Imagine you’ve been sentenced in the District for offenses that in other jurisdictions would land you in a county jail or state facility. In the District, because there are no such facilities, offenders are sent to federal institutions.
If you’re lucky, you might be sent to a prison several hours from D.C. But over 1,200 inmates are shipped thousands of miles away for crimes that in many cases were not heinous.
Knowing this, Mayor Vincent Gray gave impetus to the Correctional Information Council (CIC), an independent entity mandated to inspect and monitor conditions of confinement at facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prison (FBOP), D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) and their contract facilities where D.C. residents are incarcerated. The group was established in 1997 but was almost in a dysfunctional state until recently.
“Reinstating the District of Columbia Corrections Information Council was a top priority of this administration. Their role in monitoring the conditions of confinement for D.C. inmates is critical, especially since a large number of D.C. inmates are housed outside of the jurisdiction,” said Mayor Gray.
One of the District’s best kept secrets is that the CIC consists of one staff member and two interns housed in the bullpen of the Mayor’s communications center. One of two monitoring groups in the country, the CIC detailed in its annual report, as of September 2013, about 74 percent of D.C. inmates was within 500 miles of the District. The other 26 percent, including females, was thousands of miles away, making it virtually impossible for visits by family and friends.
The latest data from the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency indicates that about 5,500 D.C. Code offenders are incarcerated in 111 Federal Bureau of Prison facilities in 32 states. In 2012, there were no inspections by CIC of the 111 facilities. However, in 2013, there were nine. “We have done the best we could with a limited staff,” said Cara Compani, CIC program analyst.
Additionally, the CIC assesses programs and services available to D.C. residents at these facilities. Through its mandate, the CIC will collect information through site visits and inmate interviews, and report its observations and recommendations to the mayor, council, pertinent city agencies, DOC and the FBOP.
“Since we are the only jurisdiction in the country that sends incarcerated residents far away to others states, we need the CIC to assure some type of connection to our incarcerated citizens. The statutory role of the CIC is so broad that I am concerned if they will have enough resources to actually accomplish their mission,” said Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).
CIC is not an advocacy group. “Our mandate is very clear. We can’t advocate or intervene on behalf of an inmate,” said Compani.
In fact, in years past when CIC was perceived as advocating the unjust treatment of inmates, suddenly its funding was frozen.
Prison reform advocates and parents said CIC’s mandate stunts its ability to have a measurable impact that is recognized and respected by the prison system and the DOJ.
“Each prison seems to operate like a country within a country. The bureaucracy to obtain information is overwhelming for families. Many people in prison are poor to begin with and their families don’t have the means to travel or communicate by phone,” said Jenise Patterson, executive director of Parent Watch. “Do you know what it feels like to get a call from a parent whose child has been repeatedly raped or mysteriously killed while incarcerated? Families are screaming out for help to a system that does not care to listen.”
A group directly involved with prison outreach agreed. “The CIC is crucial for our city. It has done an excellent job identifying real areas of concern on a shoestring budget and with just one staff member,” said Tara Libert, co-founder and executive director of Free Minds Book Club, an organization that provides books and writing workshops for inmates. “CIC needs to expand and their reports need to have teeth. We can have them identify problems and issue reports but if there is no ability to enforce them we won’t see timely progress that our DC residents so desperately need and deserve,” said Libert.
According to CIC, the two biggest complaints by inmates are sentence computation and designation and the distance from their home. Research has proven that close family ties are absolutely vital to a returning citizen’s successful homecoming.
“We serve hundreds of men and women in 46 different federal prisons thousands of miles away from home all over the country. They are cut off from their families and loved ones who can’t afford to travel to visit them,” Libert said.
“We need the CIC to be our lifeline to our loved ones. We need to show our DC inmates that we as a city have not forgotten them and are there alongside them supporting them by bringing about the best conditions for rehabilitation as possible in the federal prison system,” said Libert.
“The CIC has exceeded its mandate and shown how valuable its work has been and as a result, I have provided funding for an additional three full time employees beginning in fiscal year 2015,” said Gray.
But others want things to go further. “There should be a hotline for inmates to express complaints and someone to investigate and cause the system to act properly. Video conferencing should be made available without cost to inmates who have been sent thousands of miles away,” Patterson said.