The former Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County, Virginia
A watchtower at the former Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Early in the morning on Dec. 4, 2012, Andre used a long-nosed revolver to rob a classmate with whom he’d had a long-standing beef. After holding up the victim on 5th Street NW, a few blocks away from Dunbar High School, Andre biked away with a SmarTrip card and a pair of pink Nike Foamposites valued at more than $300.

Once surveillance video led police to his mother’s house near North Capitol Street, Andre answered the door and allowed officers to enter the home. They recovered the revolver and the sneakers, and Andre was arrested for armed robbery. He landed in the D.C. jail that same day.

Five months earlier, Andre’s future had looked decidedly brighter. On a late July weekend, Andre and his family dined at Phillip’s Seafood & Restaurant on the Southwest waterfront to mark two milestones: Andre’s 18th birthday and the impending start of his freshman year at Virginia Union University in Richmond.

Like many young criminal offenders in D.C., Andre’s life could take several paths. The one his mother, Denise, has prayed for leads to rehabilitation, perhaps back to college, and eventually toward a career. Or Andre could become a recidivist, like the nearly half of criminals who return to D.C. and end up back behind bars within three years, according to the Council for Court Excellence. In part, research shows, that future will depend on access to family.

But for Andre and others, two criminal-justice policies in D.C. make the first path more remote, straining the ties between inmates and family members and increasing the chances they will return to lives of crime.

The same month that Andre turned 18, the D.C. jail replaced face-to-face meetings between inmates and visitors with video conferences. While Andre would spend nearly four months in D.C. jail before his April sentencing—he pleaded guilty in January—it may be much longer before he is able to see his mother face to face outside a courtroom. Partly because of the 2001 closure of the nearby prison in Lorton, Va., which used to house D.C. inmates, prisoners are now routinely held in federal facilities hundreds of miles away from home, sometimes as far away as Florida, Texas, or California. According to the Urban Institute, one in five D.C. felons is imprisoned more than 500 miles from the District.

Social science research has demonstrated that family visitation correlates strongly with reduced recidivism. But the District retains no control or influence over the facilities that house D.C. felons, what programs will be available to them, or how far away from the District they will be incarcerated.

In other words, D.C.’s restrictive jail policy and its subordination to the federal prison system make its returning criminals that much less likely to seek a new line of work.

* * *

Two months after Andre’s arrest, his mother appeared on the WRC-TV news, describing how the D.C. jail’s video policy creates distance between family members and inmates. When Denise agreed to appear on the Feb. 6 segment, she spoke on the condition that she not be shown on air. (She also asked that her and her son’s names be changed for this article, fearing neighborhood reprisals.) If they had shown her face, what the audience would have seen is a black woman in her late 40s. She has short-cropped hair. She has bags under her eyes that she attributes to the stress of her son’s incarceration. “Being in the same room,” Denise told News 4’s Tom Sherwood in a distinctive, mellifluous rasp, “is something you can’t replace.”

Denise’s voice adds a personal tenor to the chorus of criticism—from the District of Columbia Bar Association, from families of inmates, from the Washington Post editorial board, and from members of the D.C. Council—pushing for the restoration of in-person visits on the grounds that video conferences undermine rehabilitation. Critics say the current policy is inhumane and strains the family relationships that have been shown to promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism. Since many of the male inmates at D.C. Jail will eventually be convicted and serve out their sentences in faraway prisons, their time there may offer the only practical in person visit with family, argue lawyers with the D.C. Bar.

Half of the male prisoners in the D.C. jail are pretrial detainees charged with felonies who will spend an average of 205 days detained while awaiting sentencing, according to the D.C. Department of Corrections. Because of the video visitation policy, family or friends who want to visit an inmate must go to the former D.C. General Hospital in Hill East, which is next to the jail.
There, in the Video Visitation Center, they converse using a Skype-like system that family members have complained is highly impersonal. Visitors sit in rows of cubicles featuring screens and phone handsets. The inmate sits before a screen, and other prisoners are often visible in the background.

The D.C. Department of Corrections argues that the system expands access to inmates, reduces contraband smuggled into jail, and saves the District $420,000 a year. Opponents say the benefits are outweighed by the social costs.

