January 21, 2013

In its 2012 annual report, the D.C. Corrections Information Council refers to its office as “a cubicle in the Wilson Building.” But cramped quarters are just one of the problems it has faced over the years.

As the city agency charged with monitoring conditions affecting 9,000 D.C. inmates, the three-member council had no members from 2005 to 2012, which made it quite impossible to monitor anything.

Now, it’s back in business, thanks to three appointments made last year by Mayor Vincent Gray and the D.C. Council after pressure from inmate advocates, although its mission, if not impossible, is exceedingly difficult by any standard.

In a city where three out of four African American men will serve time in prison, two-thirds of its inmates are housed in 100 different federal Bureau of Prisons institutions from Pennsylvania to California. And over 1,000 of them are more than 500 miles from the District, in places such as Tuscon, Coleman, Fla., and Yazoo City, Miss.

The council, commonly called the CIC, with its volunteer board, one full-time staffer and a budget of about $130,000, is charged with keeping an eye on all of them.

“The whole point behind the Corrections Information Council is for a representative of D.C. to go into these facilities where average D.C. resident can’t,” said Michelle Bonner, whom Gray appointed the CIC’s chair in July. She is director of legal services for Our Place D.C., a nonprofit that serves formerly incarcerated women.

The CIC’s mandate is a difficult one. As a municipal agency, it has no authority to inspect federal prisons or make “unannounced” visits, which the D.C. Code says should be coducted whenever possible.

“We have no enforcement power,” Bonner said. “We report what we see.”

But the CIC has not been idled by these challenges. Since it started functioning again in mid-2012, it has established relationships with advocates and support groups for returning offenders, hosted monthly public meetings and tried to the community know that it was open for business.

Part of its message has focused on its independence. “We are an independent monitoring body,” said Rev. Samuel Whittaker, pastor of Contee AME Zion Church and a CIC board member. “We don’t want to give the impression that we’re hooked up with the mayor.”

That fewer than 10 people showed up at a CIC meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. Library earlier this month underscored its challenge.

Since last year, CIC members have toured facilities where D.C. inmates are housed in Hazelton, W. Va., and Cumberland, Md. They have reported concerns about video visitation at D.C. Jail and at a maximum security facility in Florence, Colo. where D.C. inmates are housed. And they have visited Hope Village, one of the District’s halfway houses. A report on the visit may be issued as soon as March.

Even with its limited capacity and power, advocates have high hopes for the CIC.

“We’re looking forward to great things from the Corrections Information Council,” said Louis Sawyer Jr., co-chair of the Re-Entry Task Force, a group that works with former D.C. prisoners and advocated for re-establishment of the CIC. A “returning citizen” released in 2009 after 25 years in prison, Sawyer said that the group should work more closely with ex-offenders and hold public meetings east of the river.

For Tara Libert, executive director of Free Minds, a reading and writing program that serves youth who will be tried as adults, it’s hard not to welcome anyone trying to shine a light into the complicated world of D.C. Corrections.

Justin Moyer is the deputy editor of the Morning Mix.