Credit: Greg Houston

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Gregory Thomas is trying to warn a room full of convicts about the consequences of re-offending.

For one, the Lorton Correctional Complex is closed. Without the Fairfax facility—shuttered in 2001 because of rampant violence and corruption—prison-bound D.C. convicts now get shipped throughout the federal system. The largest number (about 1,000 out of about 6,000) end up at the Rivers Correctional Institution in North Carolina. But Thomas, leaning forward in his gray suit, throws out a few less appealing possibilities: Walla Walla, Wash. (“Oh, it’s no fun over there.”) and a prison in Missouri that’s 13 stories underground.

Worse, he says, prisons aren’t run by states any more but by private corporations. “The liberties and all the fun aren’t gonna be there like they were under the state system,” he says.

Actually, not all prisons have been swept under the wave of privatization. And federal prisons were never run by states. As of today, there is no underground prison in Missouri. Thomas, it turns out, heard about the nonexistent facility from his mother-in-law at a Thanksgiving two or three years ago.

No one rushes to correct Thomas’ mistakes. The men and women seated before him in the basement of the Covenant Baptist Church in Southwest have recently left prison, jail, or a courtroom with a conditional welcome home. One of their first requirements is to attend a mass orientation like this one run by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), D.C.’s federally funded parole and probation office.

On this Friday evening, the audience includes 19-year-old hoods in new jeans and bright graphic T’s, a young couple and their son, three mothers, two with infants, several older men in white shirts and khakis, one in gas-station coveralls, and a pudgy man in a powder-blue velour tracksuit. Some are here for selling drugs, hitting their girlfriends, driving drunk, robbing people on the street. Some are here because they did these things years ago and violated the conditions of their release.

Thomas’ speech does not captivate his listeners. But aside from a few nodding heads, they manage their boredom. Twenty minutes in, only the children act out. A little girl smashes invisible bugs on a table with her mother’s cell phone. A boy talks in his outside voice. The two infants cry.

CSOSA was created by Congress in 1997 to replace the local probation and parole agencies, widely considered monumental failures. The agency’s leaders have promised to reduce the number of criminals who get caught and then go back and do it again. Thomas, a retired D.C. police captain, has loftier, perhaps less realistic aims.

(Greg Houston)

“We are not trying to reduce the recidivism,” he says. “We are trying to eliminate the recidivism.”

Before the takeover, he says, there was a 76 percent recidivism rate among offenders under supervision. He says that rate has now dropped to 13 percent.

Thomas doesn’t have the numbers quite right. CSOSA’s spokesman, Leonard Sipes, says that despite “promising early reports,” the agency has yet to calculate recidivism rates for its client population.

But to his audience at Covenant, Thomas declares CSOSA a success. “Everything about the takeover was good,” he says. Caseloads have dropped from 100 to 50. The budget continues to grow, rising from $93 million in 2000 to $128 million in 2006. Restrictions on offenders have tightened as well.

Before the federal takeover, Thomas says, D.C. parole and probation officers were more touchy-feely. “We were known as a nicety agency and a social service agency,” he says. Not any more. CSOSA is law enforcement, and its main objective is public safety.

Suddenly silent, Thomas marches into the audience. A man in khakis has left his seat to whisper to his community supervision officer or CSO. Thomas orders him to sit back down.

The man rolls his eyes as he obeys. “I don’t see why I have to be here,” he yells. “I’ve never even been to jail.”

Indeed, not everyone who attends a mass orientation has spent time in jail or prison. Some go straight from arrest to court and leave with suspended sentences or just probation. When community leaders or ministers address orientations and begin with a hearty, “Welcome home!” it can be a little confusing.

A half-hour in, stragglers are still arriving. The crowd has doubled, at least.

A CSO named Crystal Johnson takes the stage and greets the ex-offenders with a loud “Hello!” Heads pop up. Turning to an indecipherably small PowerPoint projection, she runs through the rules of supervised release.

First: the things you must do—like checking in with your CSO, reporting for treatment. The things you can’t do: like moving without permission. And the places you can’t go: Felons are prohibited from living in public housing if they committed drug-related or violent crimes on public housing property or if they are sex offenders.

A young man calls out, “What about you ain’t got no where else to go?”

“You’ll have to ask your CSO,” Johnson says, repeating an answer heard several times this evening.

Johnson clicks open the slide on drug testing. “Everyone has to do it,” she says. In the beginning, it’s twice a week. Two months of clean results can step you down to once a week, then once a month. Even people with a year of drug-free urine are subjected to spot checks. The vast majority of the 15,000 D.C. residents on supervision at any one time pee in a cup at least once a month.

Tony Brown, a CSOSA drug screening manager, hurries to the front to explain the do’s and don’ts.

First, he implores, take off your sunglasses when you arrive. Hang your coat and bags on the rack. And if you’re wearing a long T-shirt, know that you’ll have to hold it up while you pee—the attendant has to see everything. Women, he says, must start and stop midstream “to pull a clean sample.” Everyone has to give at least 1 ounce.

Brown says he’s on to the cheaters. There’s been a rise in water-loading. If your sample comes back diluted, the result will come back positive.

A technician takes the temperature of each newly filled cup; room temperature equals little brother’s pee.

CSOSA reserves the most serious consequences for what Brown calls bogus samples. Some clients try to doctor their piss with bleach or ammonia. Some bring a fake penis. Any of that, he says, will result in a “serious incident report.”

