Del. Norton Fights for D.C. Inmates Rights

by: James Wright Special to the AFRO jwright@afro.com
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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) wants to make sure that incarcerated constituents’ rights are respected and they will be able to live their lives as fully possible. On July 27, Norton wrote a letter to Thomas Kane, the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), regarding concerns she has with District inmates and how they are treated by the agency.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District in the U.S. Congress. (Courtesy Photo)

“D.C. inmates already face tremendous challenges due to the unique circumstances of being housed in BOP facilities that are hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles away from their families and loved ones,” Norton said. “While we have made some initial progress in our fight to make male and female D.C. inmates housed closer to the District, there are several significant steps BOP can take now to facilitate the transition of returning citizens back into civil society and to implement common-sense policies that help ease the already painful separation between inmates and their families.”

The District had a facility in Lorton, Va., from 1910-2001, that housed its prisoners. It was closed in 2001 because of overcrowding, poor physical appearance, and concerns about costs to the District. As a result, District inmates were moved to the BOP.

District inmates are the only local offenders in the federal system.

In her letter, Norton asks Kane to act on four specific policies: eliminate or significantly reducing the fee residents of halfway houses pay for their housing; changing the policy limiting physical contact during a visitation, particularly between a parent and young child, from only the beginning and close of the visitation; changing the visitor dress code; and providing all inmates the chance to receive computer training.

Also, Norton introduced legislation to eliminate the subsistence fee, a fee the inmate pays to subsidize the costs of food, clothing, laundry, etc. Norton said the agency has the power to do that. “The Department of Justice itself has recommended eliminating this fee and has indicated that BOP has the authority to eliminate it or reduce it,” she said.

Debra Rowe, executive director of Returning Citizens United, an advocacy group, supports what Norton is trying to do. She told the AFRO Norton “is addressing real concerns here. The dress code has been an issue for a while.”

Rowe talked about a District mother who went to visit her son in the South but was denied seeing him because of what she was wearing. “It wasn’t tasteless and it was 100 degrees outside where her son is,” Rowe said.

Eric Weaver, chairman of the National Association of Returning Citizens, agreed with Rowe that the dress code is unfair. “They do discriminate against you on how you dress,” Weaver told the AFRO. “They will let some people come in with tight jeans and some others not.”

Weaver said he is aware that some clothing is distracting to inmates and there is a potential for the illegal transfer of contraband, but said that’s not enough to prevent a visit with an inmate.

Regarding personal contact, Rowe knows of an incident that had many female inmates emotional at a facility. “A little boy was visiting his mother and was made to sit across the room from her and she wasn’t allowed to hold him,” she said. “At the end of the visit, the boy cried out ‘you don’t love me’ and left the room upset. When the incident circulated around the facility, most of the female inmates were crying.”

Weaver agreed with Norton that the subsistence fee should be eliminated. “When you enter the halfway house, they don’t tell you about the subsistence fee,” he said. “You get a minimum wage job and have to pay 25 percent of that.”

Weaver said that Norton’s insistence on computer training is good, noting many inmates are computer-illiterate when they enter the prison system and have trouble working with computers. “I’ve seen guys get frustrated working with the mouse,” Weaver said. “They definitely need more computer classes. There are some prisons that have 2,000 inmates, classes that have 20-25 people, and have a long waiting list that can take up to two years to get into a class.

“That can be a problem when you are on a waiting list and you have been transferred to another facility closer to home if your sentence is coming to an end. You won’t get the chance to take the class.”

Rowe praised Norton for her efforts, saying the delegate “has always been there for us.” However, Weaver said Norton could address “larger issues” but didn’t go into specifics.

Norton asked Kane to respond to her letter in 30 days.

When asked to respond on Norton’s letter, BOP told the AFRO via email Aug. 7, “The Bureau of Prisons responds to congressional inquiries as a matter of course.”

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