Women in the Washington, D.C. prison system face unique challenges as a result of the District’s lack of statehood status, with hundreds of women convicted of local crimes incarcerated far from their families, according to a report released March 25.
The report was spearheaded by law firm Covington & Burling LLP and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, a nonprofit legal organization that litigates civil rights cases.
Prison conditions have improved since the 1994 D.C. Superior Court finding in Women Prisoners of District of Columbia Department of Corrections v. District of Columbia that women faced significant violations of rights — including sexual harassment, unsanitary living conditions and inadequate medical care — in prison facilities. However, the report spotlighted an issue specific to women incarcerated in D.C.
“Under a unique statutory scheme, most women sentenced to confinement for a felony in D.C. Superior Court are housed in federal prisons far from the District,” the report reads. “Due to the distance and isolation of the federal facilities, D.C. women experience particular difficulty keeping in touch with their families and maintaining other ties that would help them reestablish themselves in the community after they are released.”
According to the report, at any given time, there are roughly 300 women in the D.C. justice system, with 141 incarcerated in federal prisons outside the District. Because D.C. lacks statehood status, there is a shortage of local correctional facilities under District control, leading to high numbers of women housed in federal prisons.
D.C. women who receive a sentence of nine months or fewer are housed in local correctional facilities, while those with longer sentences are held in federal prisons.
Due to the shortage of facilities for females in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, the nearest locations a woman with a long-term sentence can be housed are 250 miles away, in West Virginia’s Hazelton Secure Female Facility or Alderson Federal Prison Camp.
The report’s top recommendation is to change the length of a sentence requiring a woman to be sent to federal prison from nine to 24 months, giving more women the opportunity to stay closer to their families.
Covington Senior Counsel Carolyn Corwin, who co-authored the report, attributed the issue to D.C.’s statehood issues. Under the National Capital Revitalization and Self Government Improvement Act of 1997, several local responsibilities of the District were transferred to the federal government. The statute required the closure of the District’s Lorton Reformatory prison in 2001.
Corwin expressed hope that Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), the D.C. Department of Corrections, D.C. Council and Federal Bureau of Prisons will take the report’s recommendations into consideration.
“We want to start a dialogue here. We’ve said you could change the cutoff, so that people with longer sentences could stay in D.C. and serve their sentences. We’ve said that for people out in federal prisons, maybe you could bring them back earlier, we’ve proposed diversion programs that at least have them in federal prisons that are closer to the District,” Corwin said. “We’ve tried to lay out a bunch of options, and what we’d really like to see is people talk about those options, and other options that they could come up with.”
Covington Associate Attorney and report co-author Phil Peisch said the simplest solution to the issues identified in the report would be for D.C. to retake control of its correctional system, which is currently funded by the federal government.
“The District is getting the financial benefit of the federal government taking these women,” Peisch said. “If the District decided to bear the financial cost and take our prison system back, I suspect Congress would oblige and happily take the money back to the federal coffers. To some degree the D.C. Council and mayor own that problem too.”
Peisch also stressed the need to move away from the current focus on male incarceration that does not take into consideration women prisoners’ needs.
“This is a population that has been all but forgotten for a long period of time and there are reasons for that. And those reasons haven’t disappeared,” Peisch said. “There is more focus on criminal justice reform right now than there was 15 years ago but this is still a population that still doesn’t have a huge political voice.”
Marc Howard, director of the Georgetown University Prisons and Justice Initiative, which brings students and faculty together in examining mass incarceration, agreed that there is more of an emphasis placed on male incarceration. However, Howard pointed to the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” as a positive step forward in drawing attention to female incarceration.
“I do think there is a tendency within the media and pop culture to focus on male incarceration, although ‘Orange is the New Black’ has brought much-needed attention to women in prisons,” Howard said. “But it still tends to be viewed as a male phenomenon, which is largely true, but by no means entirely true.”
Howard noted that a large portion of women in the prison system fit the category of nonviolent drug offenders but often receive longer sentences. He emphasized the impact this can have on the families of incarcerated women.
“There are 2.1 million children who have a parent behind bars in the United States today. And when you think about what that means for those children, what they are missing, I’m not saying obviously in all situations parents should go home, such as in cases where genuine harm has been done and there is a threat of recurring violence and so on,” Howard said. “Having children doesn’t make you immune from incarceration, but I think that especially with the lengths of sentences that are given out, we really need to think of the effects it has on children and families.”
Corwin raised concern about the roadblocks in terms of resources and interest in the issue of female incarceration.
“Whether anything comes from this depends on whether there is going to be any follow through,” Corwin said. “Will people really take some of these recommendations and try to push them through?”
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