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.
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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.
"It's not a lot of high-paying jobs here," said Pierce, who commutes 60 miles north to shipyards in Newport News. "It's been an asset."
The region deals with many of the same issues as the District: drugs, robberies, killings.
"We just don't have as many," said Lt. Marty Davis of Hertford's sheriff's department, who doesn't put much stock in rehabilitating those he locks up in the county jail, including D.C. inmates who have completed their sentences at Rivers but have charges pending elsewhere. On a recent evening, Davis shook his head as he looked from the observation room at the people playing cards outside their cells. "By the time they get here, it's too late," he said.
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Darrell Farley, 41, left Rivers in May after a 10-month stay for check fraud. Boasting relatively new facilities and manicured grounds, Rivers looks better than Lorton and the other two federal prisons he's done time in during the past decade.
"It's not a dirty place," said Farley. "But they're not teaching brothers anything. It's just like a warehouse. A lot of people just play basketball, dominos and cards."
The GEO Group, which owns and operates Rivers, did not respond to phone calls and e-mails about the accusations against them. It also denied The Washington Post's requests to tour the facility, citing safety concerns.
GEO's Web site says prisoners can take classes in life skills, anger management and parenting. It has a law library, a health-care unit and classes for general equivalency diplomas. At a meeting last month in the District that included both former inmates and current inmates piped in via video, several speakers said the programs are inadequate to ensure successful reentry into society.
The drug treatment program is not certified and is harshly criticized by some at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, the federal agency that oversees felons from the District. Training that leads to jobs is limited to a heating and ventilation class that serves only inmates who are 18 to 25 years old. Many inmates are beyond that age group.
Norton and others said the federal government does not fund the programs there as they do in other sites operated by the Bureau of Prisons.
But that's not the only problem at Rivers, according to some who monitor the site.
A prisoner-rights group charged in a class-action lawsuit this year that Rivers ignores serious health needs of inmates.
In August, two former corrections officers at the prison were indicted on charges stemming from the beating of a prisoner in 2006. Two others have pleaded guilty to charges in the case.
About 200 Mexican nationals are held in Rivers for various crimes, and the Mexican Consulate in North Carolina has launched a civil rights investigation regarding health issues and allegations of spoiled food.
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Criminologists say that keeping in touch with family helps inmates maintain goals and stay out of trouble. With so many District inmates at Rivers, several agencies have created direct links between Winton and Washington.
A free bus transports family members to the prison Thursdays through Sundays. To stay in touch with her husband, Reginald Earl, Tracey A. Earl rises to catch the bus at 4:30 a.m. and returns the same evening.
She said guards at Rivers bar visitors when their clothes test positive on an ion scanner, which detects traces of drugs. Prison-related Web sites and blogs are full of claims of false positives and rejection at the prison gates.
"I do understand that, unfortunately, some people do attempt to smuggle illegal drugs and contraband into the facility," she wrote to the warden in June, "but most of the rejected visitors are law-abiding citizens that miss their loved ones."
Carol Fennelly works to keep fathers in touch with their children. Through her nonprofit Hope House, she runs a program in which dads read books on tapes that are sent to their children. There's a summer camp in which children visit the prison for a week to be with their fathers. The group is secluded in a room, doing art projects several hours each day.
Another program links fathers and their children for an hour via videoconference every few weeks.
At Hope House, which is on a sleepy cul-de-sac in Takoma Park, John Jackson Jr. was talking to his three kids one recent day, chatting about the hottest street gear, their grades, their behavior.
The youngest, 6-year-old J'Quan, looked away as his father spoke, hiding his face from the four-inch square on the computer screen where he could see his father.
"Why y'all keep showing off in school?" Jackson asked. No answer.
"From now on, I don't want to hear nothing but good reports."
Soon, they were telling jokes. J'Quan showed his father a dance and then rapped the lyrics to "The Message," an iconic 1982 rap song.
"Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge," the boy said. "I'm trying not to lose my head."
"That's an old song," Jackson said, throwing his head back in laughter.
This kind of connection, Fennelly said, is priceless and can give a person hope. "They may be criminals," she said, "but they're fathers first."