Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Thousands of men and women are released from prison and return home to the Washington area each year. And many find that the “ex-offender” label follows them for years as they seek housing and apply for jobs. We’ll talk about life after prison and what can be done to stop the revolving door back to jail.
- Nancy La Vigne Director, Justice Policy Center, Urban Institute
- Charles Thornton Director, D.C. Office on Ex-Offender Affairs
- Eleanor Holmes Norton Delegate, U.S. House of Representatives (D-DC)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. After five, 10 or 15 years behind bars, the day you get released from prison should be a happy day, but it's not long before the what now questions start up, where will I work, where will I live, how will I reestablish relationships with my family and, most importantly, how will I stay out of trouble so that I don't land back in prison all over again. Thousands of ex-offenders return home to our region each year, and with the economy still in a slump, some people are now asking whether more nonviolent offenders should be released from behind bars to help rescue cash-strapped state budgets.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn this hour and continuing next Wednesday at noon, we're having a series of discussions about life after prison, including the impact of incarceration on families and how best to get people back on track once they return to their communities. Joining us in studio is Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Nancy La Vigne, thank you for joining us.
MS. NANCY LA VIGNEIt's my pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Charles Thornton, director of the D.C. Office on Ex-Offender Affairs. He was previously a workforce development manager with Sasha Bruce Youthwork working with at-risk youth in the District. Charles Thornton, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHARLES THORTONThank you. It's a pleasure for me to be here also.
NNAMDICharles, you were tapped by Mayor Vincent Gray recently to be the new head of the D.C. Office on Ex-Offender Affairs. Tell us a little bit about that office, what it does, what its role is.
THORTONThe role of the Office on Ex-Offender Affairs or the mayor's One City Office of Returning Citizens -- the name is soon to be changed to that.
NNAMDISay the new name again.
THORTONIt will be the Mayor's One City Office of Returning Citizens. There's legislation that's just being introduced by council to change that name. The name ex-offender has been termed derogatory. I look at it as derogatory, and it's looked at as derogatory from a lot of other returning citizens. The primary purpose of the office is to advise the mayor on reentry issues, advocate for returning citizens, and recently to start looking for funding for returning citizens.
NNAMDIYou were once behind bars yourself. Share your story of why you were sent to prison.
THORTONActually, I was sent to prison as direct result of a drug addiction. You know, I had an addiction, and because of that addiction, I committed petty crimes. And as a result of those petty crimes, I was sent to prison.
NNAMDIYou were not a drug kingpin.
THORTONAbsolutely not. No sense of the matter.
NNAMDII think it's safe to say that most people in our audience have probably never been inside a jail cell and will never experience life inside a prison. Describe, if you would, what life was like for you during that time.
THORTONWell, during the time that I was incarcerated, I went to prison right after high school. I graduated from H.D. Wilson in 1979.
NNAMDIYou were a big basketball player there.
THORTONAbsolutely. I was All-Metropolitan in the District and third generation Washingtonian. So when I graduated from H.D. Wilson, I went right into the youth center. And again -- and one of the reasons that I got into the drug dealing, it was the open-air drug markets at the time, and I got right into that. And my experience in prison, and I stayed close to nine years at the old Lorton. I was one that, you know, although there were lots of services at Lorton, they had lots of services for, you know, guys that were there. I didn't take advantage of many of them. I was young. I was 19 years old, and I ran around, played ball and just did dead time -- a lot of dead time.
NNAMDIWhat they call dead time, not taking advantage of any of the opportunities that were offered to inmates in Lorton during that time. You have basically said that a person returning to regular life after years in prison essentially needs to go through a debugging process. What do you mean by that?
THORTONWhat I mean is that when you take an individual and you go from an unnatural society, you know, prison is unnatural. And when you're in prison, you know, the intensity to fear and the, you know, the life in prison is such that after, you know, five, 10, 15 years in the same environment where, you know, there's violence, and, you know, you're on edge all the time. You have to be on edge. When you release that person into society, you know, it's two different societies, you know? So when a person is released back into regular society, you have to, you know, there's therapy that's needed. There's -- actually, therapy is needed.
NNAMDIIt's like being in a high stress trauma situation and then suddenly being returned to society where the vibe is, so to speak, is completely different.
THORTONCompletely different. You know, things that happen, you know, in that unnatural society -- I've had guys come home in the District and just could not adjust to living in society.
