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Len Sipes: Hi. Welcome to DC Public Safety. I am your host, Leonard Sipes and ladies and gentleman, today’s show is on corrections monitoring and reentry featuring the work of the Corrections Information Council of Washington DC. This is really interesting. They’re the only civilian body authorize to go into the institutions of the Federal Bureau of Prisons throughout the country. So to talk about the work of monitoring what goes on inside of correctional facilities, we have two guests with us today, Michelle Bonner. She is the chair of the Corrections Information Council and Reverend Samuel Whitaker. He is a board member of the Corrections Information Council. And to Michelle and Reverend Whitaker, welcome to DC Public Safety.
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: Thank you, Leonard.
Michelle Bonner: Thank you.
Len Sipes: This is really an interesting concept because you have government bodies throughout the country that go into correctional institutions and they inspect and they certify but this time, Michelle, it’s a civilian body doing it. So give me an overview of the work of the Corrections Information Council.
Michelle Bonner: Sure. The Corrections Information Council is a civilian body as you said with two members appointed by the Mayor and one by the City Council of the District of Columbia. And our mission and our mandate is to inspect and monitor the prisons’ jails and halfway houses where DC residents are incarcerated.
Len Sipes: Now, we’ll go over that a little bit because this is interesting and we have to explain this for the audience throughout the country. The people who go from the District of Columbia, in this case, just because they are violators of the local law, they go to a federal institution and that all goes back to August of 2000, correct, in terms of the Revitalization Act?
Michelle Bonner: Yes. And that’s how the Corrections Information Council was actually formed back in that 1997 Revitalization Act where DC does not have a prison. And so all of those residents who are convicted of felonies are sent to over 100 different Federal Bureau of Prison facilities throughout the country.
Len Sipes: Right. And this was to ostensibly take the burden off of the District of Columbia and to put it along to whether it would be ordinarily would be ostensibly a state function. So Baltimore, Baltimore doesn’t have its own prison system. Baltimore has the State of Maryland that takes care of corrections. In this case, due to budget constraints within the District of Columbia, certain functions were federalized and part of that were DC code violators, people who are convicted of DC crimes, they go to federal prisons throughout the country.
Michelle Bonner: Exactly. And as DC is not a state, we don’t have that state system to which to send our residents who have been convicted of crimes.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Michelle Bonner: That’s why we have our DC residents sent to Federal Bureau of Prison facilities. And right now, we have about 6000 DC residents who are incarcerated, and like I said, in about 100 facilities across the country.
Len Sipes: Reverend, now, they’re spread all throughout the country. Now, they’re supposed to be what? Correct me if I’m wrong, 500 miles of the District of Columbia that was the original intent of placing DC offenders into the Federal Bureau of Prisons – I think within 500 miles.
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: To my understanding that was their original intent…
Len Sipes: Right.
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: …but since then it just sort of grew and mushroomed and they sent them out at least 33 states.
Len Sipes: Right.
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: All over the place, like Michelle said, over 100 institutions.
Len Sipes: Now, that’s impossible for the families to connect with the person who is incarcerated and makes it extraordinarily difficult to keep the family and community ties when your hundreds of miles away from the District of Columbia.
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: You’re right. It is impossible, henceforth, the Corrections Information Council because that’s what we do. We will go visit where families can’t visit and we will oversee where the families – nor our government could oversee.
Len Sipes: Right.
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: We have a small board that we are working with. Preferably we’ll grow more but we are just instituted it this past summer and I think we are making good headway as of beginning.
Len Sipes: And Michelle, that gets to the larger point of the mission of Corrections Information Council because as Reverend Whitaker just mentioned, they represent the families. If the families can’t make it down there, somebody from the District of Columbia who goes into all of these different prisons to make sure that the prisons are operating with. I mean, first of all, there is a security issue and that’s got to be taken care of. I mean they are there because they’ve committed a crime but, nevertheless, there are programmatic issues to be taken care of. There are family issues to be taken care of and that’s I think hints at the work of this civilian body, the Corrections Information Council, in terms of what you do.
Michelle Bonner: That’s exactly it. And we consider ourselves the eyes and ears of the DC residents, of the citizenry of the District of Columbia to go into the facilities to ensure that the constitutional and the human rights are protected and beyond that, we do look at beyond the bricks and mortar or the standard policies of the institutions to look at some of the programming and how DC residents connect back to the District of Columbia prior to coming home.
