Since the 2001 closing of the D.C. Correctional Facility at Lorton, Va., convicted felons from the District have been serving their sentences in facilities hundreds of miles away from their loved ones, who sometimes find it hard to visit.

“In fact, over 20 percent of these felons are housed more than 500 miles from their homes,” said Nancy LaVigne, director for the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, during recent testimony on Capitol Hill.

It’s a situation Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton wants to remedy. On May 5, Norton, along with city officials, administrators from the Bureau of Prisons and representatives from public policy organizations, including LaVigne, testified before a House subcommittee at a hearing entitled “Housing D.C. Code Felons Far Away from Home: Effects on Crime, Recidivism and Reentry.” The session focused on challenges inmates encounter related to family contact, rehabilitation and their reintegration into society.

Norton said that in transferring state felons to federal custody, Congress has, for the first time in U.S. history, challenged the Bureau to accommodate inmates sentenced under the District’s local law in a federal prison.

LaVigne testified that District felons face an unusual incarceration experience in that not only are they locked up hundreds of miles from their families, but also potential employers and post-release services.

“Our research has found that in prison, contact with family members is predictive of the strength of family relationships following release,” she said.

She added that other studies have shown that family contact during incarceration is associated with lower recidivism rates and that such contact “can maintain or reinforce attachments to children, giving exiting prisoners a greater stake in conformity upon release.”

On the other hand, LaVigne noted some downsides to housing prisoners closer to home.

“From a correctional security standpoint, the increased visitation that would result from incarcerating people closer to their homes could open up more possibilities for the introduction of contraband into the prisons,” LaVigne said. “And, if D.C. Code felons are housed in fewer prisons closer to home, correctional officers would need to monitor the potential for gang violence more closely.”

District resident and prison rights activist Rhozier Brown, who spent nearly eight years in prison, was housed at federal institutions in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. He said he was lucky to get visits from his family once a year and that the visits usually put an extreme financial hardship on them, considering the costs of traveling, motel accommodations and food.

Inmates can be imprisoned as much as 2,000 miles away from their loved ones, he said, which is a detriment since visits from family members improves the chances of an inmate successfully reentering society.

“Because they closed Lorton, District prisoners are the only group of inmates without a local facility in which to serve time and, that of course, means that they’re committed to the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” Brown said.

“They say they try to keep within a 300-mile radius of D.C.,” he added, “but still the two closest prisons are in Petersburg, Va., and about 250 miles away in North Carolina.”