Post reporter Leon Dash had an opportunity few reporters will ever enjoy: he spent almost two years investigating and reporting drug use and sexual misconduct by a small number of correctional officers at the D.C. Jail. He moved at will within a high-security correctional institution and experienced firsthand the painful realities of an overcrowded facility.
Illicit activities of correctional staff are not to be overlooked; individuals who violate the law or compromise safety need to be held accountable. But most of the employees of the D.C. Jail are honorable, decent, hard-working men and women who have one of the most difficult jobs in the city. Dash's front-page series, which ran between June 10 and 14, was titillating, but it did little to tell the whole story. Permit me:
One-fourth of all black men between the ages of 18 and 32 in the United States are under some form of correctional control -- nine times the rate of incarceration for white men. Further, the District has the highest rate of incarceration per capita of any U.S. city or state. The D.C. Department of Corrections has more than 12,500 people incarcerated at the jail, at Lorton and in various state and federal institutions.
Most of these prisoners come from the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, places where substandard housing and drugs flourish. Dysfunctional family life is prevalent in the social histories of members of the correctional population. Many were abused as children -- some physically, some sexually, most emotionally.
A large percentage of the jail population are ninth- and 10th-grade dropouts; they read only as well as fourth- or fifth-graders. More than 50 percent were unemployed at the time of their arrests. Eighty-percent are addicted to drugs, alcohol or both.
Many of these young men enter the criminal justice system as children, sometimes spending months and years at the District's juvenile facilities (which have been under court order to close for years because of their substandard conditions). By the time they arrive at the jail, many know the criminal justice system well. Some see prison time as a "rite of passage," or "a badge of courage," which wins attention from family and peers, albeit negative attention. It is not unusual to find a parent, a son, a daughter or sibling incarcerated at the same time.
D.C. Jail, like Lorton, is severely overcrowded. The United States processes more than 13 million people through its jails annually. On any given day, 1 million people are behind bars in this country -- 65 percent are people of color, a dramatically disproportionate representation of minorities. The whites as well as the minorities in these institutions are almost always poor. And correctional facilities have a dismal record on rehabilitating people. The national recidivism rate, which reflects the D.C. rate, is 63 percent for adults and 70 percent for youth offenders.
It is to these swollen, impersonal and inhumane environments that young black men are sentenced in inordinate numbers. These men usually have significant emotional and social problems, and incarceration just makes these problems worse. Experience already tells us that stiff prison sentences will not curb the drug-abuse nightmare the nation is facing.
What the community may not understand, however, is that 90 percent of those incarcerated are one day going to return to the community, though they have little to return to. In the District, drug treatment programs are not widely available. Employment opportunities for young black men also are significantly lower than for their white counterparts. And if you have a criminal record, if you are black, if you haven't completed high school and if you are struggling with an addiction, who's going to hire you? What options do these men have?
Our present system serves no one well, not the victim of crime, not the offender, not the community. It costs all of us in terms of the wasted lives of young black men, of our own human decency in how we as a community respond to them and of the ineffective use of tax dollars on a costly system that simply doesn't work.
After three years of being at the jail, surely Leon Dash must have seen the bigger picture. I challenge The Post and Dash, in particular, to write the whole story about D.C. Jail and about why young black men keep coming back to prison.
-- Father Michael Bryant is the staff chaplain at the D.C. Jail.