NNAMDIWe're talking about returning home from prison and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think is the best strategy for stopping the revolving door between prison and the street? Call us, 800-433-8850. Go to our website, kojoshow.org. Make a comment there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or shoot us an e-mail to email@example.com. We're talking with Charles Thornton. He's director of the D.C. Office on Ex-Offender Affairs, soon to be changed to the One City Office of Returning Citizens. He's joined in our studio by Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
NNAMDINancy, Charles went to prison at a time when there was a real get tough attitude toward crime, as I recall. That doesn't seem to be the national attitude right now, but I'm not quite sure what has replaced it. Give us a sense of the thinking in criminal justice circles these days, particularly when it comes to a situation like Charles's.
VIGNEYes. Well, historically, and by historically, I mean, when Charles was incarcerated, I guess back in the '80s or so...
VIGNE...there was a get-tough on crime environment in the policy arena, and that brought with it a lot of laws and sentencing policies that had people -- more people going to prison and going to prison for longer periods of time. Around the time that George W. Bush came into office, those policies were starting to change, and in fact, President Bush had a big role in that when in his first State of the Union, he said, doesn't everyone deserves a second chance? So that began this reentry movement thinking about, well, we have a lot of people behind bars. They're serving long periods of time. What happens when they come out? Many go back in. Shouldn't we be thinking about doing something differently with them behind bars so that they can actually lead successful lives and not return?
VIGNESo that came with it a lot of federal grants, programs to help states and localities engage in different types of reentry programming efforts behind bars and continuing into the community, and all of that was very promising. So I think that led to a little bit different perspective on the topic of reentry, particularly because someone like President Bush was getting behind the cause, you know, a conservative that enabled a lot of other conservatives to support issues that previously rehabilitation was a democratic liberal concept that conservatives didn't want to get behind at all. So that was really promising, and yet now, we're looking at a slightly different scenario because what we have is states with -- in major budget crises, as we all know.
VIGNEAnd so where they may have at once been investing in programs behind bars. They may be less likely to do so now because of their budget cuts, but at the same time, they're also being forced to make some very difficult decisions about who really needs to be there. So, you know, many of them are looking to reducing prison populations and closing down prisons as one way to save money. And the question is, can they do something differently with those people to help them be more successful?
NNAMDIIt's ironic because this is coming in the middle of a loud national conversation about cutting state budgets by reducing collective bargaining rights of public employees, but it seems that what you're saying is that what we are seeing or should be seeing is also a conversation about the cost of incarceration and what to do about it.
VIGNEThat's right, and that conversation is already happening. There's an initiative called justice reinvestment out there, and essentially what it is, is to get states and localities to think differently about who really needs to be behind bars, who is truly a risk to public safety and who could be served in the community in ways that could actually increase their odds of becoming law-abiding citizens. You know, a lot of people go to prison because of drug addiction issues. Two-thirds of people behind bars have histories of substance addiction. Do they really need to be there? Could they be better served in the community? Even in residential treatment programs in the community, that's a lot more cost effective than putting them in prison far from home and far away from their families.
NNAMDICharles Thornton, when you were incarcerated, how many people did you run into who were incarcerated for nonviolent crimes that had to do with the fact that they were drug addicts?
THORTONAt the time that I was incarcerated, there was, as Nancy mentioned, a big push -- and I'm, you know, speaking more specific to the District of Columbia -- there was a huge heroin epidemic at the time, and it created a -- just, you know, and one of the task forces came out with clean sweep, and I think as a city and the governor, we made the decision to just begin the lockup of addicts. Lockup addicts. And then after that became mandatory sentencing laws for addicts and that -- but the answer to your question, I would say three-fourths of the people that I was incarcerated with were there strictly because of their addiction in one way or another.
NNAMDIAnd when we talk about ex-offenders, how many people are we talking about in our local communities generally speaking. How many people are coming home every year?
THORTONRight now, every year is we have around 22 to 2,500 people who are released from BOP prisons. We also have an additional 7,000 people who are on pre-trial services in the District of Columbia, as well as another 16,000 people that CSOSA monitors.
NNAMDIAnd CSOSA is the Court Supervisors and Offenders Supervision Agency; is that correct?
NNAMDICSOSA. The ACLU estimates that there are 60,000 ex-felons in the District or roughly 10 percent of the population. Well, just who are these people? Let's talk with Bill in Columbia, Md. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLHow are you doing, Kojo?
