not have its own prison in which defendants from D.C. can be housed. Instead, the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997 determined that individuals sentenced from Washington D.C. are transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Individuals awaiting adjudication of cases or those who are sentenced for misdemeanor offenses are held at the D.C. Jail, while D.C. natives convicted of felonies and sentenced to longer terms can be sent through the federal system, and thus, essentially anywhere in the United States to one of the BOP’s 122 institutions, regardless of the distance from their home, family and loved ones. While it was initially promised that DC defendants would be sent to federal prisons no more than 500 miles away from their home in the District, this has not held true.

Robert Barton, the co-founder of More Than Our Crimes, feels passionately about the need for a prison within Washington D.C. because of the rehabilitative benefits for DC defendants. He feels that being so removed from home “severs ties with your whole community” as visitation is nearly impossible, and people incarcerated in the BOP are only allotted 300 minutes a month to call their loved ones. Even worse, he says that the BOP is for “warehousing.” There is no time for me to do any type of programming. And when there are full lock-downs every two weeks, we can’t finish any sort of class that maybe we would have started.” Rob also comments that the culture of federal prisons is different than in the DC Jail: “we’re treated as a criminal and an inmate all the time, which doesn’t happen at the DC Jail. There, the warden would hug you, they allow for programming like the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program or the Young Men Emerging Unit. They supply us with real resources.”

While Washington D.C. is committed to providing programming and resources for the people housed in the D.C. Jail, people are held there for such short periods of time – on average, five months – which prevents them from reaping the true benefits of the offerings. “If we could have programs like that for our whole incarceration, we’d reenter society so much better,” Rob notes.  The exemplary programming that is offered in the D.C. Jail is part of what makes a prison in D.C. feel so necessary – DC residents would be able to access education, job readiness trainings, and other sessions to facilitate genuine rehabilitation; all of which they are cut off from while being sent to the Bureau of Prisons.

In Rob’s blog post on the topic, he writes: As much as I believe in de-carceration, 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?

For further reading, check out Rob’s Op-Ed in the DC Line about the argument for a local prison. You can also read about the impacts of being moved throughout the BOP in a blog post published by Pam