The visitation policy has caught the attention of several D.C. councilmembers. Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser, Ward 2’s Jack Evans, Ward 1’s Jim Graham, and Ward 8’s Marion Barry introduced legislation in February that would restore in-person visits.

The bill “is a great step forward in ensuring detainees at the D.C. jail have appropriate access to humanitarian visitation options,” says Philip Fornaci, the former Project Director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “Seeing one’s parents, children, spouses, or other loved ones on a computer monitor is not the same as seeing them face to face.”

* * *

After Andre pleaded guilty to armed robbery, which carries a minimum mandatory five-year sentence, his sentencing date was set for early April. Denise says she immediately began to worry about where her son would be jailed.

Were Andre convicted of a state felony anywhere else in the country, he would be sent to a prison in the state in which he was convicted. But since D.C. has no state prison, those convicted of D.C. felonies are treated like federal prisoners.

The current system was set in motion when Congress passed the Revitalization Act of 1997. Under this law, those convicted of felonies under the D.C. Code are transferred to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton explained in a House subcommittee hearing in 2010, “The District of Columbia said, ‘Take this package off of us. We can’t pay for it.’ The District had good reason to do that. It was carrying a state function that no city in the United States carries: State prisons.” As a result, Congress placed a state prison system within the federal prison system for the first time in U.S. history.

The law also led to the closure of the Lorton Correctional Complex in 2001, leaving D.C. inmates without a nearby prison that family members could easily access. As a result, the Bureau of Prisons now houses many D.C. felons hundreds of miles away.

Speaking at the 2010 hearing, Harley Lappin, the former director of the Bureau of Prisons, acknowledged the current system is failing to accommodate the kind of visits that could be crucial to rehabilitating D.C. inmates. “It is unfortunate that a long, long time ago we didn’t see the value of inmates being closer to home and before we built prisons, we built them in locations that were closer to where the inmates were coming from,” Lappin said before the House Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia. “Unfortunately, that did not happen.” At the time of that hearing, nearly 5,700 D.C. prisoners were housed in 33 states in facilities owned or leased by the federal government, often hundreds of miles away.

A recent Minnesota Department of Corrections study that used a regression analysis of 16,420 offenders released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2007, showed that in-person visits reduced recidivism by strengthening family ties and facilitating post-release reintegration. The findings suggest that “revising prison visitation policies to make them more ‘visitor friendly’ could yield public safety benefits by helping offenders establish a continuum of social support from prison to the community.” The Minnesota Department of Corrections report follows previous studies conducted in Florida and Canada that similarly found prison visits had reduced recidivism.

When coupled with housing inmates far from home, the video visitation policy may deprive District felons of seeing loved ones for decades or perhaps the rest of their lives. Recent Urban Institute surveys of family members found long-distance incarcerations to be the single greatest barrier to staying in touch with relatives.

“I would do anything for my children,” Denise tells me. “But if Andre was sent far from home, it would put too much of a hurt on my checkbook to go visit.”
Despite Denise’s prayers, the D.C. Superior Court judge handed Andre a four-year sentence that, under D.C.’s Youth Act, will allow him a clean record upon release. At his sentencing, Denise raised her hand when the judge asked if anybody had anything further to say, but the judge didn’t appear to see her.
“I wanted to ask him to drop the sentence,” Denise says later.

Denise shares that sense of powerlessness with the District: While D.C. lacks statehood, some state constitutions grant citizens a right to rehabilitation. Take Alaska: In the 1997 case Brandon v. State Department of Corrections, the Supreme Court of Alaska ruled that since a prisoner’s transfer to Arizona effectively prevents visitation, a key element of rehabilitation, such out-of-state incarceration would jeopardize his right to rehabilitation. In this case, Alaska’s highest court blocked the prisoner from being housed thousands of miles away from home.

But D.C. prisoners don’t have state constitutional rights. District residents enjoy only the rights bestowed by the U.S. Constitution. And unlike in some other countries, the Constitution doesn’t include a right to rehabilitation.

For now, Denise has received a measure of relief. In May, Andre learned he’s one of the relatively lucky ones: He would be jailed in an East Coast federal facility that is less than 200 miles away. Denise may be able to see her son in person when he celebrates his 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd birthdays.

In the meantime, D.C. families like hers will continue to meet with loved ones via video, and pray they’re not sent far away.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery