August 29, 2013

Joseph Willis is an African American man just out of prison who needs a job in a city where more than 20 percent of black men and about half of former inmates can’t find employment.

He hoped that Hope Village, the Southeast Washington halfway house where he stayed for months after he was released from the D.C. jail, would help him get back on his feet and start a new life.

But like dozens of former residents, Willis said Hope Village was unable to help him with his basic needs: At every turn, he found its job-training services lacking and access to
mental-health services anemic. It was difficult to get money to ride Metro to job interviews, he said. And forget trying to find a job online: At Hope Village, there isn’t an Internet connection available to all residents.

Indeed, like many former residents, Willis has come to call the halfway house “Hopeless Village.”

“They [didn’t] let me help myself, and they [didn’t] help me at all,” said Willis, who was discharged from the facility this year.

About 2,000 offenders return to the District each year after their release from incarceration, and half are re-arrested within three years. The city’s network of halfway houses is charged with helping ex-offenders adjust.

Some of these returning citizens say Hope Village isn’t necessarily better than jail.

That view was reflected in a report on Hope Village issued in the spring by the Corrections Information Council (CIC), a District agency that inspects and monitors conditions at the D.C. jail and other facilities. The report offered testimony that staff at the halfway house lacked the expertise to help residents find housing and jobs and at times prevented residents from accessing mental-health assistance. Residents also said that the facility lacked an effective system to receive and adjudicate grievances, the report said.

The report acknowledged the many concerns that former residents and advocates have long voiced, including the inability to get answers from Hope Village leaders. “The DC community does not feel that Hope Village staff is accessible, interacting with the local community, or welcome to forming community partnerships to better serve DC residents,” the report said. “The CIC heard on multiple occasions that incarcerated DC residents would prefer to stay at secure [Federal Bureau of Prisons] facilities than re­enter DC through Hope Village.”

The 53-page CIC report was based on interviews with more than 20 current and former residents, their families and prisoner advocates as well as a visit to Hope Village in November.

“I would say that there are some things that are obviously dysfunctional,” said Michelle Bonner, the CIC’s chair and director of legal services at Our Place DC, a nonprofit group that works with formerly incarcerated women. Bonner stressed the report’s recommendation that Hope Village be evaluated by an independent party. “Given the complaints that have been heard not just by us but by city council members and other leaders in the city, it’s worth doing that evaluation,” she said.

Indeed, the report articulated alleged disregard for city practices in some instances. Citing interviews with two residents and an advocacy organization, for example, the CIC said residents placed on restricted movement after disciplinary infractions reported that they could not access appropriate mental-health treatment.

“I actually had to call my [parole officer] and . . . complain that they wouldn’t let me go to my appointment to see my psychiatrist,” said Oliver McBride, a former D.C. prisoner who spent about a month at Hope Village this year. “The more you try to do what’s right, the more they target you.”

Hope Village officials did not respond to questions about the report. They declined interviews regarding many residents’ complaints. But with regard to allegationssuch as McBride’s, the report did say that “staff does not interfere or impede residents from receiving medical and/or mental health treatment. The risks could be catastrophic.”

This is not the first time Hope Village has raised concerns from city auditors. In the 1990s, the facility offered D.C. inmates only two meals per day. In 2002, it failed to return a serial rapist and killer to prison despite repeated infractions — and after his release from Hope Village, he killed at least two people. In 2011, a man who alleged he was denied entry because he is blind won a judgment against the halfway house.

Tara Libert, executive director of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, an advocacy group that works with young inmates, wrote in an e-mail: “Instead of being the supportive environment they so desperately need Hope Village is yet another challenge they have to navigate.”

Indeed, Hope Village residents said the facility at times derails their efforts to improve their lives.

“I’ve gone through hell and high water,” said Frederick Artis, who has lived at Hope Village since January. Even though Artis provided Hope Village with a W-2 that proved he worked at Home Depot, he said the facility forced him to quit his job when the home improvement chain did not sign an employment agreement. Employers are sometimes reluctant to hire Hope Village residents because of paperwork and scheduling problems, advocates say.

“They said call when I get out and they’ll rehire me,” Artis said.

Hope Village did not respond to an inquiry about Artis’s complaints.

For many Hope Village residents, even the location of the halfway house makes them feel isolated.

“Look where it’s at,” Courtney Stewart, chairman of the advocacy group Reentry Network, said of the halfway house’s location in a high-crime area. “Does it look like a hope village?”

Justin Moyer is the deputy editor of the Morning Mix.