DC residents discuss ideas for a new prison annex

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A group of district residents, returning citizens, restorative justice and activists held a virtual meeting Wednesday to brainstorm what city leaders should provide in a proposed new correctional facility.

The District Prisons and Justice Task Force – which includes advocates from the DC Justice Lab, the Council for Court Excellence and Neighbors for Justice – solicited ideas from approximately two dozen residents of Wards 5, 7 and 8 on issues that included programs available to inmates, training for correctional officers, and colors to paint on the walls.

“The point of this is to think about what this new facility might look, feel, smell like,” Angel said. Gregorio, a small business owner with several family members who have been incarcerated, volunteered to moderate the discussion. “We’re designing a prison, and we need everyone here to put on their designer hats.”

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In March, DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) allocated more than $250 million over six years in the city’s capital budget proposal to design and build an addition to the correctional treatment facility in the DC prison, where women and some men in minimum security are held. Bowser’s plan would pave the way for the permanent closure of the adjacent Central Detention Center, which was built in 1976.

The discussion comes after the district struggled to address concerns about conditions at the jail. In November, the US Marshals Service told the Department of Corrections that some detainees facing federal charges would be transferred to a Pennsylvania prison after an inspection revealed the punitive denial of food and water and the conditions unsanitary conditions in prison.

This week’s forum was the fourth in a series designed to solicit community feedback that will be summarized and sent in a letter to Bowser, the DC Council and city corrections officials as city leaders are preparing a design phase for the proposed facility, said Casey Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Council for Court Excellence. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization conducts research and seeks policy solutions for the criminal justice system, according to the group’s website.

The group plans to hold two more forums next week, Anderson said.

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Some residents and activists have suggested creating paint schemes to bring bright, vibrant colors to prison walls as well as encouraging messages to help improve the attitudes of those incarcerated. Other ideas included creating a landscaped college campus environment that would remain clean and sanitized. Some asked for windows that could even be opened to let in fresh air.

Leonard Smith, 36, who was jailed on a first degree murder charge which he says was finally dropped just weeks ago, argued that a clean and more respectful facility was needed. But he still didn’t want more comforts and conveniences to distract men and women from learning the lessons to keep them from losing their freedom in the first place.

“I don’t want to go in there and lay down and be comfortable,” Smith told the group.

In an interview, Smith explained that he had been in prison since he was 18 and had met many people who had never learned how to function on the outside. They kept getting arrested to avoid winter homelessness or trouble in neighborhoods, he said.

“I don’t want to walk into an establishment and I have a 60-inch flat screen TV. I don’t want people walking in there and thinking it’s a playground or a summer camp,” Smith said in a phone interview. “Don’t go in and out the same way; I want people to change. I want them to seek change.

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Anthony Petty of Neighbors for Justice, who returned to the district nearly two years ago after 30 years in prison, countered that improving programs and general conditions would not prevent people from rehabilitating.

Petty first entered Lorton prison when he was 16, then went to correctional facilities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and several in Virginia, he said. he said in an interview, places where violence and negativity escalate far deeper than most prisons.

“When you go to places like that, you adapt to your environment,” Petty told the group.

The 48-year-old now works as a community activist aiming to end the violence and connect with people who are still “behind the wall”, he said in an interview.

“We have to think outside the box with prisons,” Petty said. “I want to be in a place where I can learn and do something positive. It is not necessary to be inhuman for a person to understand that he is incarcerated.

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The group heard proposals to provide new training for correctional officers that would provide cultural competency, specifically targeting the unique experiences of district residents and how to better engage those under stress.

Another person urged officers to hire roles that better support rehabilitation efforts rather than serving as gatekeepers focused solely on maintaining safety and security.

Brittany Vazquez, 29, a forensic social worker who previously worked as a case manager at the DC jail and at Rikers Island in New York, said the city needs to improve rehabilitation services, including providing better access medications and mental services.

Other ideas included more universal access to counseling services for all imprisoned men and women, rather than those diagnosed with mental health issues.

Perhaps the most popular idea presented, centered on creating greater access for incarcerated parents to interact with their children and participate in their schooling and development.

“That’s a great idea! When I worked in New York prisons, there was a program for incarcerated people to virtually read books to their children,” Vazquez wrote in a conversation with meeting attendees. “Keeping families connected is crucial for individuals to successfully transition into the community.

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