Hosea Stevens, who grew up in the District’s Shaw neighborhood, was arrested at 17 and charged with carjacking and armed robbery.
When he turned 18, Stevens was shipped nearly 900 miles away from the central detention facility in Southeast, known as the D.C. jail, to a federal prison in Memphis, where he served the majority of his six-year sentence.
“I was out there on my own,” said Stevens, now 25, whose family could not afford to visit him once during the four years he was in Tennessee. “Emotionally and mentally, I was detached from love.”
Stevens was incarcerated in a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility hundreds of miles from the only city he knew because of the 1997 National Revitalization Act, which required the nation’s capital — then in the throes of a prolonged budget crisis — to close its prison and transfer custody of adult prisoners to the federal government.
“The vast majority of people don’t realize this is how the system works,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chair of the Judiciary Committee.
In the two decades since the District lost control of its prisoners and its court system, which is also run by the federal government, nearly uninterrupted growth has filled the city’s coffers, with reserves totaling more than $2.4 billion in April.
As the District’s wealth has increased, so have calls from advocates — including ex-offenders — to bring home the 4,700 D.C. residents incarcerated in more than 100 federal facilities.
But city officials say building and operating a new prison would be too expensive.
Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said the District has not estimated the price tag but that “the financial burden of operating a prison could only come at the expense of other vital District government programs and services.”
The city still operates the D.C. jail, which houses pre-trial offenders, residents convicted of misdemeanors and convicted felons over age 18 who are awaiting transfer to federal prison. The Correctional Treatment Facility — connected to the jail by a secure catwalk — houses women, juveniles and some minimum- and medium-security male inmates.
Most D.C. inmates — 85 percent — serve time in federal facilities within 500 miles of the District, said a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons. The agency also “makes every effort” to transfer inmates to halfway houses close to their homes, the spokesman said.
Short of building a new prison, officials in the District — where ex-offenders account for 1 in 10 residents — are increasingly trying to ramp up ways to help them adjust to life in the District after prison.
Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) introduced a bill to require the city to maintain a database of ex-offenders returning to the District and provide them with information about housing, employment and applying for birth certificates and identification cards.
Allen has proposed legislation to require services and treatment for offenders between the ages of 18 and 22 to help them stay out of the criminal justice system.
But that programming would be in place only when residents are in the D.C. jail and when they return home — not when they are serving time in federal facilities.
“The elephant in the room that no one is talking about is that we have no control [over the federal prisons],” said Tara Libert, executive director of Free Minds Book Club, which operates in the D.C. jail.
Eddie Ellis, who was convicted of manslaughter when he was 16 and served for 15 years, went without a single visit from his family during the years he spent in the federal penitentiary known as ADX Supermax in Florence, Colo.
When Ellis was released at age 31, he lacked many basic life skills, including how to ride the Metro, he said.
“It’s unfair,” said Ellis, who now runs a nonprofit organization dedicated to mentoring youths and helping those who have been incarcerated reenter society. “They’re sending us all over the country. It’s a strain on everything.”
One of the few opportunities Ellis was offered in prison was a class in banking skills, which, he pointed out, was not particularly helpful because he did not have any money at the time. Job training would have been most helpful, he said.
“When we come home, a lot of us aren’t able to remain strong if we can’t get a job,” Ellis said. “That’s why people go back to what they were doing.”
There is one way that more prisoners could serve time in the District. An agreement between the D.C. Department of Corrections and the Bureau of Prisons allows up to 200 beds in the central treatment facility to be used for D.C. residents with sentences shorter than nine months. The Bureau of Prisons regularly uses no more than 60 of those beds, said Michelle Bonner, executive director of the D.C. Corrections Information Council, an independent monitoring group that inspects facilities where D.C. inmates are incarcerated.
One reason is money: It costs the federal government about $133 per day to house an inmate in the District, compared with $70 to $90 in a federal facility, according to data from fiscal year 2015, Bonner said.
To get the federal government to move more District residents from federal facilities to the D.C. jail, the city could offer to pay the difference in expenses, Bonner said.
Even as advocates push to bring the city’s prisoners home, they recognize the challenges posed by the 41-year-old D.C. jail, located in the Hill East neighborhood in Southeast. A 2015 report about the jail from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee found unsanitary conditions, crumbling walls and “noncompliance with basic standards established by national correctional authorities.”
Only 3 percent of total square footage of the jail and the central treatment facility is dedicated to programming, said D.C. Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth.
The physical constraints of the buildings “tremendously limit” the efficacy of programming, which includes partnerships with the Free Minds Book Club, the Department of Employment Services and the D.C. Public Library, said D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).
They just don’t have the physical space, Allen said. “They frequently have to do some of the programming in the hallways. You have good programming, but it’s not without its challenges.”
Under Gray, who served a single term as mayor before he was defeated by Bowser in the Democratic primary in 2014, plans were drafted to build a new jail in Blue Plains in Southwest D.C., where there would have been retail on the ground floor and a community college on the campus.
“The idea was something that would have been a lot more dignified,” said Gray, who expanded city services for ex-offenders as mayor. “It would have been a center for incarceration, but it wouldn’t have been a typical jail.”
During his failed bid for reelection, Gray also courted ex-offenders who, unlike those in many communities, can cast ballots the day they leave prison.
In early 2016, Bowser deemed Gray’s plan for a new jail “fiscally infeasible.” The proposal would have cost about $1.1 billion, Donahue said.
Although Gray’s plan is no longer on the table, Donahue said he is hoping a more affordable new jail could be built “at some point in the next few years.”
Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the ACLU of D.C., said there have been discussions about redeveloping the site of the current jail but residents of Hill East have not been consulted and there has been little clarity about a timeline.
“The administration has been incredibly opaque,” she said. “The more transparent the executive can be, the better it will be in the long run.”