Len Sipes: Right.
Michelle Bonner: Because, as you know, reentry starts on the day that you enter prison not on the day that you –
Len Sipes: And that is something the Federal Bureau of Prisons makes very plain. That’s their goal is that reentry starts the day you walk into the door.
Michelle Bonner: And so we provide that perspective for the DC citizens, the average DC citizen and although there are government inspections, there are others, you know, corrections accreditation agencies that go in and inspect. There are actually may be lawyers who go in and inspect and legal cases, we provide that perspective from the ordinary citizen on what would we want our relative to have if, unfortunately, they were incarcerated understanding that it is incarceration. We are not expecting Club Med, but just that the basic needs are met and beyond that that people are prepared to come home when they do return home.
Len Sipes: And Reverend, I think that that’s a very important part of all of these because programs do play such a role. I mean, I’ve taken a look at a variety of pieces of research that said that programs, whether they be GED or plumbing certificate or welding certificate, learning how to read, focusing on substance abuse or focusing on mental health issues, all of those are extraordinarily important to keep that person out of the criminal justice system when they come out of that Federal Bureau of Prison facilities in Arkansas or North Carolina, that they come back prepared and that’s one of the things that you go into those institutions to look at.
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: Yes, and that’s one of the things we do look at because when we talk to returning citizens, we ask them are they meeting your needs or are they giving you any skills or vocational skills to help you when you leave this place. And sometimes, they will say yes, but sometimes they would say no. And if the answer is no, we would shed light on why isn’t this person getting the vocational skills he needs that’s going to help him when he gets outside of these facilities. So that’s a very important question and it has been answered in positive and negative.
Len Sipes: But I just find this so unique because it’s a civilian body. I mean, when I came from the Maryland Department of Public Safety, we had tax paid employees from the state that would go out and inspect the correctional institutions of the counties I mean. So the idea of people going into correctional facilities and taking a look at them and taking a look at how they operate is not unusual but you guys, it’s a civilian body, so are you welcomed with open arms?
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: Let me share this. Recently, I was in Houston, Texas on a business – church business and I have called out program analysts and I let the chair know that since I was close enough, I was going to visit Beaumont, Texas where USP Beaumont is. And in two days, I’m calling the BOP office, my program analyst got me accessed to go visit Beaumont which I got to see some of our inmates that were in there. So they do respect our authority and they know what we’re about when we come in because through Charles Samuels and his office, they gave us access and they were very pleased to have – our inmates, the DC inmates were very pleased to have somebody from Washington DC to come visit them. I mean after they got over the shock, they started giving me their attention.
Len Sipes: It’s that connection, isn’t it? It’s a connection with whom the research seems to indicate that connection with home is very important in terms of that person either continuing a life of criminal activity or the person becoming a tax payer instead of a tax burden, having those home connections.
Michelle Bonner: And I think that it’s a public safety issue. The DC Corrections Information Council, we are under the Deputy Mayor’s Office For Public Safety And Justice and we take that very seriously in that the preparation that people get while they are incarcerated from when they come back home, we know that it’s important to obtain employment and obtain housing and to have those stable job and stable housing so that it does reduce recidivism.
Len Sipes: Right.
Michelle Bonner: And that decreases the number of people who go back to prisons. That decrease the costs of further incarcerations of people who go back to prison and also by reducing recidivism, it makes our community safer. And so we all, the families of those incarcerated as well as the rest of the community, find it very important to see and make sure that people who are incarcerated come back to a more stable situation when they do come home.
Len Sipes: Sure. Now, you also inspect not only the institutions of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, you also inspect the DC jails.
Michelle Bonner: Yes.
Len Sipes: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Michelle Bonner: We have two jails in the Department of Corrections here in DC and we are mandated to inspect both of those facilities as well as the halfway houses and we have had a few meetings with the Director of the DC Department of Corrections and have gained access and have been on tours of the facilities and also have monitored the video visitation and we will be issuing a report on that shortly and so, yes, we are mandated to do that and as those facilities are local, we will be doing that on a regular basis.
Len Sipes: Here’s a question. I spent 30 years in corrections. I started off at law enforcement and I’ve spent 30 years in corrections mostly community corrections, but when I was at the State of Maryland, we had a variety of prison systems. Now, you guys are not part of the formal criminal justice system as I have been over the course of the last 30-40 years, what’s your impression as to what you see?
