D.C. inmates fall under Thomas Faust’s jurisdiction, sooner and later

For those in the nation’s capital charged, convicted and sentenced, Thomas N. Faust gets them coming and going.

His title is director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, but ever since the federal government’s Bureau of Prisons started housing all D.C. inmates in 2001, his department has essentially become the D.C. jail.

A forbidding, five-story fortress of a building at 1901 D St. SE, the jail and several related facilities hold in excess of 2,000 inmates, some awaiting trial, some awaiting transfer to federal prison after sentencing, some awaiting transfer to the street after serving their time.

“We’re not a prison system,” said Faust, 59, the former three-term sheriff of Arlington County. “We’re a jail system.”

The distinction is vital to understanding how Faust has changed the Department of Corrections.

“We are talking about people who are coming back to the community,” Faust said, pointing out that the D.C. jail processed almost 15,000 people last year — the average stay was just 27 days. “We’re not a prison where we can afford to have somebody in a year-long program.”

And yet those relatively short stays do not, in his mind, diminish the gravity of his responsibility. “One of the greatest powers that government has is taking someone’s freedom from them,” he said.

Faust has spent most of his career working with short-timers.

An Arlington native, Faust graduated from Virginia Tech and went to work for the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office. Starting his tenure on the floor of the jail, he stayed for 24 years, serving three terms as Arlington’s sheriff.

“A person’s punishment is being sent to jail,” he told The Washington Post in 1991, shortly before winning office for the first time. “It’s not for me to punish them further once they’re there.”

After a stint as executive director and chief operating officer of the National Sheriffs’ Association and as a vice president at Aramark, a private company that provides food service to correctional institutions, he was appointed as the District’s director of corrections by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) in 2011.

Faust inherited a system with a long history of class-action lawsuits, violence, overcrowding and suicides. There was also tension with the Fraternal Order of Police’s D.C. Corrections Union, representing corrections officers. They haven’t had a new contract since 2005.

Although Faust’s predecessor, Devon Brown, has been compared to the reform-minded former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, union leaders were critical of his lack of transparency.

Faust set out to build better relations with the union, visiting the jail on average once a week. He expects a new contract soon.

“We’ve been able to accomplish together in 12 months what hasn’t been done in seven years,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”

John Rosser, chairman of the corrections union, said Faust has been fully transparent. “Mr. Faust does not approach corrections in that arrogant way,” he said. “Even if he disagrees, he listens. He communicates. He’s accessible.”

Not every change Faust has made is popular. In July, his department instituted video visitation at the D.C. jail, eliminating physical contact between many prisoners and family members.

The practice has drawn criticism from inmates’ families, and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) introduced legislation this month to reinstate in-person visits.

“There’s no response to public outcry,” said Phil Fornaci, director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, who helped draft the bill. “It’s stupid that we would have to legislate this. I think the chances of it passing are extremely strong.”

Faust is unapologetic.

“Video visitation has been, I think, a great success,” Faust said, reducing contraband, eliminating intrusive security checks and allowing for weekend visits.

“It’s streamlined the process, which has allowed me to add an additional 30 minutes of visitation time per week,” Faust said. “It provides greater access to the public.”

At the same time, Faust must stay in close touch with the federal prison system and a number of private facilities, with inmates going off to, and coming back from, federal facilities. How much the District is paid to hold convicted prisoners awaiting transfer to the federal system is one point of contention.

“The DOC should not be holding federal prisoners,” said Faust, who is trying to increase the per diem the federal system pays the District to house federal prisoners, which is not enough to meet costs. “We should not be carrying the costs of the federal government.”

The jail also works with its neighbor, the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), a private institution that houses juveniles and women and is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, a private company based in Nashville.

A suit was filed last month against the city by a deaf inmate housed at the CTF. The DOC did not comment on the lawsuit.

Faust praised operations at the CTF, but it’s part of an industry he has a “personal, philosophical” objection to.

He pointed out that Aramark, his former employer, provides support services to prisons but doesn’t incarcerate anyone. “I feel that the actual management of the security function of placing someone in detention should be done by the government and not a corporate entity,” he said.

Faust is also focused on helping D.C. inmates land on their feet once released. Working with the newly established Office of Returning Citizen Affairs, Faust said he has hired two reentry specialists at the jail — previously, there were none on staff — and has established a reentry program specifically for women.

“The responsibility is on the offenders themselves — on family, on community agencies, on businesses, on faith-based organizations,” Faust said. “It’s a shared community responsibility.”

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