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On July 8, the D.C. Council voted to overhaul operations at the chronically troubled D.C. Jailimposing a population cap on the crowded facility, reinstating weekend visits, and otherwise easing life for inmates. The measure, which still needs approval from the mayor and Congress, could also bring hope to someone else who’s been neglected: It might finally give Chester Hart a chance to do his job.
Hart, 44, is the lone member of the District’s Corrections Information Council (CIC), an unpaid citizen panel intended to monitor the treatment of D.C. inmates. The CIC traces its lineage back to 1997, whenas part of its overhaul of District financesCongress mandated that all D.C. felons would become a federal responsibility by the end of 2001. To ease concern among prisoners’ advocates about moving inmates to the federal prison system and to contracted facilities, a few lines in the law called for the creation of the CIC.
It took more than three years for D.C. to put that provision into effect. Not until June 2001, as the old prison at Lorton neared the final stages of closure and the last D.C. felons were transferred to federal custody, were the three members of the CIC sworn in. Then they were swiftly forgotten about.
Nearly another year went by before Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ office found the CIC a home: a cramped room requisitioned from the offices of the D.C. Department of Corrections, one of the agencies the CIC is supposed to monitor. The CIC hired a paid executive assistant, who waited about two months to receive a working computer.
“[T]he first year starting off, we didn’t get no help,” Hart says. “We was getting kicked around like an NFL football.”
Today, the CIC has yet to inspect any federal facilities. D.C. attorneys and the federal Bureau of Prisons still haven’t agreed to a set of rules that would govern such visits. The council’s only out-of-town trip so far has been a courtesy tour of the Petersburg Federal Correctional Institution in Virginia.
Stymied in its intended federal mission, the CIC this past November issued reports critical of conditions at the D.C. Jail, the privately run treatment facility adjoining it, and the Hope Village halfway houseall places where D.C. prisoners spend time on their way to and from the federal system. The three reports were based on visits lasting one to three days each.
Earlier this year, one of the CIC members moved his principal residence to Michigan and another, Ginny Spevak, resigned in frustration. “I had just had it, spending a year and a half of my time getting nothing done,” says Spevak.
“We were supposed to have the power to do something,” Spevak adds.
That left only Hart, associate director of the Anacostia Men’s Employment Network, an ex-offenders’ job-training program in Southeast.
Hart has a sizable budget$170,000but has trouble spending it. Even the purchase of a cell phone has become mired in red tape. “It’s frustrating when you put in 10 calls to one damn office and nobody’s calling you back,” he says. “Don’t nobody see this as a priority.” He blames the office of Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice.
“For a lot of reasons, the group has never gotten the legs that it should,” says Kellems. “I don’t actually think the issue of the office space or getting the computer they wanted when they wanted it is the issue”but the CIC’s relationship with the federal Bureau of Prisons, she says, probably is. “At some point, independent agencies have to be independent,” she adds.
Hart, who spent most of his adult life in prison, receives about 10 to 15 letters a month from D.C. inmates around the country seeking help with parole-board matters or in obtaining their records. His CIC duties have effectively been reduced to trying to make bureaucratic machinery move on their behalf.
Three months ago, the council asked Hart if the CIC could expand its duties and be the jail’s new official monitor. Hart agreed. Contacted by the Washington City Paper a week before the bill’s passage, Hart had to be reminded of the promise.
Hart is planning for monthly inspections, but he either has to do the monitoring himselfwhich he says is too much for one personor contract it out to another organization. “I don’t have a clue,” he says of possible hires. “I have a few people I’ve been thinking of.” CP