Robert White
D.C. Council member Robert White (Courtesy photo)

Each year, an estimated 2,000 to 8,000 men and women return to the District after incarceration — a predominantly Black population routinely challenged by a daunting combination of institutional barriers.

On Thursday, Nov. 2, Council member Robert White hosted a screening of the newly released documentary “Returning Citizens” at the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast followed by a panel discussion to raise the conversation on issues faced by formerly incarcerated men, women and youth.

“What you learn when you talk to returning citizens is that these are folks who just want an opportunity … but they can’t get a crack in the door sometimes,” White said.

One of the greatest issues facing returning citizens, as articulated by the panel, continues to be securing sufficient housing upon release. Unlike one panelist, Charles Thornton, who had the good fortune of being provided housing by a mentor upon his return, many are either left without a home or forced to resort to temporary accommodations.

“We do have individuals who are leaving federal prisons and transitioning back into shelters. And the opportunity to have success coming out of a shelter is almost zero-to-nothing,” said Thornton, 56. “Imagine carrying your bags to a job interview. It doesn’t work.”

While securing employment after a stint behind bars should certainly be celebrated, some returning citizens say the greatest challenge remains keeping the job.

Consider the situation faced by Eric Weaver, 47, who had to fight for his right to be employed. After working with an organization for about a year, he was told to leave due to his former incarceration. Despite having passed the proper clearance, his employer told him he could not work with children.

Within two months of securing an attorney who examined and presented the law, Weaver received good news: he’d gotten his job back. For returning citizens, knowledge of one’s rights when integrating back into the workforce is vital, he expressed, as it may be the defining factor for employment.

“We have to educate our population because a lot of times employers do things to us simply because we don’t know that they can’t do them,” said Weaver who also participated one the panel.

The four panelists, all returning citizens and featured in the film, emphasized the importance of family. Lashonia Thompson, 44, dealt firsthand with the confusion that can exist between relatives when returning home. She believes introducing resources such as family therapy and coaching could help the healing process.

“When I came home, my children were young adults, so my family who raised my children, thought that I should bounce back quicker, despite the fact that I was only 19 years old when I became a mom and had spent all of my adult years in prison,” Thompson said, “If I would’ve had more support, in terms of ways to sit down and talk about what we were going through as a family, I would have probably experienced a lot less emotional trauma.”

And while adults constitute the largest percentage of the incarcerated population, youth also populate the system. Once they return home, they, too, face challenges when adjusting back to society. The District offers a wide range of resources for juveniles. However, as stated by panelist Brittany Floyd, 22, there’s room for improvement.

“We do have a lot of youth services in the District but it’s tough to find intimate youth services where you can really trust people know that it’s a safe place,” Floyd said.

White opened the conversation with his personal testimony about the challenges of reentry. A native Washingtonian, he witnessed his brother struggle to adjust upon returning home — an experience, he says, that propelled him to enact legislation.

In addition to curating a space for conversation, he has introduced measures like the Returning Citizens Opportunity to Succeed Act — a bill that, if adopted, would require the city to make contact with returning citizens six months prior to release and begin the process of getting them identification and access to employment and housing. The proposed act would also include a $100 stipend to assist returning citizens in travel expenses during their job search.

A hearing for the Returning Citizens Opportunity to Succeed Act is set to take place on Dec. 7 at a site to be announced.

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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