The Sept. 12 front-page story "As Lapses in Parole Rose, So Did Killings; District Felon Charged in Slayings and Rapes" addressed the tragic result -- but not the root -- of a serious problem: the surrender of the District's criminal justice system to the federal government.
In 1997 Congress passed the misnamed National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act, which eliminated the D.C. Parole Board and ordered the closing of the Lorton prison complex a few years later. By any measure, Lorton was a mess -- the subject of years of litigation to remedy problems of medical care, violence and overcrowding. Corruption was rampant, as were drug dealing and other organized criminal activities. I know. I lived there.
Yet rather than fix Lorton, D.C. officials took the easy path and got out of the prison business. After sentencing, an inmate from the District now goes from the D.C. Jail to a federal transfer center in Oklahoma City. From there, he or she can be sent to any federal prison in the country.
Decisions on the confinement, drug treatment, rehabilitation, sentence duration and conditions of parole for D.C. felons rest solely with the federal government. The people of the District have no voice in the treatment of their friends and loved ones in this prison system nor in how these offenders will be prepared to return to society after serving their sentences.
Although a memorandum of understanding with the District committed the Bureau of Prisons to keeping D.C. prisoners within 500 miles of home, the agreement was never taken seriously and often is ignored. And although African Americans represent about 60 percent of the D.C. population, nearly 95 percent of convicted D.C. felons are African American. They enter a federal penal system in which African Americans are numerous but still a minority.
Typically, federal prisons are in rural areas such as Leavenworth, Kan., and Beaumont, Tex. Nearly two-thirds of the staff members in these prisons are white.
When a male D.C. prisoner arrives at a new facility, he is segregated. During this period of separation, the prison staff tells D.C. inmates to steer clear of other inmates from the District "for their own protection." Although no D.C.-based gangs are known to exist in the federal prison system, D.C. inmates collectively are called "D.C. Blacks" by prison officials and treated as though they were gang members.
In January 2003, two weeks after the murder of a white supremacist inside the federal prison in Leavenworth, corrections officials "locked down" in segregation all 500 of the so-called D.C. Blacks. All were punished for the murder, although a suspect, who was from the District, had been identified.
I was among those held in segregation at Leavenworth at that time. For three weeks, none of the D.C. prisoners was permitted a shower or a change of clothing. We received only emergency medical treatment and were denied blankets during a frigid January. We were not permitted to call family or our attorneys.
Our pleas for assistance from the D.C. government fell on deaf ears. Our only recourse was individual legal action with the assistance of underfunded and struggling private organizations such as the one that I now work for.
In a country that imprisons proportionally more people than any other in the world, the District has the dismal distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration in the nation. But with D.C. prisoners scattered across the country at no cost to the District, no local political pressure exists to develop alternatives to incarceration. And when things go seriously wrong for ex-offenders, as has been amply documented by The Post, all that D.C. residents can do is to complain to their federal overseers -- again.
-- Lafayette Bailey
a D.C. native and an ex-offender, works as a paralegal
with the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project.