In Prison at the 'End of the Earth'

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 27, 2008

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. -- The 15 travelers from the District were exhausted after a 1,500- mile journey. It was not yet dawn. They had been on the road for 24 hours, and sub-zero temperatures smacked them in the face like needles, stinging cheeks and tearing up eyes.

But the weariness and discomfort were nothing compared with the ache of lying awake nights wondering whether a teenage son behind bars halfway across the country was eating right or getting health care or being abused. Now, only minutes, and the brick walls of the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center, separated them from the eight D.C. teenagers incarcerated here.

"This is my Christmas," said Frances Williams of Southeast Washington, whose 17-year-old son, Marquis Hicks, is a year into a three-year sentence for armed robbery.

Here's what it looked like: Grandmother and grandson playing Sorry! and Sequence in a municipal courtroom converted with folding tables for families to talk in private and a buffet for snacks and lunch. A 15-year-old girl blushing when her brother tells her: "You were flat-chested two years ago when I saw you." A white corrections officer smiling as he watches boisterous young black men melt into their mothers' arms and act like kids again.

Prisoners everywhere look forward to receiving letters and visitors from home. But for more than 6,500 District inmates, these visits are few and far between, because most of them are scattered in more than 70 federal prisons across the country, wherever the Bureau of Prisons can find space.

It has been that way since 1997, when Congress transferred authority over District felons to the bureau and shut down Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County, which was close to home but considered crowded and violent.

The 15 people who traveled here last weekend might never have come if it were not for the Campaign for Youth Justice, which paid $15,000 for their airfare, shuttles and hotels. The trip highlights what the group sees as the folly of sending youths with relatively short sentences far from home to places that do not understand them.

"The farther away someone is, the less likely their family will ever be able to see them and be involved in their lives," said Liz Ryan, executive director of the group, which has lobbied for 18 years to stop minors from being treated as adults in the justice system. "That family tie is something that should not be broken. We're straining it by sending juveniles 1,500 miles away. These are nameless, faceless children to decision makers in Washington."

The youths here were prosecuted under a law that allows 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious crimes, including rape, murder and armed robbery, to be tried as adults and sentenced to adult prisons. Most committed robbery, several of them with toy guns, which carries the same time as robberies with real weapons.

Jon Gustin, who runs juvenile programs for the bureau in several states, told the parents that their children arrived wary of how they would be treated -- in the D.C. jail, they told him, they had been afraid of being beaten by other juvenile inmates.

"They don't have to worry about that here," he said. "It's horrible they have to be this far away from home, but if they were my kids, I'd rather they be here than in the D.C. jail."

In some ways, this place is a sanctuary. Under bureau policy, adults and juveniles cannot be within sight and sound of each other.

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