From the back of the room a man calls out, “What’s a fake penis got to do with dirty urine?”

Brown looks up. “I’m just trying to lay it out so everyone knows,” he says, not getting that the man just doesn’t understand the concept.

An explanation comes from a young father up front who yells back without turning his head: “They got a fake penis in High Times, dog,” There are several murmurs of “Oh” and “Huh.” A few beats later he adds, “It ain’t no dildo.”

With the rules covered, Thomas takes the stage again and returns to the consequences. His man from the U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t show, so Thomas goes over the script himself. He explains the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor, and warns about the five years of added time for carrying a gun or ammunition while committing a crime in D.C. A sergeant from the D.C. police department reminds listeners he can and will find out about their conditions of release if they get arrested but adds: “We’re not here to threaten anybody or say anything like that.”

Officer Walter Tweedy of the D.C. Housing Authority Police Department ambles up next. He got the call to fill in for his boss just this afternoon. His specialized force is often the subject of derision, even though housing cops wield the power to bar rule-breakers from their properties. At a previous mass orientation, a gawky, unsure housing sergeant delivered his speech through a constant chorus of catcalls and laughter.

Tweedy doesn’t have a speech. He explains how you can end up getting barred, then ruminates about the tinderbox of inner-city life.

“A lot of people have different personalities,” he says. Things escalate, “people selling wolf tickets both ways.” He spreads the blame. “Officers can be just as bad as anybody else,” he says. “Just hold your tongue.”

Tweedy apologizes for the times when he and his colleagues aren’t where they need to be.

“If you don’t see us,” he says, “it’s because we’re short of manpower.”

As Tweedy wraps up, a mother hurries out to take her son to the bathroom. Two men notice her leaving, get up, and walk out the door. More people rustle in their chairs, getting ready to stand, when Thomas walks into the crowd again. “This session is not over!” he yells. He promises to check names again on the way out the door. “It’s almost over,” he adds. “Please sit down.”

Thomas begins again. In midsentence, his phone rings, and he answers, talking with his eyes darting up and down. A few murmurs of disbelief soon swell to mutters and loud exclamations of “tsk, shh!”

There are brief presentations on social services. A section on supervision for traffic offenders is read verbatim from a handout by a woman who says, “I don’t know much about this program.” Then, Thomas releases his captive audience, triggering a stampede for the door. There are a few flailing attempts at checking names, the promised threat, but it’s no use.

A large woman with a tidy bob and a lip ring struggles to hold the door wide and push a stroller through. Her 2-month-old daughter slept through most of the presentation, and Rachel wishes she’d been as lucky.

“I was trying real hard to stay awake,” she says. “It’s boring, but I guess it’s helpful at the same time.”

Even though Rachel is new to probation, she’s frustrated she had to haul herself out here to hear old information. Everyone on supervision has to sign a contract laying out all the same rules, plus individualized restrictions.

“At least you could give us something to drink,” she says.

The availability of snacks seems to have a measurable effect on the civility of mass orientations.

At an earlier session, on Wednesday, the pastor at Faith Tabernacle of Prayer on Alabama Avenue SE provided free chips and sodas. That night, none of the participants lashed out in anger. They even sat through a charismatic benediction including a reading from Matthew: “You shall reap what you sow.” (Incidentally, when asked what happened to the separation between church and state, a CSOSA officer said the concept didn’t apply when this pastor was the host: “Not in her house.”)

With Covenant Baptist nearly empty, Thomas is still at it, sweeping up. A solitary CSO is struggling to free herself from an ex-offender with dreads and a zoo uniform.

Edward Minor-Bey, 46, has difficulty knowing when to end a conversation. He has been in and out of prison since he was convicted of bank robbery in 1982 and is something of a poster-child for the kind of parole violations the mass orientation aims to discourage.

(Greg Houston)

He left Lorton in 1987 and went back the same year, after robbing two drug dealers at gun point. After his release in ’93, he returned to federal custody four times, in 1997, 2001, 2004, and 2006, all for parole violations, most for positive drug tests. His latest incarceration was triggered, he says, by an old warrant for grand larceny in Arlington. Although the charge was eventually dropped, the arrest equaled a parole violation, and he still had to do the time: 16 months at the Rivers Correctional Institution. He got out Aug. 26.

Minor-Bey says he hasn’t had a criminal conviction for 20 years, and he’s convinced he can stay away from drugs this time around. “I’ve made up my mind,” he says. “I’m determined.”

He found a room in a Georgetown homeless shelter and works full time as an information aide at the National Zoo. “People who patronize the zoo,” he says. “I give them whatever information they may need to make their visit as pleasant as possible. I know the zoo. At least, they’re convinced I know the zoo.” He also works part time as a telephone pollster.

His main concern is finding time to meet with his CSO between jobs. His check-ins and drug tests require two two-hour commutes each week.

Minor-Bey was the valedictorian of his 1993 class in the Lorton Prison College Program. He tries to be positive even though he thought the presentation was a little dry. “I’ve known this stuff for years,” he says. “It was very helpful, in some ways. They lay all their cards on the table. You know the implication of any action you take, may it be inappropriate or appropriate.”

He tries to avoid the people and places—­like Southwest D.C.—that he associates with inappropriate actions. With his conversation finally finished, he wants to get back to Georgetown as fast as possible. “The bus took too long,” he says later. “But I got out of there safe and sound.”