BILLI've been listening to your show, and I was listening to your guests. I too like your guest got into trouble because of my own addiction. I was honorably discharged from the military, came back home in Southeast D.C. and winded up getting involved in the streets. But now, I'm soon to graduate from college, and, you know, I was able to get a job and keep a steady job because I had to change the way I thought about things. But when you first started the show, you were saying what college graduates or whatever be considered as prey for ex-offenders.
BILLIn my experience, the people that I met that had felonies were mainly as a result of their own doing, or if they were violent felonies committed against someone, it was mainly of people who gravitated to the same world, as far as in the lifestyle of gangs and drugs. It was very little -- very few people I've met that actually committed any crimes against society in general, only their own doing or people who were involved in the same lifestyle as them.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that because I said that deliberately as, frankly, a challenge to the members of our listening audience to say that the perception that people returning home, returning citizens or ex-offenders, see college graduates or people who are doing well as prey because there is that perception among some people, and I wanted to see how people felt about that perception. So thank you very much for bringing it up.
BILLOkay. Yeah, because, you know, this is my experience. And when I was in the lifestyle of, you know, committing felonies or doing anything, it was mainly, like I said, as a result of my own addiction, to feed my addiction. And it really wasn't, you know -- and most of the things that happened out there in the street only happened around people who, you know, was in the same lifestyle as I was.
NNAMDIAnd you were doing more damage to yourself, you're saying, than to anyone else.
BILLYes. Pretty much because that's the only thing I would do, you know? And damage to my family, the people who cared about me, you know?
NNAMDIHow were you able to get back into college and to get your life back on track, Bill?
BILLWell, for one thing, I had to change the way I dealt with society and change the way I thought about things because a lot of people who went to prison with me, when they got out, even those bad, because they don't want to -- they put you right back in the same environment that brought you there in the first place. They don't give you a whole lot of options and, especially now, with the budget problems, it's maybe even worse as far as programs. But what I did is when I got out, I just mainly changed the way I thought. For one thing, I didn't wanna deal with society, the police or whoever the same way I used to. And I had to change the way I thought.
BILLAnd the way I thought...
NNAMDIYou did your debugging, so to speak, by yourself?
BILLYes, I did.
BILLBecause I did while in prison because I didn't waste a lot of time. I mean, you know, I didn't get involved. I mean, you know, when I was prison, there was still the same drugs, the same, you know, shenanigans that they did on the street, just in a different manner. And like you was saying, it's tense all the time, but I just found on my own corner, start sorting my own peace and started working on myself.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, Bill, because I wanted to get back to Charles again and say not everybody can do it the way Bill does, on his own while he was incarcerated. What services are there for people who have been released from prison and are returning home to help themselves to debug, to shed themselves of that kind of mentality that you can develop when you're incarcerated?
MR. CHARLES THORNTONWell, not enough. First of all, let's, you know, be clear on it. There's not enough. And my role as the director of the Office of Returning Citizens, that's one of the things that I'm doing now, really seeing what's out there, you know, a lot of the, you know, programs through the faith community and the nonprofit community, and even some government programs. So I'm in the process now of trying to pull all that together so I can begin to direct people to them.
NNAMDIGonna take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation about returning home from prison. Like to feel -- to see how you feel about the use of the phrase returning citizen instead of ex-offender. Do you want to know whether anybody with whom you come into contact has served time in jail? Is that important to you? Or would returning citizens suffice for you? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about returning home from prison. We're talking with Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and Charles Thornton, director of the D.C. Office on Ex-Offender Affairs Director, soon to be known as the One City Office of Returning Citizens. We wanted to see how you felt about that. 800-433-8850 is the number to call.
NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from Eleanor who says, "A person who was found guilty of committing a crime, sentenced and served time in prison, has completed his or her debt to society should not have to pay for that crime for the rest of their lives. Continuing to call that person a felon should stop. There should not be a line on an application for employment asking if that person has committed either a misdemeanor or felony, unless the job has direct relationship to the crime committed, i.e., bank teller/bank robbery."
NNAMDIAgain, we're inviting your calls, 800-433-8850. This conversation, Charles, is, in a way, a follow up to a show we did several weeks ago on job training. In that discussion, ex-offenders were the group that kept coming up. We've also talked on the show before about what this e-mailer just essentially wrote about. The ban the box issue. Talk a little bit about what ban the box is for people who are not familiar with that.
