We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Leonard Bishop walks the halls of the D.C. Jail one recent morning and introduces himself to his new constituents. Some he already knows, and some, like the defendants awaiting trial for charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection, he’s meeting for the first time. Either way, as their newly elected advisory neighborhood commissioner for single member district 7F08, he now represents all of them.
Bishop tells each constituent that his main responsibility is to listen to their questions and concerns and work to make improvements. He says they can contact him through the jail’s grievance coordinator and the facility’s internal communications system.
It takes Bishop most of the morning and part of the afternoon to make his rounds. By the time he gets back to his office where the jail has carved out a space with a desk, a computer, and a phone for the ANC, he already has 10 messages, he says in a recent phone interview with City Paper.
“Most people have the same issues,” Bishop says. “The food, mail, commissary, and programming.”
Bishop is the second ANC to represent people living in the D.C. Jail. Joel Castón was elected in 2021 but had to give up his seat when he was released later that year. Bishop says the two have talked since Castón’s release. “The only thing he said was, ‘Listen to the people, man,’” Bishop says. “I’m learning as I go.”
In 2022, Bishop, a write-in candidate, won the seat with 100 percent of the vote. He says his campaign was mostly promoted through word-of-mouth. He passed out fliers that he made with the help of fellow Commissioner Tyrell Holcomb, the chair of ANC 7F.
A typical day for Bishop starts around 7:30 a.m. He’s a mentor to five younger men in the LEAD Up! program, a gig that pays him $32 per month.
“When they first come in, we set a goal and try to reach it: get a GED, pursuing college. They have certification programs. I just try to make sure they reach they goal, whatever it might be,” Bishop says. “Even if I gotta wake them up in the morning or help them figure out their schedule for the week.”
In 1994, when Bishop was arrested, there was no similar mentorship program in the jail. “That didn’t even exist,” he says. “When I first came, I could barely read or write. They didn’t have any of that kind of stuff.”
The rest of his time is spent taking classes of his own through Georgetown University, attending ANC meetings by Zoom (and watching ANC training videos), and answering requests from his constituents. He says his fellow commissioners have helped him learn the group’s processes, such as how to introduce a resolution. He’s now drafting a proposal to recommend allowing D.C. Jail residents the opportunity to testify in front of the D.C. Council and attend ANC meetings that he hopes to introduce in June, Bishop says.
When asked about the difficulties people held in the D.C. Jail face, Bishop recites a list of perpetual problems. One of the main issues is the mail service, Bishop says. It’s very slow. “It shouldn’t take no two weeks to get a piece of mail, especially mail from around the corner,” he says.
The food is not very good. It’s almost entirely processed, he says, and the portions are too small, and what’s served has little nutritional value. A typical meal might consist of spaghetti with some kind of soy-based meat. Some guys will supplement their diets with food from the commissary, but there are no healthy options there either, Bishop says. The jail regularly raises the prices without also raising the limit that jail residents are allowed to spend.
In the Central Detention Facility, the main D.C. Jail facility that houses only men who could be considered a higher security risk, Bishop says the limit is $75 per week. In the Central Treatment Facility, where Bishop and other low and medium security inmates are housed, the limit is $125 per week, but it’s unclear to Bishop why the disparity exists. He says prices increase twice a year, sometimes without notice and without a comparable increase in wages or the spending limit.
“Since COVID, work detail was really limited,” Bishop says. “It’s a small amount of pay and a small number of jobs.”
A lot of the younger residents want more access to programming, Bishop says. The jail offers various certifications, such as those for commercial driver’s licenses and fiber optic cabling, but the classes only hold 10 to 12 people, he says.
Bishop says he hadn’t interacted with the Jan. 6 defendants until he was elected to the ANC. After he made his initial introduction, one of them sent him a request for access to exercise equipment.
“Those other things they been complaining about, but we’ve been complaining about [them] for years,” he says. “And it went ignored. The food, the conditions. I guess they just helped shed light on an ongoing situation.”
Jan. 6 defendants and congressional Republicans did indeed grab the attention of the U.S. Marshals Service, which uses the D.C. Jail to hold people in their custody, and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration. Despite promises of improvements to living conditions in the jail, progress on real reform has stalled as the noise died down, according to lawyers and advocates who are in contact with people held in the D.C. Jail.
Bishop has lived in the D.C. Jail since 2018, when he was transferred from a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility, where he has spent the bulk of his incarceration. He was transferred to the BOP from the shuttered Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County around 2001. He’s at the jail in order to appear in court on his motion for a sentence reduction under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (which was denied) and his motion to vacate his conviction under the Innocence Protection Act (which is pending a judge’s decision). Despite the horrible conditions in the jail, especially in the Central Detention Facility, Bishop says he feels much safer than he did in a BOP facility.
“The biggest difference is that you home,” he says. “You can stay connected with your family and friends. It’s more comfortable.
“Dangers exist in both places,” he continues. “But you’re more responsible for yourself in here than in the feds, where people put you in a box with a group. … Wherever you from, that’s the group you with. I’m from D.C., so everybody from D.C. is basically your responsibility.”
He says the threat of physical violence is heightened in BOP facilities. “Being in the fed system, you might get backlash from someone you don’t know anything about.”
As far as his new role is concerned, Bishop says he’s starting to get the hang of it. The biggest lesson he’s learned so far is that he can’t please everyone, so he’s working on being diplomatic. “What might be important to me, might not be important for everyone else,” he says.
Bishop was sworn in Jan. 12 by Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto. Castón and others attended the ceremony, where Bishop delivered a short speech. He recited a piece of it during our interview:
“I come into this position as an elected official with hopes of changing the minds and hearts of those who believe that we are less than others, that our opinions don’t matter or that we shouldn’t have a voice in the political process that affects us all directly or indirectly as citizens of Washington D.C.,” Bishop says.
This column is produced in collaboration with More Than Our Crimes, a nonprofit dedicated to raising the voices of people locked in federal prisons across the country.