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After three years, a citizens’ committee for D.C. prisoners still needs one thing: members.
Last fall, Kevin Smith thought he was getting new underwear. Smith, a District resident who has been incarcerated since 1993 on a manslaughter conviction, had been an inmate at the Northeast Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio, for nearly a year. And he thought that it was high time to trade in his well-worn set of drawers for some new ones.
But when Smith received his replacements, he saw that they had been used—and not by him. When he refused to take them, the officer doling them out explained that reissuing used undergarments was prison policy. “Underwear and tee-shirts are personal and for this facility to be recycling these items back through the inmate population is unreasonable,” Smith pleaded in a letter to Alice Lovell, a compliance monitor for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private-prison company that runs Youngstown.
Recycling used underwear is a minor concern—especially compared with the 1998 deaths of two D.C. inmates in Youngstown or the conditions that led to a 1997 class-action lawsuit against CCA. Nonetheless, Smith filed grievances and wrote everyone from the warden to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno arguing that the underwear policy creates an unsanitary environment. Last spring, Smith filed a lawsuit against CCA. It’s pending in U.S. District Court in Ohio.
Prisoners like Smith, housed far from home in private or federal prisons, have few effective options besides lawsuits when it comes to improving their conditions. And next year, relatives and neighbors back in D.C. will have less say in how folks like Smith are treated: As part of 1997 legislation restructuring city government—better known as the Revitalization Act—the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is expected to take over the D.C. Department of Corrections’ contract with CCA. Currently, the city keeps some prisoners in its own penitentiary at Lorton and administers the contracts to incarcerate others in private facilities.
But as of December 2001, Lorton will close, and all District felons will become part of the U.S. prison system—either in federal penitentiaries or in private prisons administered by contract with the feds.
When the 1997 legislation was proposed, prisoner advocates worried that D.C. inmates might have few people advocating for them in the new system. Currently, after all, the city itself—whose officials ultimately answer to District voters—oversees the contracts that house D.C. inmates in private facilities. To allay fears that locals won’t get a voice once the feds take over, the bill created a new body that would be in a unique position to goad both the BOP and its contractors to do better: the District of Columbia Corrections Information Council (DCCIC), a D.C. citizen panel that would report directly to the BOP director.
In theory, DCCIC could be taking cases like Smith’s undies straight to the top.
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The only trouble is that the group doesn’t exist. After falling through the cracks for three years, it’s still on the drawing board, says D.C. Office of Boards and Commissions Director Ron King. Somehow, even though they managed to implement the rest of the Revitalization Act, former Mayor Marion S. Barry, current Mayor Anthony A. Williams, and the D.C. Council never bothered to set up the DCCIC.
“I wasn’t aware of [the DCCIC],” says Lucille Knowles, who was in charge of filling boards and commissions for Mayor Barry.
“I never heard of it. If I had, I’m sure I would have been able to fill it,” says Marie Drissel, who was in charge of appointments for Williams until earlier this year.
City officials have short memories, apparently. As recently as last year, Eric Lotke, executive director of the D.C. Prisoners Legal Services Project, lobbied officials in the mayor’s office about DCCIC appointments. He says that his inquiries met with little interest. Pauline Sullivan, co-director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, an organization that works with families of inmates, is not surprised. “It just goes to show you that D.C. inmates are out of sight, out of mind,” she says.
Ron King, who replaced Drissel as director of the Office of Boards and Commissions for the District, says that the council would only duplicate work being done by an interagency working group that is following the transfer of D.C. inmates to the federal system.
But supporters of setting up the DCCIC see the scope of the panel as encompassing oversight of inmate conditions as well. They also point out that provisions mandating local input—the kind of thing home-rule-supporting local pols are supposed to like—stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the Revitalization Act, which turned control over much of the District’s criminal justice system to the federal government. “Federal law took away our local control but gave us this one piece of oversight. We’d be foolish not to take advantage of it,” says Lotke.
Much like CCA’s underwear policy, the foot-dragging over the DCCIC ultimately may come down to money. “No one wanted to pay for it,” recalls a Justice Department official who has been closely involved with the implementation of the Revitalization Act.
The language setting up the council in the Revitalization Act is vague and doesn’t clearly lay out the council’s authority or a source of funding. Fleshing out the council’s authority may even require a technical amendment to the act, notes Lotke. “If now we say there is a commission, then it has to have the power to visit facilities, to examine documents. It needs a budget—not a big budget, but big enough to buy some plane tickets,” Lotke says.
There is no time limit on setting up the DCCIC. But King says that the mayor has no plans to do so. And the mayor’s support of the status quo is a relief to BOP officials who don’t believe the council is necessary, according to BOP spokesperson Scott Wolfson.
Wolfson points out that the BOP already gets input from local officials about the state of District inmates in federal prisons. Privately run prisons such as those run by CCA usually employ their own monitors, as does the city of Youngstown. But attorneys who have represented inmates in lawsuits over prison conditions argue that a citizens’ commission from the prisoners’ hometown could only improve oversight.
“We support any re-connection between the out-of-town inmate population and their hometown community,” says Al Gerhardstein, a lawyer who—as part of the settlement of a 1997 class-action lawsuit—monitors conditions at the Youngstown prison.
If D.C.’s scandal-plagued corrections history has taught us anything, it’s that more oversight is always better. But for now, D.C. citizens—who, among other things, are footing the inmates’ bill—don’t have anyone assigned to look after their own inmates’ conditions. “It’s disconcerting that the mayor and the city council have not acted,” says Robert Wilkins of the Public Defender Service. “It is a shame that the voice that was created for D.C. inmates has been silent because of inaction.” CP