‘Philip on the D.C. Prisoners’ Project’ by Danny Harris

Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.

“I have spent most of my legal career working on social justice issues. I originally went to law school to do HIV work, and then went on to work for the Whitman Walker Clinic. I eventually became interested in prisoners’ rights, partly because many prisoners had HIV, but also because the more I learned about our prison system, the harder it was to look beyond the very apparent injustices.

“In D.C., we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and many of these prisoners are treated terribly. As a white person, it is hard to overlook the fact that the prison population here is predominately African-American. It has nothing to do with black people being bad and white people being good. It is about who gets caught up in the criminal justice system. Those people are primarily African-American men. At some level, I felt an obligation to get involved. Seven years ago, I became the Executive Director of the D.C. Prisoners Legal Services Project, which is now the D.C. Prisoners’ Project.

“We work on all kinds of issues, from medical care to abuse and assault, from religious issues to parole. Because D.C. is not a state, it creates a lot of added complexities for the prison population here. Currently, D.C. has a jail, but not a prison. Since Lorton Reformatory closed in 2001, we now rely on the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house our prisoners. There was no real reason for Lorton to close. The federal government could have taken it over when D.C. was facing financial trouble. Allegedly, there were all kinds of deals made, and the land is now townhouses. Because of that, D.C. prisoners can be sent to any of the 90-plus prisons around the country, although they try and keep them within 500 miles of D.C. However, it is not uncommon to find D.C. prisoners in California, Colorado, or Texas. For a while, D.C. juveniles were kept in North Dakota. We worked to get that overturned.

Continues after the jump.

“While there are some positive changes, the overall trend with prisoners here is getting worse. In D.C., the police arrest roughly 25,000 people a year. Eighteen thousand of those people go through the jail. Obviously, poorer and African-American communities are disproportionately affected. These areas are so heavily policed that it is hard not to get arrested. My favorite statistic is that D.C. sends more people to prison for violations of the terms of their parole than for felonies. That means that more people go to jail for not actually committing a crime than for committing a crime, which is ridiculous. If we had control over our parole system, that would cut down on thousands of people going to jail. But, there doesn’t seem to be a real interest in addressing these problems.

“Parole is another big issue in the District. When D.C. switched from local to federal control, the U.S. Parole Commission took over control of parole in the District from the D.C. Board of Parole. As a result, hundreds of D.C. prisoners were denied parole because they were now being assessed by different guidelines. When D.C. was in control, a parole board could not take into account your crime, unless it was particularly heinous, when deciding on parole. The parole decision was to be made based on your conduct in jail and your rehabilitation. In the last year, we worked with a number of law firms to release somewhere between 400 and 500 people denied fair access to a parole hearing.

“Hopefully, the more people who visit prisons and understand the horrible conditions in some of these places, the more they will become sympathetic to prisoners’ rights. The people in these prisons are not all monsters. However, many people view them as less than human, which opens the door to do all kinds of terrible things to them. Now, a prisoner can be placed in segregation, which could mean being alone in a sensory deprivation cell with almost no human contact whatsoever for months or years. That is not a humane way to treat people. While they are criminals, that doesn’t mean that we can overlook their basic rights.

“After almost twenty years of working as a lawyer with numerous groups, I can say, oddly enough, that prisoners are the most enjoyable group to work with. They are so grateful for what you do. I do the best that I can for them, but have also learned from my career in public-interest law to set my expectations low and to shield people from the worst of this system. Still, I have seen successes. Every so often, I walk down the street and someone will grab me, shake my hand, and thank me. Sometimes I know the person and sometimes I don’t, but they were someone helped by our program. It is a nice feeling.”

Learn more about the D.C. Prisoners’ Project here.

49 Comment

  • I’m glad to read that someone is doing this important work. The state of prisons in the U.S. is sickening. I do take exception to the statement “That means that more people go to jail for not actually committing a crime than for committing a crime, which is ridiculous,” though. Parole violations are, of course, crimes. A prisoner released on parole is not a free person, but a person who’s agreed to strict guidelines of conduct in exchange for the privilege of living in the outside world before his/her sentence has been completed. Still, the threshold of parole violations that result in re-incarceration should perhaps be examined.

