For the past four years Mary Clark has made weekly treks to the D.C. jail, where she works with handicapped inmates and prisoners in the infirmary.
Clark knows that the jail’s prisoners have needs the city can’t meet, so she tries to plug the gaps. “I talk if somebody wants to talk, I do counseling, I pray if somebody wants to pray,” she says. In addition, she regularly brings in stationery, envelopes, and pens, which the prison doesn’t provide to inmates. “I provide the writing instruments so that people can keep in touch with their families,” says Clark.
Unlike many prison volunteers, Clark, a devout Christian, works on her own and doesn’t coordinate her support activities with any charity or religious group. “I have met an awful lot of good people, an awful lot of people who have a very strong prayer life, a lot of people who are very close to God inside the institution,” Clark says.
But Clark’s spiritual kinship with the inmates has been interrupted by more earthly matters. Last September, D.C. corrections officials introduced a broad array of new security measures after the prison complex in Lorton, Va., was stung by an embarrassing prison-access scandal. An FBI probe revealed that groups of “volunteers” posing as followers of the Moorish Science religion had entered the prison and instead of ministering to spiritually deprived inmates had busied themselves making porn videos and selling drugs to inmates.
Clark was out of town when the scandal broke, but she got a firsthand view of the fallout when she returned to Lorton. “When I called I was referred to a lieutenant,” says Clark. “And the lieutenant said that I would have to be totally accompanied at all times, in all my encounters with the residents, and that every resident I spoke with would have to be strip-searched.”
Horrified, Clark refused to go into the prison under those circumstances, calling the strip search “a violation of dignity.” But at least Clark had the opportunity to say no. Other Lorton volunteers have been shut out of the complex more securely than inmates are locked in. The situation is unlikely to change, at least until the corrections department finishes revamping its security procedures.
Kenneth Carroll, Washington area coordinator for WritersCorps, has borne the full brunt of Lorton’s frantic reaction to the security breach. An offshoot of President Clinton’s AmeriCorps, WritersCorps places writers in “underserved areas,” such as homeless shelters, schools, and prisons. For the past year WritersCorps volunteers have conducted creative-writing workshops in Lorton’s medium-security facility. (Full disclosure: I am a WritersCorps volunteer.)
But after the porno-drug debacle, security officers have shut WritersCorps volunteers out of the medium-security facility. Lorton officials told Carroll that WritersCorps volunteers were supposed to have picture-ID badges when working in the prisons. This was news to Carroll and apparently to the entire staff at medium facility, since WritersCorps volunteers had been working for the past year without picture badges. “The problem is, not only were we just finding out, but apparently the staff at medium facility was just finding out. We definitely wanted to do…whatever the procedures required in order to get in. But we didn’t know about the procedures, and no one informed us of the procedures until we were being denied access,” says Carroll.
Despite the mix-up, Carroll thought the solution was simple enough—just process the ID badges for WritersCorps volunteers. But Carroll had not considered that Lorton is an organ of the District government, where simple solutions get twisted by the needs of the bureaucratic machine. “What they were saying was that because they were re-evaluating their security procedures,” says Carroll, “no organizations who did not already have the photo IDs would be allowed to get photo IDs.”
A corrections department source says groups like WritersCorps won’t get their IDs until the department completes the re-evaluation and a full overhaul of the prison’s security system. The few volunteers who hold expired IDs face the same wait, says the source.
While Lorton’s security craze leaves volunteers chafing to get inside the razor wire, it really screws the prisoners—activities with volunteers are one of the few distractions from the grind of cellblock life. Jonathan Smith, executive director of D.C. Prisoners Legal Services, argues that Lorton security’s ban on volunteer visits will backfire if it goes on too long. “You’ve got a bunch of people sitting around in terribly overcrowded dormitories, with nothing to do, being treated like dirt…and what are they going to do? They’re going to act out,” says Smith.
Smith says the corrections department is responding to “the political fallout from the arrest” and is going out of its way just to look tough. And he’s convinced the department is likely to face a lawsuit challenging its new strip-search policy, which he calls discriminatory. For example, prisoners who attend religious services with chaplains aren’t being strip-searched, but the only chaplains working at Lorton are Christians. Conversely, the prison’s many Muslim inmates, who have no prison chaplain, get a serious frisking before each service.
Religious discrimination? “I don’t believe so….At this point we do not feel we’re discriminating,” says John Thomas, executive deputy director of the corrections department. “If a representative of the Muslim community has been coming in for a length of time, that is the kind of program we would look at [for] minimizing the security practice,” he says.
Thomas expects bona fide volunteers to be allowed to re-enter the facility in about three or four months. He says that the department is now beefing up security and will even install cameras to snap photos of volunteers.
Thomas says the chance that the cutoff in volunteer visits will prompt violence inside prison walls is “remote.” “What this department needs is appropriate funding to put in appropriate programs that will provide marketable skills when inmates are released,” he says.
While Thomas says that the corrections department benefits from volunteer activities, he insists they “are not the end-all and the be-all.”
In a correctional system chronically emasculated by budget cuts, volunteers are playing an ever-expanding role in prisoner rehabilitation, and their absence will be felt one way or another. “It’s the inmates who are gonna be hurt, but ultimately it’s the community that’s gonna be hurt, ’cause you know these guys are coming out.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates