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N.C. Prison Doesn't Serve D.C. Inmates Well, Critics Say

Shapria Thomas, 15, left, Tahjon Jackson, 9, and J'Quan Jackson, 6, talk via video link with their father, John Jackson Jr., who is incarcerated in North Carolina.
Shapria Thomas, 15, left, Tahjon Jackson, 9, and J'Quan Jackson, 6, talk via video link with their father, John Jackson Jr., who is incarcerated in North Carolina. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007

WINTON, N.C. On the surface, Rivers Correctional Institution is much as District leaders imagined a decade ago, when they asked the federal government to take control of its prisoners: a safe, well-maintained facility that doesn't cost the city a penny.

The deal sent inmates, once sequestered at the Lorton complex in Northern Virginia, anywhere the Federal Bureau of Prisons could find space. Today, the District's nearly 7,000 inmates are spread across 75 institutions in 33 states.

Rivers, however, was built specifically to house inmates from the District. They typically fill at least two-thirds of its 1,400 beds. Many are in on drug and parole violations. The average stay is two years.

Busloads of wives, mothers and children trek here on a four-hour drive passing fields laden with watermelons, pumpkins and rows of cotton.

The rural North Carolina prison, run by the private GEO Group, has become a symbol for what inmates, their families and city leaders say is harsher treatment of D.C. inmates in federal prisons compared with other inmates. Drug treatment and job training options are inadequate, critics say. As a result, too many inmates return home unprepared to do anything but get sent back.

The 200 miles separating the District and Winton creates its own set of problems. Families can have difficulty getting information about relatives' health -- or even their whereabouts -- in a system that imprisons 193,000 nationwide. And the distance drains family resources and isolates inmates from city services that could aid rehabilitation.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has scheduled a hearing tomorrow to ask the Bureau of Prisons about what she considers second-class treatment of District inmates. Rivers is high on her list.

* * *

Rivers, classified as a low-security prison, sits on 257 acres a mile outside Winton, the county seat of Hertford County. The county has 22,000 residents and, racially, looks a lot like the District: 60 percent black, 40 percent white. As the first town in North Carolina to be burned by Union troops during the Civil War, the region is steeped in Confederate history, with memorials to soldiers of the South in the town square and Rebel flags displayed in windows.

Now, four of five seats on the Hertford County Commission are held by black residents, and the elected sheriff is black, a source of pride to Commissioner John E. Pierce, who is black. His father died in 1968 without ever casting a ballot.

"He would come to vote, but they said he didn't pass the test, and they told him, 'Come back next year,' " Pierce said. "He was never allowed to vote."

When Rivers was being built in 2001, there were fears that the prison would threaten local safety. But so far, its effects have been positive, particularly for the economy. There are only a few large employers in town, primarily Rivers and a steel mill. Many residents, including Pierce, cross into southern Virginia to find work.


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