THORNTONWell, what ban the box is the box is referring to a question that's on most job applications. Have you ever been convicted of a crime? And what that box does is it allows or -- institutions to basically throw applications in the trash. And so, you know, having that box there, what we found, in most cases, it doesn't allow a person, who may be qualified for a position, to get an opportunity to sit down with an employer.
NNAMDIA measure recently passed by the D.C. City Council prohibits district agencies from asking about criminal convictions until after the interview has taken place, thereby giving ex-offenders a better chance at securing a job. That measure does not apply to the police or correctional departments or to positions dealing with children. Nancy La Vigne, what do you think about that?
VIGNEI think it's a sound policy. You know, when you think about it, nobody is saying that by banning the box, we're not gonna do criminal background checks. I mean, most every employer does background checks at this point.
NNAMDIThey Google you and they go to your Facebook page...
NNAMDI...and everything else.
VIGNEAnd, you know -- and perhaps they should. I mean, they have a right to know who they're hiring. But I think that what this does is -- I mean, the fact is that the box doesn't say what the offense was, how long ago it occurred. It doesn't give any of that context that I think that, you know, someone who is otherwise a good candidate could explain. It just -- as Charles says, it just leads to the applications being thrown in the trash.
NNAMDIThe head of the D.C. Police Union, Kristopher Baumann was opposed to the ban the box measure, saying that it would put the public in danger. How would you respond to that? How do you protect public safety while also making it easier for people who have been incarcerated to get back into the workforce, Charles?
THORNTONI'd say by giving people an opportunity to interview for jobs. I mean, that's just -- it doesn't even make sense. We're talking about people who are looking for a job, which, if given a job, will increase public safety. I mean, it's -- for me, it's common sense. Give a person a job, and you don't have to worry about him stealing.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones then. Here now is Perry in Northwest, Washington. Perry, your turn.
PERRYThank you very much, Kojo. And thank your guests, Charles and Nancy. I mean, strangely enough, I applied for the office that Charles now presides over. Kojo, initially, you talked about ex-offender or returning citizen.
PERRYYou know, I believe in determination, but we're a label-driven society, liberal, conservative. It helps us get to the point. My story here, Kojo, and the reason for calling, I'm a 47-year-old black male, 47, a D.C. native in a gentrified city, the second highest paid city council. I have several professional skills. I don't do construction any longer. I did when I was 20. I'm an administrative professional, both nonprofit and for-profit. I've been denied employment on over 60 occasions since my release 19 months ago. I'm officially still unemployed, and including the Census Bureau and Department of Parks and Rec. I do have a consistent stream of income.
PERRYBackground checks, they killed my chances of employment. I've been under constant threat to my freedom after serving the prescribed sentence in federal prison. And after my original charges were overturned and I was sentenced to a lesser charge much like Charles is describing, you know, (unintelligible) bill, you know, I was subject to addiction. Probation is the second sentence. And then, I heard you add, you said, what's with the struggle? Probation is a second sentence. It is so unfair.
PERRYIt's been constricting. But I've just recently informed my probation officer that I give up, re-incarcerate me. Non-compliance has been questionable at best, but I'm constantly busy. I volunteer. I undertake entrepreneurial pursuits. I'm a landlord, a writer, an instructor. I teach interviews -- or job search skills. I'm a talk radio host. At the (unintelligible) Campaign, a nonprofit directive. My point, Kojo, is because I have no pay stub, I have been subjected to belittling and demeaning interaction with probation with no regard to my positive contributions and behaviors. So my chronic behavior had resurfaced (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIYou are still on probation. How much longer does your probation last, Perry?
PERRYMy probation is another 16 months, so I'm...
NNAMDIHow long have you -- how long have you been on probation so far?
NNAMDICan you speak to that a little bit, Nancy La Vigne, about how being on probation for long periods of time, which some judges feel is an opportunity for people to get their life back together, but as Perry is pointing out, it can also be a liability.
VIGNEThat's right. Both probation and parole are designed for two purposes -- one, surveillance, to make sure that people are abiding by the law, and two, to support people who exit prison and are reintegrating into society, helping them, you know, find jobs, helping them get hooked up with treatment if they need it. Often -- far too often, the emphasis is more on the former, the surveillance, than on the support.
