D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has earned a reputation as a staunch advocate for District statehood, granting the mayor the power to pardon and championing the rights of local residents.
Norton, the 14-term Democrat, has also continued her push to make sure that those in prison maintain certain rights, including raising concerns about certain Federal Bureau of Prisons policies she said harms inmates, returning citizens and their families.
Norton has pushed for the elimination or significant reduction in the fee that residents of residential reentry centers — or halfway houses — must pay to offset the cost of being housed.
This week, she reiterated her position from an earlier letter to Bureau of Prisons (BOP) acting Director Thomas Kane, in which she asked that officials change the policy that limits physical contact during a visitation, particularly between a parent and a young child.
The current policy states that such contact can occur only at the beginning and closing of the visit. Norton also has asked for a change in the visitor’s dress code and that the bureau provide all inmates with the opportunity to receive computer training.
“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 have 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.”
Avis Buchanan, the director of the Public Defender Service in northwest D.C., said this week that BOP would hopefully make the changes suggested by Norton.
“We hope that BOP General [Mark] Inch will make the recommended improvements to the lives of the women and men in BOP custody and their families, and we are grateful that Congresswoman Norton raised these concerns on behalf of the District and these families,” Buchanan said in an email.
In July, Norton introduced H.R. 2988, a bill to eliminate the requirement that residents at BOP halfway houses pay a subsistence fee of 25 percent of their gross income to offset the cost of being housed.
Many halfway house residents work minimum-wage jobs, so the loss of 25 percent of their paychecks is a significant hurdle to successful reentry, making it extremely difficult for them to save money for rent or to pay child support or fines and fees associated with their conviction such as restitution, Norton said.
“Only last year, BOP eliminated subsistence fees for those on home confinement. Far from promoting financial responsibility, subsistence fees actually prevent returning citizens from meeting their financial obligations,” she said. “I am sure you agree that we should not be imposing additional burdens on returning citizens, possibly setting them up to fail. Securing jobs and affordable housing is crucial to successful reentry, and charging subsistence fees is antithetical to this goal.”
Norton said while the stated purpose of the policy limiting physical contact is to minimize opportunity for the introduction of contraband and to maintain the orderly operation of the visiting area, she doesn’t see how allowing a parent to hold his or her young child during the middle of the visitation increases the risk of introducing contraband any more than when the parent is allowed to do so at the beginning and end of the visitation.
“Furthermore, visitors can be required to submit to a personal search, including a search of any items of personal property, as a condition of allowing or continuing a visit, further limiting the possibility of transferring contraband,” Norton said.
The congresswoman, whose work for full congressional voting representation and for full democracy for the people of the District of Columbia continues to be her lifelong struggle, also urged the bureau to change its visitor dress code policy.
“I was stunned to learn of families traveling hundreds of miles, often at a great financial sacrifice, to visit a loved one in a BOP facility only to be turned away for wearing improper clothing, including shorts,” she said. “While I understand that BOP may need to ban certain items of clothing, such as those that are see-through, BOP’s policy appears overbroad, arbitrary and to disproportionately affect women.
“Unless particular items of clothing could reasonably be expected to lead to a breakdown in good order, visitors should not be denied access to a BOP facility because of what they are wearing,” Norton said.
Norton also said it’s important that inmates be given every opportunity to succeed as returning citizens, which should include computer and technology training.
“Knowing how to operate a computer is essential to functioning in society today, and is increasingly necessary for finding and applying for jobs,” she said. “One part of the mission of BOP is to provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens. Computer training should be central to fulfilling this part of its mission.”