But when the U.S. prison system moved Sawyer to Louisiana, then to Texas, he asked his family to stop the visits.
“It was too much for them,” said Sawyer, who is now 60. Those were lonely years.
This is what happens to most prisoners from D.C. Because it does not have its own prison system, as a state would, D.C.’s roughly 4,000 inmates become property of the federal government.
They are shunted around the nation, with little regard for how far from family they go. California, Ohio, Texas, Montana, Arizona.
“I did travel extensively on the Bureau of Prisons’ dime,” Sawyer said, with a wry laugh.
And when D.C. offenders come before a parole board, they see board members who have little context for what a return to life in D.C. means.
The parole board that sees the inmates — primarily young, Black men who were born and raised in the nation’s capital — is a woman from Maryland and a former police officer from Kentucky.
“When it comes to family reunification, it’s a real burden,” said Sawyer, who was released in 2010, having served three extra years on his 22-year sentence for murder thanks to parole board delays, even though he was a model inmate.
He was released in central Pennsylvania, where he put on some donated clothes and walked out into the shining sun in Allenwood, about four hours from D.C.
Others have been released in California or Massachusetts or Texas, and D.C. has no way to track their return or guide their reentry.
This is not the stuff that makes the posters and protests and slogans in the District of Columbia’s fight for statehood. Americans who pay taxes, but get no vote in Congress? That rings some bells across the country. Another two senators? Bring it on! Inmate rights? Probably not so much.
But it is important to rebuilding thousands of lives in D.C., and it’s an overlooked piece of the statehood argument that was heard during a hearing on the topic on Capitol Hill this week.
“As we operate right now . . . the entire criminal system in D.C. is federal,” Philip Fornaci, who served as director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, told me, in what was probably his millionth explanation of D.C.’s weird system.
Fornaci has been fighting for decades to get D.C. prisoners their basic rights, which were severely curtailed thanks to the 1997 D.C. Revitalization Act. That saved a financially struggling District with a series of takeover measures. One was to turn most of the felon population over to the U.S. government. It was a money saver, but it meant that D.C. could no longer have a say in the fate of thousands of its incarcerated residents.
And it means that D.C. offenders no longer have a local parole system to judge them according to D.C. laws.
The U.S. Parole Commission “has a profound impact on thousands of D.C. residents and their families,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wrote in a letter to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in July. “Each year, hundreds of D.C. parolees are returned to prison, often for technical violations.”
Marijuana is legal in D.C., but when a parolee is being judged according to federal law, their parole is revoked when their urine shows any trace of weed, Fornaci said.
Across the country, 1.2 million inmates are in state systems, while 226,000 prisoners are in the federal system, according to the Prison Policy Project.
That means most inmates stay within their states and are judged, sentenced and evaluated by folks who know their communities. That’s important if you’re looking at incarceration as rehabilitation, rather than human storage.
I know this personally. When a member of my family was incarcerated, he was allowed to serve time in his state, so family visits were frequent, consistent and therapeutic.
Sawyer also knows this, too well.
When the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections released a report on improving federal prisons, Chairman J.C. Watts called on the federal government to follow states’ leads in making bold changes to the way inmates are treated.
“Unfortunately, Watts and his task force failed to appreciate that for the District, the federal system is our ‘state system,’ ” Sawyer wrote in a 2016 essay in The Washington Post.
That leaves D.C. in a pickle. When advocates asked these task force members for help in giving D.C. guidelines, Sawyer said they told them to get Congress to hear them out.
Um, D.C. doesn’t have a vote in Congress.
See how problematic it is to have a stateful of people with no statehood?
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