Some 4,500 inmates from the nation’s capital are in federal prisons under a 20-year-old law. Advocates, families and ex-prisoners say this arrangement makes rehabilitation challenging and encourages recidivism.
The 50 states run their own prison systems for people convicted of felonies, but for the last two decades, Washington, D.C.’s felons have been turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which holds them at any of 122 institutions it operates, reports WAMU at American University in Washington. The 4,500 prisoners now affected can be housed as close to the city as as Cumberland, Md., (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 during a D.C. fiscal crisis, needs to be revisited.
When D.C. prisoners are held hundreds of miles from home, they say, rehabilitation and re-entry become more challenging, fueling the recidivism that ensures that many of those prisoners will 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 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.” The dispersal of local prisoners “took a good load off of the D.C. budget,” says Alice Rivlin, who headed a board that proposed the change. “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.” For D.C. to run its own prison again (local inmates formerly were held at the Lorton prison in nearby Virginia), Congress would have to amend the 1997 law that federalized D.C.’s prisoners and local officials would need to spend what could be hundreds of millions of dollars a year to operate a prison in or near the city.