    • Agreed– also, perhaps more efforts should be put into fighting new crimes than chasing down people for minor parole violations.

  • “As a white person, it is hard to overlook the fact that the prison population here is predominately African-American.”

    I wonder if it is easy to overlook as a black person, does being white really make it hard to overlook, or is it just your white guilt that makes it hard to overlook. DC is predominately black, it’s prison system is overwhelmingly black, as is the public education system, as is government employees, police force, as are victims of crime… let’s throw out some more generalities.. single parent black homes 65%, but we also need economics to factor in, which is typically tied to education.

    If DC police arrest 25k a year, what is there race? Are they arresting people because of race or because they are suspected of a crime and have probable cause? Of the 18k that go through jail is it because of race or because the justice system requires it.

    • I think you should go back and reread this post. It sounds like you missed alot of information.

      • Thanks, you’re right I missed a lot of information. If you want to reform the system and improve prisoner rights, fine, but don’t make this a race issue. Every paragraph has a reckless accusation, prisons are horrible places… no shit, maybe you should think about that before committing a crime. Should we make them nice, so people want to go in? Hundreds of prisoners, out of how many thousands?

        “After almost twenty years of working as a lawyer with numerous groups, I can say, oddly enough, that prisoners are the most enjoyable group to work with. They are so grateful for what you do. ” Wow, odd if you gave a homeless man a home, would he be grateful. If you gave a blind man sight, would he be grateful. You are trying to get prisoner’s out of jail, of course they are freakin’ grateful. Prisoner’s are the most enjoyable group… of course.

        • I spent five years working with incarcerated individuals. They are grateful not because you are trying to get them out of jail but because you are perhaps the only person they interact with who sees them as a person, not as a criminal, and treats them with kindness and compassion. Sure, as he says above, some people who are incarcerated are monsters who should be kept away from the rest of us, but that is a very small minority.

          Prisoner’s rights isn’t all about getting people out of prison. It’s much more about protecting prisoners from unsafe conditions of confinement, such as rape and assault, as well as mistreatment at the hands of prison staff and fighting for access to the legal system from inside the walls.

          Working with incarcerated individuals is rewarding because it reminds you not to take your own freedom for granted. It has nothing to do, for me at least, with being a great white knight riding in to save the poor, disadvantaged black man. It’s easy to dump on this guy because of the people he works with. It’s much harder for him to explain why he likes doing it and finds it a valid and righteous cause.

          • I’m not dumping on the guy… but the idea that it takes him as a “white person” to acknowledge it is hard to overlook the black prison population in DC is troubling to me. Prisoner’s rights issues affect all prisoner’s, not just black or poor prisoner’s… can’t he as a person be concerned about prisoner injustice for all people, not just black people and not as a white person. I’m taking nothing away from what he does, just that he shouldn’t make it about race, crime & justice have no race.

  • wow. Thanks for the work that you do! It can’t be easy.

  • How about they not commit a crime then? Best way to stay out of prison. It’s amazing how easy it is.

  • I like this guy’s overall mission, and prisoners have rights that need to be protected and need lawyers to represent them, but this statement is just absurd… “These areas are so heavily policed that it is hard not to get arrested.” I find it hard to believe that if there are a lot of cops around, you’ll just get arrested, without actually engaging in criminal behavior.

    • My thoughts exactly. That line jumped out at me, too. I find it hard to imagine a rational explanation for the statement.

      That said, I admire Phillip’s tenacity. It’s important work, and would be utterly dispiriting to anyone less committed.

    • Being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    • We all commit crimes. Almost everday. Some of us are lucky to live in areas where we won’t get caught. or have the wealth to fight it if we do.

      • what crimes? the crimes I commit are jaywalking occasional speeding, and… er, uh… that’s all I can think of. Neither of those would land me in jail.

        You could put three cops on every corner of my neighborhood and I would applaud. Your argument doesn’t hold water. It’s just not that difficult to avoid committing crimes. Makes me wonder how you spend your day if you think the very presence of the police would result in you landing in jail.

        • If the police officer doesn’t like the way you look, he’ll come up with a reason. And then it’s his word against yours.

          • OK, now you’re talking about something totally different. The argument was about there being so many cops that you can’t avoid *getting caught*, which has as a prereq doing something illegal.
            What I was rebutting was K’s comment that we all commit (jail-able) crimes and that most of live in areas without sufficient number of cops to get caught. Bogus.

