Is It Time To Bring Them Back?

Nokomis Hunter, now 27, spent a decade in federal prisons for an armed carjacking. He served time in Montana, Washington state, Oklahoma, Missouri, and New Jersey.
When Nokomis Hunter was convicted of armed robbery and carjacking in 2007, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. The first part of that sentence was served in a facility that could not have been any more different than the D.C. neighborhood where he grew up.
“I was sent to Montana,” says Hunter, who was 17 when he arrived in Big Sky Country.Specifically, he was sent to the Galen Juvenile Corrections Facility in Deer Lodge, Montana, a town of 3,000 people some 2,200 miles from 21st Street and Maryland Avenue NE — known as “21st and Vietnam” due to pervasive crime and violence — where Hunter first started committing crimes.The stint in Montana was only the start of Hunter’s decade-long journey through federal penitentiaries operated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons across the country.“From Montana, I flew on the plane to Seattle, Washington. From Seattle, Washington, they sent me to Oklahoma City, and from Oklahoma City I went to Springfield, Missouri. From Missouri to New Jersey. I finished my sentence in New Jersey,” Hunter says.Hunter’s experience is one shared by almost 4,500 D.C. residents currently held in federal prisons. The 50 states run their own prison systems for people convicted of felonies, but for the last two decades D.C.’s felons have been turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons upon being sentenced, which then holds them at any of 122 institutions it operates.The prisoners can be housed as close to the city as as Cumberland, Maryland (136 miles from D.C.), as far as Victorville, California (2,586 miles), or anywhere in between.Advocacy groups, former prisoners and some families say that arrangement, born of financial necessity and political compromise two decades ago during D.C.’s fiscal crisis, needs to be revisited. When D.C. prisoners are held in facilities hundreds of miles from home, they say, rehabilitation and re-entry become more challenging, only fueling the recidivism that ensures that many of those prisoners will simply end up back in federal custody.“We do not have any kind of direct control or input over our own fellow residents,” says Tara Libert, founder of the Free Minds Book Club, a group that works with D.C. residents in and out of prison. “And that, to me, is not democracy.”Hunter, who is now 27 and working as an aide to people with disabilities, puts it more more simply: “I don’t think anybody who is arrested should be sent 300 miles from home.”

Crisis, compromise and corrections

Until 2001, D.C. prisoners were held in the Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County.Forsaken Fotos / Flickr

Congress passed the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act in August 1997. The sweeping bill was aimed at addressing the financial crisis that plagued Washington at the time. One of the central solutions endorsed by President Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans was to relieve the city of a number of its costly functions.“One of them was incarceration of convicted felons,” says Alice Rivlin, who led the Control Board from 1998 to 2001. “Normally, that’s a state function. Cities run jails, but they’re not responsible for long-term incarceration of convicts.”Up until that point, D.C. felons served their time at the Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County, which by the 1990s was a violent and poorly managed facility. The Revitalization Act paved the way for Lorton’s closure by the end of 2001.“All of those prisoners were dispersed into the federal Bureau of Prisons. By being sent to the Bureau of Prisons, it meant that they were sent to virtually anywhere in the country,” says Phil Fornaci, director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.“It took a good load off of the D.C. budget,” says Rivlin. “It also had some downsides, because if you’re incarcerated in a federal prison, you might be in Idaho and your family can’t visit you and you lose your connection with your community. There’s a lot of downsides to not having prisoners close.”

Doing time at a distance

For Hunter, being sent to facilities clear across the country had that very impact. It was a jarring experience to leave the city he had grown up in; he literally wears his D.C. pride on his sleeve — a D.C. flag is tattooed on his inner bicep. After his incarceration began, he didn’t see his mother until he was transferred to a facility in New Jersey, more than halfway through his sentence.

Nokomis Hunter, born and raised in D.C. literally wears his local pride on his sleeve — a D.C. flag is tattooed on his inner bicep.WAMU/Tyrone Turner

“My mom wanted to come visit me, but then again, she couldn’t afford it, because that’s like a vacation. And her traveling across the country to come see me would end up costing her $1,500 or $2,000 or more, and just to see me for two or three hours,” he says. “Not being able to see your family in some years can make you forget about life. It can make you think your life is in prison, there’s no hope outside that wall.”The Bureau of Prisons, which did not respond to questions from WAMU in time for this story, has said previously that it keeps roughly 75 percent of the D.C. prisoners in its custody within 500 miles of the city. (D.C. residents make up 5 percent of all Bureau of Prisons inmates.) After the 1997 law passed, the Bureau built a new prison — the Rivers Correctional Institution, which is now privately operated — almost exclusively for D.C. prisoners in Winton, North Carolina, just over 210 miles from D.C.Even though that facility is relatively close, advocates say getting there can still be hard.“What we hear is that these prisons are not located in urban centers where there is access to public transportation or airports so you can easily go in and out to see folks,” says Michelle Bonner, the executive director of the Corrections Information Council (CIC), an independent D.C. agency created by the 1997 law to advocate for D.C. prisoners in federal custody. “We just went to a prison in Pennsylvania that was five-and-a-half hours away by car. If you do the Google maps and ask for any time of train or bus or airline route, it says, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’ So you just have to drive there in order to get there.”Since it negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Bureau of Prisons in 2013, CIC staff have regularly visited federal prisons where D.C. residents are held. (In the years before that, CIC had no paid staff and a volunteer board, limiting its ability to do its work.) Bonner says the furthest she’s had to go is Victorville, California — a 38-hour trip by car, were someone not able to afford a plane ticket.“You have people who have not seen their loved ones in years, and for some, decades. And for some, people have passed on and they will never see their loved ones again. That’s incredibly hard. As we know from studies and from the U.S. House of Representatives Colson Task Force Report, family engagement is certainly a huge positive in terms of positive reentry and reduction of recidivism,” she says.