Michelle Bonner: We come from different backgrounds. Our third board member, Catherine Huffman, has a legal background and she is a consultant and she does consulting work on legislative affairs, some involvement of criminal justice system, so she does have some experience there. And Reverend Whitaker can of course share his connection and I have had experiences as a criminal defense attorney and have done criminal defense work in my past. So I come to it from a perspective of an attorney in doing legal visits but it’s very different going in as an independent civilian monitoring persons who goes in and is looking at all aspects of the facilities, not just the legal visiting hall, but looking at the kitchens and looking at the medical facilities and looking at the programming. It is very different.
Len Sipes: You just gave me a lawyer’s answer, Michelle. What is your gut sense? Reverend, I’m going to give you a shot at this call.
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: Well, being a native Washingtonian as I was younger; I was running from law enforcement most of my time. Okay. But you know, as I started pastoring and go in ward 7 and a whole lot of the incarcerated come back to ward 7. My impression of law enforcement is that they are really trying to help. They are really trying to help those that need help. They are really trying to help them once they do come back from incarceration because they know who they are. So when they see them on the street, they would stop and they would have conversations with them and let them know they don’t want to go back to where they’ve been so they help try not to have them return to the same lifestyles that got them in there in the first place.
Len Sipes: That I understand but I’m talking about your impression of the correctional facilities and we have only a couple of minutes left. When you toured these institutions, what is your gut reaction?
Rev. Samuel Whitaker: My gut reaction is that those law enforcement officers are doing the best they can to help those inmates that are incarcerated. That’s my gut reaction.
Len Sipes: All right. Michelle?
Michelle Bonner: Well, my impression is that when we come, so far we’ve only had announced visits and announced tours. The staff has been very accommodating and we had the opportunity to speak to DC inmates at the facilities and I think that’s very important. I understand that there is some cleaning up that’s done before we arrive. But to be able to speak to DC residents one-on-one and we’ve been given the opportunity to do so when we do the tours is just that we’re able to do that, just that we are able to enter the facilities to conduct the work of the CIC, I’ve been very impressed by the access and accommodations.
Len Sipes: And Michelle, you’ve got the final word. Ladies and gentleman, stay with us as we go with another round of experts on the second half as we discuss this very interesting concept of civilians doing corrections monitoring and looking at the focus on the reentry in correctional facilities throughout the country. We will be right back.
Len Sipes: Hi and welcome back to DC Public Safety. I continue to be your host, Leonard Sipes, and we continue to discuss corrections monitoring and re-entry in the United States, the work of the Corrections Information Council here in Washington DC and, again, I find this so unique, it’s a civilian body throughout the rest of country, they have government employees that go and inspect correctional facilities here at the District of Columbia and throughout the country where we have District of Columbia offenders housed by various institutions within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They go throughout the country and they visit these institutions, they visit the DC jail and they interact with the community and that’s supposed to be the conversation we will have on the second half. Cara Compani, she is a program analyst for the Corrections Information Council and we also have Courtney Stewart, he is the chair of the reentry network for returning citizens. And to Cara and to Courtney, welcome to DC Public Safety.
Cara Compani: Thank you.
Cortney Stewart: Thank you.
Len Sipes: All right. Cara, work at the community, I mean we have this civilian body that goes into correctional institutions that’s so unique and so different in the United States and we talked to Michelle and Reverend Whitaker on the first half about this but the community component, working with the community is very important, correct?
Cara Compani: Correct. Yeah and I think that’s one of the things that makes our body so unique is that the community, their experiences, and their concerns are of the utmost importance to this body. Our job is to inspect and monitor conditions of confinement and it is – we are unable to do so without hearing from formerly incarcerated individuals, returning citizens to their families, their loved ones, and also advocates in the DC community to tell us really, hey, this is what’s going in certain facilities and you need to look at these issues.
Len Sipes: And that’s difficult though because somehow someway you’ve got to explain what these correctional facilities are capable of from a budget point of view and what the expectations of the community are so that I can see there being quite a gap between those expectations and what correctional facilities are capable of doing.
Cara Compani: Yes. And so an independent body, we look at all those concerns. We hear from citizens. We also talk to people at correctional facilities, at the Federal Bureau of Prisons or DC Department of Corrections and we take all that into account and make the recommendations that are best suited to serve our residents across the country and here in the district.
