A Washington, D.C., halfway house, intended to help imprisoned men transition back to freedom, is under scrutiny for an outsized number of inmates who illegally leave the facility each year.
An investigation by the News4 I-Team revealed nearly one in 10 of what federal authorities call escapes or untimely returns by halfway house inmates occurs from Hope Village, the District’s only such facility for men.
A review of federal prison records for the past few years shows approximately 1,100 inmates nationwide fail to return at scheduled times, or at all, to federal halfway houses in the United States. Federal authorities consider that an escape, or walkaway.
Hope Village accounted for about 10 percent of those cases in 2016 and 2017, though it only accounted for 3 percent of the federal halfway house population, according to a News4 analysis. Those figures slightly improved in 2018, federal records show.
In several instances, inmates who have wrongly left Hope Village have later been implicated in crimes, including at least two recent cases in which escapees are accused of committing murder after fleeing the facility.
Hope Village declined an interview with News4 but defended its record in a written statement, saying it “takes public safety and the accountability of our returning citizens seriously,” properly tracks and verifies inmates’ whereabouts and reports all instances in which someone fails to return on time.
But the high number of departures has captured the attention of federal authorities, who are stepping up prosecutions of escape cases while the Federal Bureau of Prisons contemplates the future of Hope Village’s contract.
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“It is concerning,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie Liu said of the number of escape cases.
Her office has convicted at least three dozen inmates on escape charges since January 2018, records show.
Liu shied away from blaming Hope Village for the escapes but said, “It's important to send the message that when the court orders a defendant to do something, there will be consequences for not doing that.”
In operation for more than four decades, Hope Village can house up to 300 men to serve out the remaining months or weeks of their sentence.
The facility, which includes a string of brick homes on Langston Place in Southeast D.C., allows inmates to leave with approval for work or other appointments but requires them to return by a designated time.
Back in Focus
The facility’s alarming number of escapes has surged back into focus after two high-profile murder cases involving former Hope Village inmates.
Police charged Marcel Vines and two other men in the December 2017 death of Kerrice Lewis. Police say Lewis, 23, died of multiple gunshot wounds and was found inside a burning car in the District.
Vines, whose trial is still pending, is accused of committing the homicide on the same day he failed to return as scheduled to Hope Village.
Lewis’ grandfather, William Sharp, said he didn’t know Vines was supposed to have been in federal custody at the time of her death.
“I think we’re owed an explanation,” Sharp said.
In a more recent case, police say Domenic Micheli killed his former boss, Joel Paavola, with a hatchet in the days following his alleged escape from Hope Village sometime in May 2018. Micheli has pleaded not guilty to murder.
Paavola’s widow has filed a lawsuit against Hope Village and the D.C. Department of Corrections, alleging the halfway house failed to promptly notify authorities about the escape and “failed to take any steps to ensure that Mr. Micheli was apprehended before he would harm the public.”
“Hope Village has had a problem with surveillance of the people placed in their custody for quite some time,” said C.J. Gideon, an attorney for the Paavola family. “The point here is to hold the parties that are responsible accountable and in the process try and make up in a small part for the family's loss.”
In its statement to News4, Hope Village said it reports all cases of “reported escapes, walkaways” and “untimely arrivals” to the Bureau of Prisons and said it’s the BOP’s responsibility to notify law enforcement.
It also suggested its annual number of escapes is lower than indicated in federal records, writing, “When an objective analysis is performed of people who go through the program versus those who leave ... the number of escapes that are correctly classified are relatively low."
It did not specify, however, what it believes to be a more accurate figure.
Target of Complaints
Critics of the facility, including former inmates and Southeast D.C. neighborhood activists, blamed many of the escapes on frustration with Hope Village management, as well as crime in the surrounding neighborhood.
As far back as 2013, a report by the D.C. Corrections Information Council, an independent monitoring body, found “numerous deficiencies” at Hope Village, including the safety of its surroundings. And in 2016, the Council for Court Excellence, a criminal justice reform nonprofit, asked the Bureau of Prisons to not renew its contract
Ron Moten, a longtime Southeast activist, said inmates fear assault while departing or returning to the Hope Village complex.
“People escape because of safety issues. They don’t feel safe there,” Moten said. “They’re not being treated right and they don’t want to get caught up into doing something wrong.”
Rodney Byrd, a convicted drug dealer who served his final months in custody at Hope Village, said he saw fellow inmates attacked on the street and also worried about his safety. Now employed in construction, he also complained Hope Village doesn’t do enough to help its residents obtain employment.
The halfway house is “better than being in prison,” Byrd said, but added men there “are frightened of the neighborhood they’re in. It's bad.”
Indeed, News4 found several instances of reported crime inside and outside Hope Village while reviewing recent escape cases, with a federal judge in a recent case acknowledging "well-documented concerns about Hope Village, crime in the vicinity of the facility and issues with security.”
In its statement to the I-Team, Hope Village said, “It is the mission of every staff member to ensure that public safety is our top priority in working with returning citizens.”
Asked about its oversight of Hope Village, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said in a statement to News4 that it “assesses contractor security and public safety” through performance reviews, but the bureau cited confidentiality reasons in declining to release its internal correspondence with Hope Village.
Previous efforts to replace Hope Village have failed. Last year, the facility lost its contract when the federal government awarded a five-year, $60 million contract to a Florida-based company to open a new halfway house in Northeast D.C., according to The Washington Post.
The deal collapsed, however, after Hope Village protested the award and many Northeast D.C. residents complained about opening a new center in their neighborhood.
At a public meeting in early May, Hope Village said the federal government has extended its contract through November.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Katie Leslie and edited by Jeff Piper. WSMV-TV in Nashville contributed to this report.