VIGNEAnd when that happens, it can create additional challenges for people who might otherwise do quite well on their own. There's a long, long list of conditions of supervision that people need to comply with. And these -- some of them make a lot of sense. You know, they have to submit to random drug testing. They have to be actively looking for a job. Others are somewhat questionable.
VIGNEIn many places, consorting with other formerly incarcerated people is on the list of prohibited activities, which is quite restricting, given the mass incarceration that many in the district are experiencing, where brothers, cousins, mothers have all served time at some point in their lives. So these conditions can be more harmful than helpful and often lead to violations that get people back behind bars even if they haven't committed any new crime.
NNAMDIPerry, thank you very much for you call. There is this, on the other hand, from Ann. "As a middle-aged college graduate who has experienced job lost due to business decisions made above me, I am quite frustrated that you're making the point that we should somehow make it easier for ex-offenders to find work so that they do not return to a life of crime. There are plenty of people in our society who have extreme hardship, financial and otherwise, yet do not resort to crime to solve their woes. These people need to accept the consequences of their actions, do the work that is available for them and quit blaming society for their shortcomings. It was their immature thinking that landed them in the pen in the first place whether drugs were involved or not."
NNAMDIBefore you respond to that, allow me to go to Jerry on Capitol Hill. Jerry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JERRYYeah. I - you know, I was a good, bleeding heart liberal all my life. I find this whole conversation, particularly about the name change of the office, almost Orwellian. I mean, it's like you, you know, you've just changed the name and it takes the problem away. I mean, the problem is that you have -- people have committed felonies. Now, I think that the word felony is very important here. We're not talking about people who've committed misdemeanors.
JERRYAnd under the common law, if you commit a felony, you lose, basically, your citizenship until it's restored. And, you know, that's why felons in most jurisdictions at most times can't vote even after they've served their time. So I think it's just, you know, using some kind of -- and I hate the word, politically correct language. It's not gonna solve a problem because you have people who had been convicted of crimes against our society and, you know, the society -- the societal interest here is important. Yes, it would be great to have ex-offenders, which is what it's called now, put back to work.
NNAMDIRemember scarlet letters?
JERRYYes. I'm not talking about putting a big -- you know, we don't have Sharia law. We don't cut off people's hands for stealing. We don't tattoo anything on anybody's forehead. But if you have been incarcerated, if you have been in prison, if you have committed a felony, I mean, you have done something against society.
NNAMDIAnd your -- it is -- is it your opinion -- I'm not sure I'm hearing you correctly -- that that's the title, ex-felon, that you should carry for the rest of your life?
JERRYAbsolutely. You should carry it for the rest of your life. I mean, it's, you know, it's justice, any other thing you would carry for the rest of your life.
NNAMDIHere's Charles Thornton.
THORNTONMm-hmm. Yes. You know, well, first of all, in the District of Columbia, which is where I'm a resident of, you know, when you return from prison, you've served your sentence. You should no longer continue to serve sentences after prison, okay? So, I mean, I think it's really clear that once one returns from prison, their sentence have been served, so that should then -- you should be allowed a level playing field to be able to live life in society as a citizen in the District of Columbia.
NNAMDICare to add anything to that, Nancy La Vigne?
VIGNEIf I could just -- yes. First, a correction. Nearly every state in the country now enables people to vote as soon as they're released from prison. And so, you know, I think that that's symbolic of the fact that I think that, collectively, public policy makers believe that they should be able to serve as full citizens in society after their release. There's also something called collateral consequences out there. We talk about a lot in terms of prisoner reentry. People do their time. They've paid the price. They're released. They're -- they have tremendous challenges finding housing, jobs, et cetera.
VIGNEThose challenges are only greater when they're labeled. It's sometimes called invisible punishment, but it's quite visible to them. And if it creates additional barriers to do the things they need to do to lead law-abiding lives, that's not in anybody's interest when it comes to public safety. If they're discouraged through just repeated challenges that have nothing to do with how they're trying to make good on the outside, they're just gonna end up committing another crime.
NNAMDIJerry, thank you very much for your call. Let's talk more broadly a bit about job training and job opportunities. For starters, Charles, can you talk about how you got back into the workforce after being incarcerated and the sorts of opportunities that are currently available in the District for this population?