Len Sipes: All right. Courtney, now you represent a re-entry community. And so you’ve been doing this for quite some time.
Cortney Stewart: Yes.
Len Sipes: You have impressions. You’re a part of the council. You work with the council. You probably bring a more authentic point of view that anybody sitting in this room because you’ve experienced and you’ve lived it and you worked with people coming out of the prison system every day. What’s your impression of the work of the CIC and what’s your impression about the correctional facilities that people are coming from?
Cortney Stewart: Well, my impression of the CIC is that it’s a need especially now and the community, they are concerned with people returning that are unemployed, for instance, or are walking around the neighborhood with nothing to do or they can’t get housing and the shelters are all crowded. So the community is very concerned about this because they are the last line of defense, so to speak. So the CIC’s mandate is very important to the community, actually the community needs to know more about the CIC so that they can be involved and help to support the things that they are going to be doing.
Len Sipes: But the question goes either to one of you, again, like the question I asked Cara, you live between two worlds. I mean there are the people coming back out of the prison system who are re-entering into the District of Columbia, but they are going re-entering into every city of the United States. They all have the same issues. We want programs. We want substance abuse programs, mental health programs, training for jobs within the prison system. They want reentry programming but these prison systems, not just the Federal Bureau of Prisons, any prison system, I mean we’re all taking budget cuts. It’s very difficult to provide that programming. That was not their mission 10 years ago. Their mission was to constitutionally incarcerate. Now, suddenly we are coming along and saying reentry, preparing individuals in the prison system for their successful transformation from tax burden to tax payers. That’s now important. That’s a brand new mission for them. Isn’t that difficult in terms of explaining that to the community?
Cortney Stewart: Well, we made changes from reentry to humanity because DC specifically, these individuals are all over the country and in some instances and so family members, people even their lawyers, people who are supporting them cannot get to them. So a lot of times when they do return back to the community, they haven’t had any contact, any connection with anyone so this is critical specifically to the District of Columbia. And it’s an issue. It’s an issue of when you have a loved one that you have not seen or been in contact with it’s almost like out of sight, out of mind. So when these individuals return, a lot of them are unskilled. A lot of them are trauma, you know, they’re dealing with different types of emotions and disabilities or mental relapses or whatever you want to call them and so the support system wasn’t there. So you can see the disconnection. They come back, they’re a lot of the property and a lot of changes have been made throughout the cities so to re-integrate is almost – you know, where do they start? So I think that when you look at the District of Columbia, it’s a little different from other jurisdictions.
Len Sipes: It is different from other jurisdictions but I think there are far more commonalities and then there are differences in this. What you’re describing applies to just about every correctional facility in the country. Go ahead, Cara.
Cara Compani: The real difference is this – it’s the distance. We have DC residents in California and Texas, Washington state, all over the country, they don’t have the same connections to services that returning citizens need to employment services, to their families, to their loved ones. I get letters from people and they say, I haven’t seen my kids in five years. That same problem does not exist around the country in the same way it does because DC residents are transferred to Federal Bureau of Prison custody.
Len Sipes: Okay and so everybody who is watching – who is watching this program is now saying given themselves passionate answer, Cara. Does the work of the CIC, is it effective? Does it transcend that distance? That 500-mile distance between the District of Columbia and that prison? And I’ll disagree with you a little bit. When I was with the Maryland System, if you have somebody in Baltimore and they are incarcerated in Cumberland, that’s like the other side of the moon. I mean even 200 miles is 200 miles versus 500 miles. So this is – I still think this is common – a common discussion throughout the country to a large degree but what’s the impact of the Corrections Information Council? Why is it important? And how does it transcend those boundaries?
Cara Compani: Well, our goal is to make recommendations so there can be a bridge there. So there can be a bridge to services that people need when they return to the district and also so that their family members and loved ones and the government of the district can know what’s going on at these facilities.
Len Sipes: Right.
Cara Compani: So concerns as medical care. Just really basic human concerns, we need to make sure that those are being met in addition to programming and everything else because we’re so far away, we don’t have the ability to do so as a state would. So that’s why the Corrections Information Council is so important.
Len Sipes: Courtney, do you agree with that? Do you think that it’s powerful enough to have that connection?
