Nearly two of every three prisoners convicted of felonies in DC Superior Court are serving their sentences hundreds of miles from home. A News-4 I-Team investigation shows thousands of inmates convicted of local crimes in D.C. are imprisoned outside of the Metropolitan D.C. region.
The distance from home is raising the risk of recidivism and straining families of those inmates, according to a series interviews with justice reform advocates, former inmates and their relatives.
The federal government recently implemented a new justice reform law which, in part, seeks to move federal inmates closer to their homes.
Washington, D.C. has no prison in which to hold felons convicted in D.C. Superior Court. So, it has long outsourced its prisoners to the Bureau of Prisons and its 120 facilities nationwide.
An I-Team review of Bureau of Prisoners records shows at least 2,500 of the more than 3,700 local D.C. inmates being held at federal prison facilities are outside Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
"It's important that all District residents know and understand that D.C. does not have a prison," said Michelle Bonner, a former director of the DC agency which monitors the federal government's handling of local felons. "If you are convicted of a felony in D.C. you can be sent to Federal Bureau Prisons. (D.C. judges) do not have the authority to tell the federal prisons to do anything," Bonner said.
Justice reform advocates and relatives of the incarcerated have urged the federal government to shift D.C. felons to prisons closer to the D.C.-metropolitan area, citing concerns of strain on families and children of the inmates. Former offenders said the long distances cut off communication and relationships with hometown communities and contribute to criminal recidivism.
"Why do they have to send them so far away? We're poor black people. We can't be jumping on a plane going to see our kids our brothers whatever our husbands," said Dory McCraney, whose son served nearly 20 years in federal prisons for a 1996 homicide in the District.
McCraney's sentence included time in the Florence, Colorado Supermax prison. She said she didn't see her son for 15 years.
Anita Dyson's grandson has also served time at the federal prisons in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota for a sexual assault in northeast D.C. nearly 20 years ago. Dyson said, "I haven't seen him in a while. Because look like every time they transfer him to someplace else. Last time I saw him he was in Minnesota." Dyson says she and family have only managed a handful of visits over the past year.
The Bureau of Prisons said limitations on available bed space, security needs and unique inmate healthcare needs require the agency to sometimes place offenders in facilities farther from their homes.
In a statement, the agency said, "The BOP considers a variety of factors in designating inmates including bed availability, the prisoner's security designation, the prisoner's programmatic needs, the prisoner's mental and medical health needs, any request made by the prisoner related to faith-based needs, recommendations of the sentencing court, and other security concerns. Any of the above factors, or a combination thereof, may influence a D.C. offender's designated facility."
Newly passed justice reform legislation requires the Bureau of Prisons to move federal inmates within 500 miles of home whenever possible. Though local families said they were hopeful the law could persuade the agency to shift DC offenders, a US Bureau of Prisons spokesman said the requirement is not binding.
The agency's statement to the I-Team said, "(The law's) requirement is consistent with prior BOP policy or practice" and that "it works to place inmates, included those sentenced in the D.C. Superior Court, in facilities that are close to their homes as possible." The statement added, "The BOP's decision-making in this area is not judicially reviewable."
Former inmates told the I-Team the long distances between their prisons and hometowns made it particularly challenging to re-enter their communities after release. Tyrone Hall, who was transferred between federal prison facilities in New Jersey, Oklahoma and West Virginia said he was convicted of another crime after his first prison release. Hall said, "I was struggling. I was struggling to get on my feet. I couldn't find a job."