THORNTONOkay. Thank you. I -- when I was released, I was released from Lorton back in March of 1990. And upon my release, I registered for occupational training classes at Phelps Vocational School. And in two years, I wound up with a steam engineer's operator license. And it was through occupational training and trade training that I went on a course of getting my life back together, if you will. Right now, you know, those opportunities are the kind of opportunities that need to be in place again in the District of Columbia.
THORNTONWe just finished, I think, putting a lot of money in the Phelps Vocational High School, Cardozo High School. And we have these fantastic training facilities. And we need to open those facilities up to reentrance. Those are high school facilities, but that same training can take place at night for reentrance, you know? So it's through occupational training. One thing I wanted to add to the conversation, there are barriers that exist. When you're released from federal prison now, if you want to go sit, and people release -- you have barbers. They're come-home guys. They cut hair in prison, come home, and can't sit for a barber's license because of their conviction. And I think there's just something wrong with that picture. You know, these are kind of things we can do.
NNAMDITo what extent, Nancy, does access to jobs drive down the recidivism rate? Were Martha Stewart not able to get back on television ever again, barred from ever publishing a book or an article in a magazine ever again, barred from ever being able to have a cooking show or anything ever again, what's the likelihood that Martha Stewart would have recommitted a crime? Do we have direct linkages between services offered after prison and the success in keeping people from going back to prison?
VIGNEYes. The Barbara Stewart -- the Martha Stewart example I think is perhaps not the typical re-entry experience. But that said, lots of research out there, including our own, indicates that having access to employment readiness programs behind bars and actually obtaining a job and keeping it after release are both critical to preventing return to prison. In particular, our own research found something interesting, and that is that wages seem to really matter. Perhaps this isn't surprising, but people who are earning $12 or more an hour are twice as less likely to end up behind bars than their counterparts who are working in jobs and making under $7 an hour or whatever the going rate is these days.
VIGNEAnd I think what that indicates is this issue of living wages, which I know is somewhat controversial. And yet, when you look at people who are leaving prison and trying to make good out in the free world and find a job, if they can't make ends meet with that job, the temptations of, you know, making a -- supplementing that income with criminal behavior I think would be pretty high.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. There are a whole lot of people who'd like to converse with us on the telephone. Promise, I'll get back to as many of you as possible. But if the lines are busy, go to our website kojoshow.org or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet @kojoshow if you'd like to talk about the issue of returning home from prison. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about returning home from prison. We're talking with Charles Thornton, director of the D.C. Office on Ex-Offender Affairs. By the way, Charles Thornton, we've got an e-mail from Sarah, who says, "Returning citizens sounds like someone who has moved back to the area from some years living out of town whether for college or a job or military service. It doesn't reflect the issues of re-entry, so I suggest office of citizen re-entry. But are services of that office available to legal residents who are not citizens? Office of re-entry," says Sarah, "would be more inclusive." What do you think?
THORNTONI think reentry was in there at one time. And the legislation has not been introduced as of yet and there should be a community weighing on what that name should be.
NNAMDIOkay. Joining us now by telephone is Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. She represents the District of Columbia in the U.S. House of Representatives as the D.C. delegate. Congresswoman Norton, thank you for joining us.
REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTONGood afternoon, Kojo. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can hear you. Allow me to start by reading another e-mail, one we got from Holly says, "The label returning citizens suggest that convicts are not citizens while incarcerated. Prisoners are still citizens. The fact that we deny them the right and responsibility to vote is only marginalizing citizens more. In many countries, prisoners are not absolved of their responsibility to vote." Congresswoman Norton, you've been working on the issues facing District residents doing their time in prison and after their release. Why is this such an important issue for you?
NORTONWell, apparently this is a District issue. This is an office in the District. You know that our returning citizens, yes, we don't wanna make it any harder for them by giving them a label that does not apply. And they still are citizens. They're citizens even in prison. But the office you were talking about is an office of the District of Columbia. Our returning citizens are, in a sense, subject to bifurcated responsibility. The District of Columbia turned over the incarceration of D.C. co-felons to the Bureau of Prisons, which now pays for all of that. But the court is spread off throughout the country.
NORTONThey come back -- and yes, we have a new federal agency. We call it CSOSA, Court Services Administrative Agency or some such which has -- which essentially is they supervise release overseers. But the District of Columbia has major responsibility as well. So they have a separate office, and that's the office you're speaking about now.