          • Cops are arresting people for how they look? I’m sorry, I just don’t believe this is going on as a matter of course. If you say cops are suspicious of, question, harass, stop, knock on doors, investigate, search and pat down people simply because of the way that they look or dress or where they are, and beyond what the law allows, then I’ll agree that that probably happen a lot. But if you’re saying that cops just walk up to people on a regular basis, with absolutely zero evidence of any criminal behavior, and slap the cuffs on them and take them to jail, I just don’t see it.

          • @TaylorStreetMan & IsoTopor, I don’t mean to discount your experiences, but unless you’ve got a lifetime of working with the prison system or prisoners in this country, I just don’t think your opinion on “I just don’t believe it” carries any weight, at least not compared to Philip’s.

        • “But if you’re saying that cops just walk up to people on a regular basis, with absolutely zero evidence of any criminal behavior, and slap the cuffs on them and take them to jail, I just don’t see it.”

          Well, that’s the problem. A lot of smart, educated people aren’t aware that this is going on, simply because they’re so far removed from communities where it typically happens. Innocent people are jailed every day, but it doesn’t make the news because the victims are too powerless, lacking the money and education and resources, to draw attention to their situation, let alone defend themselves against the accusations.

          • You can be taken to jail for questioning but not held beyond an amount of time without being charged with a crime… that is our justice system.

            Innocent people are victimized every day no matter what the injustice is, not just jail, that is our society. You take the good with the bad… hopefully there is more good than bad in the end, or it breaks completely…chaos.

          • “You can be taken to jail for questioning but not held beyond an amount of time without being charged with a crime… that is our justice system.”

            Right, so the officer says the guy committed a particular crime (some of which are highly subjective) and the guy gets jailed.

        • I was jailed for a night for dozing off in a cab! The police officer thought I was Hispanic and thought I was drunk (I was neither, which is probably why he ignored my requests to administer a Breathalizer and pronounce my name without the Spanish accent). It’s not impossible end up in jail for doing nothing illegal.

          • Dozing off in a cab in which the cab driver couldn’t wake you up, sounds like more than dozing…but however you want to justify the injustice. Why did the cops have to be called in the first place?

          • The cop wasn’t called. He was sitting there filling out some paperwork and the cab driver pulled over and asked him to wake me up. I don’t know why I was so tired that day, but I honestly didn’t hear him speaking to me.

          • I should also add that I had the charges dismissed, but only because I showed up to court looking and speaking like a lawyer. I still have nightmares about the experience, though, and I no longer take cabs.

          • Perhaps you had charges dismissed because you didn’t commit a crime, or maybe it was because you weren’t black and weren’t going to help them make the black prison quota that must exist in DC.

      • Um, I’m fairly certain that I’ve never committed a jailable offense in my life. Maybe you should re-evaluate your daily routine, K, try not selling drugs or stealing cars, or whatever crime you seem to commit every day.

        • I love how everyone who gets arrested must have been selling drugs or stealing something.

        • there was a story on NPR about a little old lady who was jailed (spent the night in jail) for letting her car registration expire by 1 day – so, she was on her way to the DMV on the day her registration expired.

          Just giving an example of how just because you’re not aware of, and would rather not believe in the unpleasantness of an unfair, biased judicial system in YOUR community, does not mean that it does not exist.

          (not “you” specifically, “you” in the general sense)

  • Sorry, but I’m all for shipping repeat, convicted DC juvenile offenders to North Dakota!
    Seriously, yes, prisoners rights should be protected, and they should not be mistreated, but let’s not lose sight of all of the innocent, law-abiding victims of their crimes here.

  • If what this guy says about over-policing and over-incarceration were true then DC would have nearly zero street crime committed by the over-arrested and over-incarcerated people he represents.


  • I wonder if the guy who shot Neil was a juvenile, or a parolee, a gang recruit from SE, or a soon to be repeat incarcerated criminal who should be treated with kid gloves. Is it about the criminals, or the guns and bullets so prevalent in the communities of color in this country?!