Other concerns

Many prisoner advocates concede that despite distance, some D.C. prisoners are well-served in federal prisons, which are generally cleaner, safer and better run than many state prison systems. Additionally, in some cases D.C. inmates are likely receiving services and opportunities that would not have been made available to them had they stayed in a prison like Lorton when D.C. was responsible for running it. And not all D.C. prisoners want to be close to home; some say distance makes it easier to avoid falling back into old ways.But despite those possible advantages, advocates point out that overall, D.C. prisoners face an uphill climb when taken into federal custody, in large part because of who they are and where they come from.“The Bureau of Prisons is a very rough place. D.C. prisoners, because of the nature of their offenses [robberies, street crimes, violent crimes] they’re sent to the high-security prisons. High-security prisons within the Bureau of Prisons are, without exaggeration, hellish. They’re extremely violent, they’re extremely difficult, services are really limited. The violence that they endure, the abuse that they endure from BOP staff, they feel that they are being abused. And most prominently, the failure to provide any decent mental health services for people with serious mental illness,” says Fornaci.Bonner says D.C. inmates are usually easy to spot in federal prisons: Their prisoner ID numbers include either 007, 000 or 016, which indicate they were convicted and sentenced in D.C. Superior Court. And their race makes them targets of discrimination, she says.“About 97 percent of all D.C. inmates are black, African American. And they’re going to facilities where staff are just the opposite, in terms of racial composition. There’s the racial tension there,” she says.Many of these issues were evident at the Federal Correctional Institution at Hazleton, a medium-security prison located 194 miles from D.C. — one of the closer facilities to the city. Bonner and the CIC visited in April 2016, and the report on the visit identified a number of problems D.C. inmates said they faced:
The majority of D.C. residents reported that staff treats them worse than other inmates and that other inmates treat D.C. residents the same. D.C. residents reported staff harassment due to their D.C. residency status and that they are more likely to have their visitors turned away. The CIC also received reports that D.C. residents are discriminated against with regards to employment and recreation. Incarcerated D.C. residents were nearly unanimous in expressing their desire to move closer to home.
That desire to maintain a connection to home is expressed even in small ways: In one Arizona prison, D.C. inmates told Bonner that copies of The Washington Post were not available in the prison library, making it harder for them to stay abreast of what was happening at home.

Nokomis Hunter now works as an aide to people with disabilities, but dreams of one day starting a catering business or a non-profit organization to help kids in the foster care system.WAMU/Tyrone Turner

Starting a conversation about change

Advocates like Bonner say that while they have won incremental gains for D.C. inmates by working with the Bureau of Prisons, the time is ripe for a broader conversation about what works and what doesn’t when D.C. residents convicted of felonies are sent to federal prisons across the country —especially now that the financial crisis that prompted 1997’s Revitalization Act has long since ended.“I think 20 years is a very good marker. I think that for any system, there should be an evaluation of what works and what doesn’t and if there can be improvements in any way,” she says.The advocates all agree that the Bureau of Prisons should have a single point person responsible for D.C. inmates, that parole decisions should be transferred from the U.S. Parole Commission to a local body, that D.C. inmates should be moved closer to home, and that the federal agency should work more closely with D.C. as an inmate’s sentence winds down to ensure that their return to the city isn’t limited to a bus ticket from the prison home.“I believe they need to at least be home six months, ideally a year, to begin more intensively the reentry process. And that would be in our own facility,” says Libert.That facility would be a D.C. correctional complex. While the D.C. Department of Corrections currently operates the D.C. Jail complex, which is used to hold people pending trial and for short sentences, Libert says any plans for a new jail should be expanded to at least include space for inmates transitioning out of the federal system. D.C. took a step in that direction this year when it ended a 20-year contract with the private Corrections Corporation of America to run the Correctional Treatment Facility, one part of the D.C. Jail. City officials say they took the step to ensure there’s more space for returning citizens to transition from federal prisons to freedom.All these changes, say the advocates, would help slow what they say is a revolving door in which returning citizens come back to a city unprepared for life beyond bars, only to fall back into a life of crime — and back in federal prison.“When you alienate people, you ostracize them, you marginalize them, you don’t have a connection with their family and communities, and we expect them to come back home,” says Libert. “It’s only a recipe to go back into the system. So we all need to be invested in changing this system and to have our own say.”Bonner agrees: “This is a public safety issue. If people are coming home, do we want people to come home far more broken than when they left? Because that does not help them, and that does not help us a community,” she says.Making those changes will be a challenge, says Bonner. It would take Congress to repeal or amend the 1997 law that federalized D.C.’s prisoners, and for D.C. officials to agree to spend what could be hundreds of millions of dollars a year to operate a prison complex somewhere in or around the city. None of those things are easy lifts, concede advocates, when it comes to prisoners.“The people I’ve served in my adult life have not been the most sympathetic group,” says Bonner.But Libert and others still think big, and look to a day when D.C.’s prisoners — like Hunter was — are not held in federal prisons hundreds of miles away from the city.“The ultimate goal is to bring them back,” she says. “We need our own prison system, like every other state has.”