NNAMDIYou have talked with many District residents in prison as well as their families. What impact is incarceration having on families and particularly on children in the District of Columbia?
NORTONI am very concerned that the Bureau of Prisons spreads our D.C. inmates throughout the country. They had 133 different facilities. My goal is to get one of the federal prisons located near the District of Columbia converted into a D.C.-only federal prison for male and female inmates. The reason I wanna do that is not simply to have them closer to home, but because the one component we know affects successful re-entry is the ability to have some contact, meaning personal contact with family and with other support systems such as clergy.
NORTONNow, if we've got somebody thousands of miles away, that obviously is impossible. To give you the best example I know that we have in the -- been successful with when the Democrats took control and I was first able to do something about it, I learned that our juvenile convicted as felons were sent to North Dakota. Well, if they are juvenile, I think we ought to begin rehabilitating them now. They have committed, let's say, a serious crime, but the last thing you wanna do is take a 15-year-old and say nobody's gonna be able to see you or talk to you, not only for the time you will spend in adult prison but even now.
NORTONI've been able to get the Bureau of Prisons to send those youngsters -- and there are very few of them -- or keep those youngsters here in the District of Columbia, at the D.C. jail in a special part of the D.C. jail where their families and their support system can see them. That's the beginning of what I'd really like to have happen for our returning citizens. I'd like to have most of them within reach so that re-entry is not so difficult.
NORTONI think it's a really terrible challenge to put on somebody who may be in prison for 20 years -- he has learned his lesson for sure and he wants just to do what he has to do -- and he has to come back to the District of Columbia to find his way around, even though he's been a native Washingtonian. If he had some contact with family, the reentry would be beneficial to the city, as well as for him, if you're interested in public safety and keeping crime down.
NNAMDICongresswoman Norton, in general, what services do you think are currently lacking when it comes to ex-offenders? And in a perfect world, where is the best place to focus -- drug treatment, jobs, housing?
NORTONI would say drug treatment. Most of our people go to prison because of some drug-related crime or because they got involved in crime early on in their life. I was able to get our D.C. inmates admitted to a state-of-the-art drug rehabilitation program in the Bureau of Prisons. They got to stand in line because everybody wants to. This is a terrific program. The Bureau of Prisons program always (word?) as bad as prisons are, the Bureau of Prisons is the best prison in the world, and they do have services there. This state-of-the-art program is -- has been so effective that it means that if you get through it, you can actually reduce your sentence for as much as a year.
NORTONWell, D.C. inmates, when they first came in there because of some glitches, weren't even a part of that program. That is terribly important. Now when they get back here, they got a problem. They stand in line behind people who committed no crime. So it's certainly a terrible, terrible problem. If we wanna throw resources to anything in this town, it should be to making sure that people stay off drugs and to getting people on drugs -- off using state-of-the-art programs only, not with all these fly-by-night things and these people who say, I know how to get people off drugs. They are state-of-the-art programs and they cost a little bit more. That's the best that we should be using.
NNAMDICongresswoman Norton, thank you so much for joining us.
NORTONAlways a pleasure.
NNAMDICongresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is the D.C. delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. We continue our conversation about returning home from prison. Nancy La Vigne, the Pew Center for the States did a focus group on public sentiment on this issue. What did that survey find, and what does that tell us about the way we should be addressing the issue of incarceration moving forward?
VIGNEWell, the good news is that they found that the average citizens tend to be very supportive of diverting people from prison and having them serve their sentence in the community in some way. They're -- they understand the implications of substance addiction and how that relates to crime. They -- when presented with options about whether someone should be behind bars or in the community, if they're non-violent, they say, oh, it makes sense to -- for them to be in the community. They understand the issues of cost effectiveness and how, with our very, very scarce resources, we need to be thinking carefully about what kind of sentences people get, and that prevention should be a primary focus.
VIGNEThe -- where it falls apart a little bit is that they're only tolerant for people who are first-time offenders. They're very unwilling to support diversion from prison for people who have been convicted more than once. Where does that leave us? We have a lot of people behind bars who are repeat felons. Very few first-time offenders end up in prison.
