America Should Embrace Prison Returnees to Our Communities

I am pleased to work and live in our nation’s capital. Washington, DC is a city on the move progressively even amidst the continued existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is one emerging issue in the District of Columbia that in my long career in the field of civil and human rights that I am very concerned about. That is the issue of people returning to our communities from prison.

It’s difficult to argue that there is not an urgent need for better helping former inmates make the difficult transition back to society. A returning citizen with a pathway to gainful employment and secure housing has a better chance of developing a strong connection to his family and community and not returning to prison.

Mass incarceration in America is a serious national problem that needs to be resolved. African Americans, in particular, are disproportionately imprisoned across the country. I personally know what it is like to be unjustly imprisoned and the difficulties of trying to overcome the aftermath of counterproductive stigmas and unfair stereotypes with respect to the lingering unjustified cloud over former prison inmates.

But as a practical matter, common-sense measures that would bolster support for individuals reentering society sometimes meet sharp resistance — even now, as the nation engages in an emotional and painful debate over whether America has lived up to its promise of social justice, equity, and a fair penal system.

That tension between theory and policy is, sadly, beginning to emerge yet again in Washington, DC, where some community advocates have raised objections to plans for a new residential re-entry center that would provide temporary housing, job and skills training, substance-abuse counseling and other critical support for inmates returning home after serving time.

Many residents in DC share the conviction that we must do far more to lend a hand to the thousands of individuals — disproportionately black men aged 21 to 30 — who return to the District each year after periods of incarceration. But right now, DC is without a single re-entry center that is equipped to provide such support.

In a move that would fill that void, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) earlier this month awarded a contract for a new re-entry center in Ward 7. BOP tapped CORE DC for the project, a social service provider that operates a homeless shelter and a home confinement program in DC and is a subsidiary of a non-profit organization that manages homeless shelters and re-entry centers throughout New York City.

The effort to establish a functional re-entry center in Washington, DC, has been a difficult and complicated one, partly because of the troubled history of Hope Village, a social service provider that closed its doors earlier this year, ending its 42-year run as the District’s only option for returning citizens.

Watchdogs and activists, including myself, have long been calling for Hope Village to be shut down due to poor program management and a lack of accountability. Put simply, the provider had lost the trust of the community.