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Every month, Rob Barton has to make a choice. Should he call his mother, his son, or his girlfriend? Barton is from D.C. but is currently incarcerated at USP Coleman I in central Florida, 846 miles from home.
He and other federal prisoners get 300 minutes of phone time per month, he says. Calls are limited to 15 minutes and are sporadically interrupted by a robotic voice reminding whomever is on the other end of the line, “This is a call from a federal prison.”
Barton has been incarcerated in Florida since 2016, with the exception of a brief stint in the D.C. Jail from 2019 to 2020, where he waited for a judge to rule on his motion for a reduced sentence; it was ultimately denied. He says the distance from home and the federal facility’s environs have changed him.
“For a long time, I didn’t realize how dehumanized I became,” says Barton, who was sentenced to 30 years to life at the age of 16. “The way they incarcerate in the federal system is counterproductive to rehabilitation.”
Violence is prevalent, and often stems from divisions of race, gang affiliation, and religion, he says.
“Anything can happen between the different groups, and they lock the entire jail down,” Barton says. “On average, we’re locked down for about half of the year, which means I’m locked in a cell for weeks on end. They do it for security reasons and to ‘cool off.’ The only time we’re allowed to come out [during lockdown] is Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a 10-minute shower, and you’re handcuffed when you do that.”
The federal system lacks the kinds of programs that state departments of corrections and the D.C. Jail offer, Barton and other incarcerated individuals say. Despite the unsanitary and in some cases inhumane conditions in some parts of the D.C. Jail, residents there have the chance to take classes through Georgetown University and shake hands with professors, and participate in the Free Minds Book Club, for example.
Barton lives in a federal prison, instead of a facility closer to home, because D.C. doesn’t have a prison of its own. In 1995, with a shrinking tax base and growing expenditures, the D.C. government was staring down a $722 million budget deficit. The problem was more severe than the federally implemented Financial Control Board could fix, so in 1997 Congress passed the Revitalization Act, which provided D.C. some help in regaining financial footing. In exchange, D.C. handed over control of its criminal justice system, including the prison system, to the federal government.
The law required D.C.’s former prison, Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County (where Barton served the beginning of his sentence), to close by 2001, and all its residents were transferred to U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities spread throughout the country.
The plight of people locked behind prison walls is easy to ignore and their perspectives are easy to forget. The situation is worse for prisoners from D.C. and their families, who, like Barton, are now separated by hundreds of miles—an insurmountable distance for many. The closest BOP facilities are two to three hours from D.C. in Cumberland, Maryland, and Hopewell, Virginia. Costly 15-minute phone calls and emails are the only substitute for the comfort of an in-person visit.
As of last December, the D.C. Jail held about 1,255 people (which is down from pre-pandemic levels that pushed above 2,000). As of August 2022, another 2,100 people with D.C. code convictions were incarcerated throughout Bureau of Prisons facilities. More than 45 percent of the people incarcerated in the BOP are living in facilities at least 500 miles away from their homes in the District, according to a 2023 report from the D.C. Policy Center.
In recent years, elected officials have taken steps to better support incarcerated individuals. In 2020, the D.C. Council passed legislation giving people serving time for felony convictions the right to vote. And in 2021 residents of the D.C. Jail elected their first representative to Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7F.
But those actions fall far short of representing the thousands of people—most of whom are Black men—living in the D.C. Jail and BOP facilities.
In an effort to amplify those voices and shed light on their experiences, City Paper is launching a new series called Inside Voices to focus on the lives and perspectives of currently and formerly incarcerated people from D.C. The column will feature reported articles and essays written by and about D.C. prisoners and those who are impacted by incarceration.
This initiative takes inspiration from similar efforts, such as the Marshall Project’s “Life Inside” series, the podcast Ear Hustle, and the blog More Than Our Crimes, co-founded by Barton and Pam Bailey, with whom we will collaborate to produce this work.
It is our hope that the stories will provide a voice for those people who have had none, and will offer a look into the lives of people living out their sentences far from home. Incarcerated people have done some horrible things (or, at least they’ve been convicted of horrible things), but that doesn’t mean they should be completely disconnected from their families, communities, and elected officials, whose decisions impact their lives. They might deserve to be punished, but they also deserve to be treated fairly. And they deserve to be heard.
“The vast majority of those incarcerated residents will one day come home. They can be resilient individuals … or they can be dysfunctional to the community and probably come back to jail,” Barton says. “A lot of it has to do with where we’re housed and how we’re housed. We’re still residents, and how we’re treated and what’s going on with us matters.”