NNAMDIWell, I got to get Scotty in Washington, D.C. And, Scotty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCOTTYYes. I just want to say congratulations to Charles. I also am an ex-offender who, 19 years ago, graduated -- came home and graduated college. I wanna say that my -- I own a construction company in Washington, D.C. And we don't look at bids or anything without considering how many ex-offenders can I hire on a job. I'm looking at a job that's gonna hire for three months, that's gonna hire 80 people. I'm trying to get at least 30 ex-offenders to work on those jobs for three months at $22 an hour. I do believe, Charles, you have to look at one thing. I have a young brother that just returned home from 19 years in jail. And I can't hire him because I'm a family member. I have built a, I think, a successful business in Washington, D.C., but cannot hire my own brother at $30,000 a year. And that's something that seriously needs to be looked at as you go forward. But I wanna say I am a college grad who welcome ex-offenders home and will work with any ex-offender to make sure that they stabilize themselves, mobilize themselves and be successful in this community.
NNAMDIYou're talking about a technicality, Scotty, of city law that says that if you're doing a construction job with any government funding, that you are not allowed to employ a family member?
SCOTTYAbsolutely. Absolutely. And I think that Harry Thomas made the step on the box, to take away the box. I think that's the first step. But I am not allowed -- it's the federal law that said an ex-offender cannot work or come to work for me. And that needs to be addressed and pushed through to get rid of that.
NNAMDIOh, well, that's a federal law that...
SCOTTYHe has a job. He has a job and -- he has a job with another construction company. And -- but I was not allowed to hire him.
NNAMDIGot it. Thank you very much, Scotty, and thank you very much for your call. We got this from Lisa. "As a site coordinator at LIFT-DC, a nonprofit organization that serves low-income and underserved community members, I work with many returning citizens to locate employment and housing. I'm curious to know what the programs -- what programs the Office on Ex-Offender Affairs is planning on introducing to help returning citizens secure gainful employment. I often find discussions about helping returning citizens focusing on the big picture issues such as severe sentencing laws and the number of people in prison rather than practical ways we can help returning citizens to successfully reintegrate into society." Your turn, Charles Thornton.
THORNTONYes. Again, the Office of Returning Citizen Affairs, right now, is doing what's called linked services. And what we're doing is linking people up with community-based services, nonprofit community and effective community, who have opportunities that -- you know, to grants and that sort of thing. We've also begun conversations with Department of Employment Services where we will be getting involved with their transition on employment program. We can direct returning citizens directly to Department of Employment Services. So, I mean, we're really focused on how we can really get into the community and get with programs like these and be a clearing house to the Scotties that just called in, the contractors who called in, trying to use this office as leverage for those contracts.
NNAMDIAnd now here's Patty on Capitol Hill. Patty, how are you doing?
MS. PATTY BROSMERHi, Kojo. I'm doing really well. How are you?
NNAMDIGood. Sorry I couldn't join you guys this year, but I think I know what you're calling about.
BROSMERYeah. I'm glad you're feeling better. Charles, I wanna introduce our program, Ready, Willing & Working, to you. We provide work opportunities for homeless and formerly incarcerated. And, of course, the homelessness and formerly incarcerated often goes hand in hand because when somebody returns from prison, they can't find a job. You know, they'll sleep on grandma's couch for a while. That doesn't last very long and they end up homeless. So in order to successfully enter back into society, you really need to have a more holistic approach to employment. Not only do they need work opportunities, but they need supportive services -- you know, relapse prevention, case management, that sort of thing. And that's what we provide for our participants. All of the Clean Team workers that you see on Capitol Hill in the business community are formerly incarcerated. And I got to tell you something that people don't really realize is that once you give someone like that an opportunity and give them a positive workplace and respect, they end up being some of the finest people you'll ever wanna know. They're so grateful for the opportunity because a lot of these guys have never had an opportunity.
NNAMDIYes, I have seen Ready, Willing & Working at work and seen some of the things that the people there do. So, Patty, thank you very much for your call. I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Charles Thornton is the director of the D.C. Office on Ex-Offender Affairs, soon to be known as the one-city Office of Returning Citizens. Charles Thornton, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.
NNAMDINancy La Vigne is director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Nancy La Vigne, thank you so much for joining us.
VIGNEIt was my pleasure. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd to all of those of you who called, I'm sorry we couldn't get to your calls, but all of you wanted to make suggestions, it would appear, about what returning citizens can do. Some of you are returning citizens yourselves. Good luck to all of you, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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