Cortney Stewart: Absolutely, when you think about the community, the community feels like they have been dealt a bad deal you know what I mean. Especially within the last five years with the r-entry being highlighted in all of these different areas of concern especially since you talk about budget cuts and the city does not have the safety net that it used to so the community is almost – you know this has dropped in their lap of families and community organizations and CBOs and things of that nature. So it’s a big concern. The CIC helps bridge that concern, helps support, you know, put these individuals at ease, so to speak, when it comes to their families.
Len Sipes: But I think that that may be the best summation of the CIC is work and the larger message for people watching this from throughout the United States and beyond the United States, it is the community. The community is that entity impacted by people coming out of the prison systems unprepared. So you are that bridge. You are representing the community. So you’re not just representing the District of Columbia, you are representing the community and that’s something that anybody can identify with. Cara.
Cara Compani: Yes. As I started out with the DC community is of the utmost importance to us and that’s who we looked in for information.
Len Sipes: But that’s the impact. They’re the recipients of people coming out of the prison system. We are all the recipients of people coming out of the prison system. So you are actually the representative, the direct representative of the citizens of the District of Columbia or for that matter, the citizens of any city throughout the county through this conception. You’re the representative of the citizens.
Cortney Stewart: Absolutely. Reintegration, I mean right now, I heard you mentioned programming. You know reintegration for the DC residents in particular, I mean, we need reform. A lot of these individuals, if you think about someone post incarceration, for instance, the CIC getting involved with someone after they have been sentenced and then finding out what their destination is, a prerelease – a prerelease plan. Because right now, you have individuals who are coming back to the city, they don’t have the skill set because they might have been mopping floors in one of these federal institutions and they come home and they cannot get a job as a janitorial or they may have been doing hair, you know, a bob [PH] or, you know, something that requires a license. You could not get that license based on having a felony, for instance, so we could – you know these individuals are going to need some help. They’re going to need some additional support so it would do us great to understand going to these facilities and finding out whether or not our residents are receiving the proper –
Len Sipes: So now people watching this program is saying, well, are you having an impact?
Cara Compani: I believe we are. And what I hear from the community is that we are, too.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Cara Compani: We’ve already been to several facilities and Federal Bureau of Prison facilities, halfway houses here in DC, and also DC Department of Correction Facilities. We’re writing up our recommendations and serving our residents here and I do believe we are having an impact.
Len Sipes: Is there any commonality in terms of the recommendations as you go from one facility to the other.
Cara Compani: That’s something that we can’t report on yet because we haven’t been to enough facilities. As Michelle stated, we are in over 116 facilities in 31 states. So we haven’t reached a large enough portion of those facilities yet to make that determination.
Len Sipes: All right. And in the final two minutes, I’m going to stick you guys with the same questions I had to Reverend Whitaker and to Michelle. What is your impression as you walk – I mean I can remember the first time I walked to a prison. And I’ve been in prisons hundreds of times. And I always have a certain impression when I’m in and out of a correctional facility. What is yours?
Cara Compani: Well, I really enjoy speaking with our DC residents wherever we are. So that’s actually my favorite part of our visits is talking to them and seeing what’s going on. But I really enjoy it. We’ve had really great visits so far and just to see what our residents are up to.
Len Sipes: Courtney, what’s your thoughts about – well, you’ve been in there before so what’s your impression about going back?
Cortney Stewart: Well, you know, I’m not going back but my impression is that they’re very clean, that’s for sure. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, they do a very good job of keeping them nice and clean. I think that they need more improvements though. We are in the 21st century and so a lot of things -you know when you talk about budget cuts and I don’t think that that is a good substitute for someone who could end up in the prison industrial system the rest of their life, you know what I mean. And so these institutions, they could do – reform to me is the key. You know when I went to prison, I studied, I did went to Control Data Institute. I was in UDC and various other programs. Yes, the University of District of Columbia.
Len Sipes: And those were important to you. We have to close.
Cortney Stewart: Sure.
Len Sipes: Right?
Cortney Stewart: Yes.
Len Sipes: And the whole idea of the programs meant something to you and meant something to your successful life.
Cortney Stewart: Absolutely.
Len Sipes: All right. Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been watching DC Public Safety as we discuss the work of corrections monitoring and reentry of the Corrections Information Council here in the District of Columbia. Watch for us next time as we explore another very important topic in today’s criminal justice system and please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.