In the District, six out of 10 returning citizens are arrested within five years of their release from prison. Without stable housing, familial ties or drug addiction/mental health treatment, many of them stand significantly unprepared to take advantage of the District’s growing catalog of resources designed for their successful transition.
This conundrum inspired two returning citizens homecoming celebrations this year, the most recent of which was held Sunday at a local church.
For two hours, dozens of women and men broke bread, gathered toiletries and new clothes, and engaged representatives of D.C. government agencies, financial institutions, job training and drug addiction programs in one-on-one discussions.
“The last time we were here, Catholic Charities housed 14 people. Before we get into the middle part of winter, we need to get as many services as possible to our returning citizens,” said Russell Patterson Jr., organizer of the event at First Seventh Day Adventist Church on 8th and Shepherd streets in Northwest.
Sunday afternoon’s program opened with a selection from singer Valerie Dawkins. An audience nearing 100 later listened as their fellow returning citizens, now gainfully employed, reflected on their post-conviction journey. Some of these speakers represented Regional Addiction Prevention, Inc., or RAP, and the Washington Council AFL-CIO’s Building Futures Construction Pre-Apprenticeship program.
The Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs (MORCA), DC Department of Insurance, Securities, and Banking, and Industrial Bank, among other entities, sent representatives. In her comments to guests, a lawyer from legal advocacy program Rising for Justice issued a call for the Bowser administration to ease the criminal record expungement process.
The returning citizens’ homecoming celebration preceded a Thanksgiving dinner, open to the public, scheduled for Thursday morning at First Seventh Day Adventist. On Sunday, the first 40 returning citizens who entered the church received $30. An on-site barber also shaped up the men, free of charge.
Patterson, first elder at First Seventh Day Adventist and leader of his own prison ministry, said his outreach strategy involved passing out flyers and conversing with people in the trenches.
“This is the first time these agencies came in and had a group of people to talk to,” he said. “We’re touching people, developing relationships, and telling them they need housing and drug treatment.”
In recent years, the District has increasingly embraced its returning citizens population, as seen in the restoration of their voting rights and discussion about making similar overtures to D.C. residents in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As it relates to returning citizens’ livelihood, MORCA and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency collaborate with other government agencies and local service providers to help returning citizens meet their needs.
Amid concerns about strengthening intradepartmental collaboration and bridging returning citizen information gaps, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the launch of the READY Center, a one-stop shop of post-conviction resources. Through this program, MORCA, in conjunction with the Department of Corrections, Department of Behavioral Health, Department of Motor Vehicles, and Department of Human Services, connects returning citizens with their needs when they visit 1901 D Street SE immediately upon their release.
District residents leaving the prison system return to changed communities and job markets that can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and disconnection. For many, a felony conviction becomes the scarlet letter that prevents employment and eligibility for subsidized housing in an increasingly expensive city.
As returning citizen Carlton Everett said, it also invites disrespect from authorities on the streets and in the courtroom.
On Sunday, Everett sought legal services regarding what he alleged as his two-hour beating at the hands of security officers at the Safeway on Alabama Avenue in Southeast during the latter part of last year. He said this event transpired just days before his arrest and transfer to United States Penitentiary McCreary in Kentucky.
Despite not getting the information he requested, Everett beamed at the two suits he received and the prospects of acquiring a commercial driver’s license.
“I got confirmation and a peace of mind. It’s been slow [since I came home] but I’ve been accomplishing and finding a lot of side work,” Everett said. “My [civil suit] was filed in D.C. Superior Court with Judge Flanagan. He gave Safeway 21 days to respond and they failed to do so. I filed a motion for default judgment [and] he kept throwing it out. I have permanent nerve damage [in my hands and wrists]. I deserve justice.”