SALMON: Time for D.C. to Move and Really Help Returning Citizens

Hurting clients, a hurting community and hurting taxpayers. Those are the reasons I was moved, a few months ago, to dedicate part of my “Criminal Justice Watch” website to reveal what has come to be known as “Hopeless Village” in the heart of the nation’s capital.

It was intended to shed light on some of the challenges and problems returning citizens have as they try to reintegrate into the communities from which they come. This is also a window to deal with the local and national dialogue on criminal justice issues as well as public service, such as how, more than ever before, citizens expect companies to live up to their societal responsibilities. It also raises the question of what happens when these businesses do not hold up their end of the bargain as good corporate citizens.

Washington, D.C.’s “Hopeless Village” situation exemplified these issues.  Despite a dire community need for — and support for — a new approach to the reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals, a major developer in the city has emerged as the biggest obstacle. With CORE DC ready to open a sorely needed reentry center in the city, Douglas Development – without clear reason – pulled the plug on a lease it had with the social-service provider for space out of which it would operate.

With the clarion question – why? — continuing to echo throughout the community, two things have become increasingly clear: First, any developer who blocks progress without bothering to explain is no friend of the community. Secondly, and most importantly, it’s time to move on.

Barrington M. Salmon
Barrington M. Salmon

There are those who would say that Douglas Development, as a private entity, certainly iswithin its right to change its mind without necessarily giving a reason. But whatever the reason, the public shouldn’t forget this at a time when the city is in desperate need of a space for CORE DC to begin to provide a structured, supervised; yet flexible environment that caters more to the needs of those in the facility, including social services, mental health, than adhering to rules for their own sake.

The issues facing returning citizens are so daunting that there’s no time to waste. When most return home, options for most jobs, housing, mental health counseling are rare.

In a 2016 report, “Beyond Second Chances: Reentry Citizens’ Struggles and Successes in the District of Columbia,” produced by the Council for Court Excellence, the authors note in the executive summary that: “The path home from time in the criminal justice system is a rocky one, no matter who has to walk it or where they are headed. But here, in our nation’s capital, that path is incredibly complex and laden with obstacles, such as overlapping local and federal jurisdictions, a lack of resources to help returning citizens, and systems that do not always serve the unique needs of specific populations.”

And in a letter supporting CORE DC’s decision to open a halfway house in D.C., Washington, D.C.’s Reentry Action Network also stated what’s at the core of the needs of this constituency. “By opening a new halfway house in D.C., as opposed to Maryland or Virginia, the BOP ensures a more effective continuum of care for D.C.’s returning citizens and facilitates family reunification. Residents will be able to access community-based and government programs in the city while at the halfway house and post-release.”

Courtney Stewart, a prison reform advocate who was released from prison in 1985 and who chairs the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens in Washington, D.C, told me that the way the city and federal officials deal with returning citizens is one of profits over people and power and money over all else.

Very rarely are the wants and needs of those returning home taken into consideration. Complaints from those who ended up at Hope Village are rife: rigid adherence to rules regardless of extenuating circumstances, a paucity of mental health services, prohibiting access to the Internet on-site, denying residents passes to meet with non-profits who had offered to help them and failing to provide required transportation assistance to residents.

As Stewart said: “The thing is that these people, the corporations who make up the Prison Industrial Complex, have been getting away with murder for a long time. They’ve been able to sustain the Prison Industrial Complex and they have ruined generations and generations of the Black community. It’s been so devastating, and we still haven’t recovered.”

Stewart said Hope Village is indicative of the careless way that returning citizens have been treated by those getting considerable amounts of money to provide services. And he’s not alone. A chorus of criminal justice reformers and advocates say the same.

“Hope Village could never do better no matter how many opportunities they get,” he said. “They’ve been in the city for 44 years. … They’ve been a part of the problem. They supported profit over people. Looking at the roots and vines, they need to cut the tree down.”

The glaring question that comes to mind is, why has federal and city government officials allowed the problems and abuses at Hope Village to continue for so long? Yes, I’m sure they would argue that, on the whole, the good work outweighed the bad, but even such a statement ignores the very real needs of the people they purported to serve.

Another question to ask is whether policymakers, city leaders and the community has the political will to do what’s right. To their credit,public officials like Council members Robert White and Kenyon McDuffie have signed on to ensuring that any barriers to CORE doing its job are removed. I hope that they are just the tip of a concerted effort by right-thinking elected officials to correct what is and has been an untenable situation.

It’s time for the city to fully embrace the concept of providing a full palette of services to the District of Columbia’s beleaguered returning citizens, and help CORE find the right spot so that it can do its part to transform the lives of people who have paid their debts to society but are still punished by a sometimes heartless, unfeeling city.

It’s not as if D.C. doesn’t have the talent, work power, creativity and innovation to create a system that finally provides services that will help returning citizens rebuild fractured and interrupted lives. It’s past time for society and our city to do the right thing.

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