  • I think that he is doing some important work but I am curious about his statement on changes in parole guidelines. It seems to me that a parole board should consider the crime (not just conduct in prison and rehabilitation) in determining whether a prisoner deserves parole. Whether the crime was heinous or not, it should be considered by the parole board in determining whether a prisoner deserves to be set free.
    I am also curious about the claim that DC sends more people to jail for violating parole than for felonies. What kind of parole violations are we talking about? There is a difference between a parole violation for missing a meeting with your parole officer and a violation for carrying a weapon or threatening to harm someone. In any event, there is an argument to be made that inability, or more likely unwillingness, to abide by the terms of one’s parole is a good indicator that one is not ready to be paroled.

    • Response to your 1st paragraph: I’m not sure it’s the parole board’s job to consider the crime. I may be wrong, but I think parole eligibility is built in to the sentence by the law and the sentencing judge, no? So the parole board would naturally focus more on conduct and rehabilitation, since it is a judge’s job to decide how much punishment the crime warranted, not theirs.

      I agree totally with your 2nd statement!

  • I think we should be painstakingly rigorous about protecting the rights of the accused, to the extent that it’s better to let a hundred guilty go free than imprison a single innocent man.

    Having said that, those who *are* convicted of violent predatory behavior against law-abiding citizens should be kept in a fucking hole in the ground until they’re too old to do any harm.

    • My thoughts exactly. The loss of someone’s life, either through wrongful imprisonment or violent crime, is worth a hundred petty crimes.

  • My sense of the criminal justice system has changed drastically in the last 20 years. I used to take the position that everyone accused was guilty. Hence, if a police officer was searching someone’s house or car, I assumed there was probable cause. Lately, my position has become more nuanced.

    I have a few friends that are harmless guys that have done 3-5 years for selling pennies worth of crack cocaine. That just strikes me as unjust. There is a middle ground. I am not sure if there are many people with a vested interest interested in finding it.

    So from that stand point it does become an issue of race. I strongly believe that if this number of white men were going to prison for weed and crack dealing, something would be structurally changed to address the problem. White people solved their problems with vice (alcohol) by making it legal. In that vein, the fight to make marijuana and other illicit drugs legal will be a fight the minorities must fight on our own.

    • Agreed. It occurred to me, while reading these comments, that prisoner’s rights is not a popular cause among the affluent and educated– those who are best positioned to help– so I was inspired to donate to the D.C. Prisoners’ Project. I’m sure they, and their clients, could use the support!

    • Crack is illegal, there are minimum sentencing guidelines in each jurisdiction for each class of narcotic seized and the amount seized.

      You sound like you want the middle ground to be less stringent laws, which might result in less lawyers, police, prisons, prison guards or concisely jobs.

      Since when does alcohol solve problems, and have you never met a black alcoholic… don’t you think doctor’s and Big Pharma have a vested interest in people not being able to self-medicate too?

    • “I used to take the position that everyone accused was guilty.”

      I think TV shows and movies are partially to blame. The cops are shown as the good guys and the people being arrested are portrayed as worthless and bad. Not quite the same as reality.

  • I have a different take on these posts. I just enjoy them as people telling their story. It’s cool to hear about all the lives of the folks who live around us whether they’re jerks, saints, idiots or geniuses.

    There was a brief time in u.s. history when prisons were intended to reform people, turn them from bad to good. Now it’s just to warehouse people and give them some payback. The fact that a disproportionate number of people in our prisons, DC and nationally, are black and other minorities says something about our country. Kudos for Philip for working with the least of his brothers.

    • A disproportionate number are male… some people don’t learn or maybe prison isn’t tough enough.

      A 2002 study survey showed that among nearly 275,000 prisoners released in 1994, 67.5% were rearrested within 3 years, and 51.8% were back in prison.[51] However, the study found no evidence that spending more time in prison raises the recidivism rate, and found that those serving the longest time, 61 months or more, had a significantly lower re-arrest rate (54.2%) than every other category of prisoner. This is most likely explained by the older average age of those released with the longest sentences, and the study shows a strong negative correlation between recidivism and age upon release. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States

  • Wow great post……very interesting too……What an exciting post this has been I like it very much.If what this chap says about over-police and over-incarceration were true then DC would have nearly zero lane crime devoted by the over-arrested and over-incarcerated people he represent……
    Thanks for this…

Comments are closed.