Sign up for our free newsletter
For detainees in D.C.’s halfway houses, there’s no free lunch. Actually, there’s no lunch at all.
Pernell Johnson may be one of the few people in history to miss prison food. When the 39-year-old moved into a District halfway house this summer, he found that everything else about his new digs was an improvement over his life at Lorton Prison. Yes, he had to share a non-air-conditioned room with two other guys stacked in bunk beds, but there was a fan, and one of his roommates had a TV.
“You could breathe in there,” Johnson says. And after 14 days, he would be allowed to move about the city for parts of the day in search of work.
What Johnson longed for from his days at Lorton were the lunches. And his nostalgia had little to do with the quality of cuisine slopped onto his tray at the prison in Virginia. Rather, it was what appeared on the luncheon menu at his new home: exactly nothing.
For at least five years, District contracts with halfway-house operators have included funding for only two meals a day. And, as if being left with no food and nowhere to get some for up to 12 hours a day wasn’t bad enough, halfway-house inmates from the District’s prison system face an added insult in their last months of detention: They get to watch as inmates released from the federal prison system into the very same facilities eat three meals a day, courtesy of Uncle Sam.
At Hope Village, the private halfway house where Johnson recently spent 67 days, security guards would stop any of the 188 D.C. inmates who tried to join their 83 federal cohorts in the kitchen at lunch time. “They’d say D.C. don’t have the money,” Johnson says.
Not only does Hope Village skip over D.C. clients at lunch, the house rules prevent them from getting food on their own. In the first two weeks of their stay, residents are not allowed past the sidewalk outside Hope Village’s six red-brick buildings on the 2900 block of Langston Place SE, in Garfield Heights. So even if inmates have the money to buy food during the stretch between breakfast, which ends at 7:30 a.m., and dinner, which starts at 5:30 p.m., they can’t leave to go get it. They also can’t order in, for security reasons.
And if friends and loved ones bring food on weekends, inmates aren’t allowed to keep it in their rooms for “sanitary reasons,” according to Hope Village Director Joseph Wilmer.
After 14 days, D.C. inmates can look for work—but they are still on their own for lunch. And once they get a job, they lose breakfast and dinner, too—even though they have to start handing 25 percent of their gross pay over to the District. Federal inmates also sacrifice a quarter of their earnings, but they get three meals in exchange for the tithe.
“It makes a lot of guys frustrated,” says Johnson, who’s been in a few halfway houses in his time. “I can’t say nothing bad about the security, about the people.” The only thing unjust about Hope Village was the meal policy, Johnson says: “I feel that wasn’t right.”
But Wilmer says Hope Village is only playing by the city’s rules: “The Department of Corrections requires that we give two meals, and we do.”
Among politicians and residents concerned about D.C. halfway houses, lunch is not a primary talking point. Starting in January, the Washington Post ran a series of sky-is-falling stories about the number of escapes from local halfway houses. The actual numbers turned out to be lower than those in the Post, because so-called “escapees” included people who were a few hours late for curfew—sometimes because they were detained in court. But officials have since confirmed that too many people walk away from halfway houses—sometimes because they are looking for food.
“The escape problem is in many ways a management problem,” says Eric Lotke, head of D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project. “Even small things like food can have big consequences.”
Federal and city officials have spent the last year studying proposals to reform halfway houses. In June, officials started providing bag lunches at Community Corrections Center No. 4—the only halfway house run by the District government. Corrections spokesperson Darryl Madden explains that policies at the District-run facility are easier to change than those at private halfway houses, which have to be negotiated through formal contracting procedures. Hope Village is in the preliminary stages of renegotiating its contract, and Madden says officials hope to increase meals to three a day. “But obviously, we have to consider all factors,” Madden says. “There is only so much money in the pot.”
Officials from the District’s other three halfway houses, which are under the same contractual obligations as Hope Village, say they spring for extra food for their inmates. The EFEC halfway house for men offers D.C. inmates a snack, while the city’s two facilities for women provide a full third meal. “That’s a strain that we want to take on,” says Loretta Thompson, who runs the women’s facilities. “The Department [of Corrections] has always been operating under limited resources. What they should do and what they have the ability to do aren’t always the same thing.”
Once upon a time, D.C. had the ability to do things differently. Even Hope Village used to provide residents with three meals years ago, but Wilmer says that was back when the contract allowed for three meals. In 1995, according to a Post account, Mayor Marion Barry cut the number of halfway-house meals from three to two during the District’s severe financial crisis. The budget-crisis-era contract still has D.C. paying Hope Village $42.58 per inmate per day for food, bed, and services.
Now that the city is relatively flush with cash, no one’s quite sure why the North Korean rations are still in place. John “Jay” Carver III, the federal trustee in charge of court services and offender supervision, spent the last year chairing a task force on halfway-house reform but claims he was unaware of the meal policy until a reporter told him about it last week.
“It’s important from an internal management perspective that individuals in the same facility are subject to the same rules,” Carver says. “People get cranky if they don’t have food.”
One major lesson Johnson says he learned in prison was how to be resourceful. “When you’re locked up, you learn to adapt,” he says, smiling pretty now that he’s a free man sitting on his stoop with his four small children hanging on to him.
Darrell, Johnson’s youngest child, was just a newborn when his dad turned a dirty urine sample in to his parole officer. Subsequently, Johnson spent a year in prison in Lorton and Youngstown, Ohio, before going to Hope Village. But during a previous stint at Hope Village in 1992, Johnson says, he got three meals a day and handed over just $10 a week. “I knew the deal, but I didn’t figure they were gonna take a meal away,” he says.
Out on the streets, Johnson is your friendly neighborhood dad in shorts and flip-flops. After he was released from the halfway house on Sept. 23, he relocated across the Anacostia River to his family’s apartment on 18th and D Streets Northeast, near RFK Stadium. Standing outside one evening last week, Johnson shouts to his neighbors and shares the details of his life without hesitation.
But when he’s incarcerated, Johnson keeps to himself. “I’m always a loner. I figure that’s the safest way to get out of a halfway house.” He spent those first two weeks at Hope Village in his room, watching TV, eating whatever he could scrape together.
Johnson sneaked rolls into his pocket at breakfast. He got money from his family and asked men with work privileges to pick something up for him when they went out. Sometimes the other guys would share extra food. “If you got something to spare, they’ll give it up,” he says. “But it’s mostly every man for himself.”
And when Johnson got a job glazing porcelain bathtubs in Upper Marlboro, he had to innovate for all three meals. “I shopped,” he says. Having grown up as one of 11 kids, Johnson knew how to make a little go a long, long way. A friend at Hope Village told him about the $3.15 breakfast—two eggs, three strips of bacon, home fries, and a soda—at the Korean joint at 14th and P Streets NW. For lunch and dinner, he’d catch the specials at McDonald’s and Burger King. And at Murry’s Steaks, he could score a 12-pack of soda for just $1.99.
All in all, it came out to about $3.50 a meal. “And that’s not counting my cigarettes,” Johnson says, in the interest of full disclosure.
But Johnson says it was infuriating to watch federal inmates get three free meals a day while paying the same amount as he was to the government. Scott Wolfson, spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Prisons, says the feds ensure inmates three meals a day because it helps smooth their transition back into the free world: “It’s consistent with the bureau’s mission to provide…a continuum of care and services.”
Johnson could have used the help. As it was, spending 10 bucks a day on food whittled away at his paycheck when he was already giving 25 percent to the D.C. treasurer and another chunk toward his child-support duties. “It puts you back in the same state that you were in when you first went in [to prison],” he says. “No money.” CP