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Charles Thornton was a popular point guard at H.D. Woodson Senior High School, a nine-story concrete building in northeast Washington, D.C., which soon after opening acquired the nickname “Tower of Power.” It was the late 1970s, and this quick-moving kid who played for the youngest school in the District was ranked as an All-Metropolitan player, and among the top 100 in the country. Just stay healthy, eligible and out of trouble — that’s all Thornton had to do, and a full Division I scholarship was his.
But he struggled in school. His grade point average hovered at a dismal 1.7. He became a parent to a baby girl when he was 16. And when an open-air drug market set up shop in the notorious public housing complex on 58th Street where Thornton lived with his mother and siblings, the basketball star with a toothy smile became a dealer. For sale: heroin, methamphetamine, PCP and marijuana.
His basketball coaches tried to support him by steering him into junior college far outside the city. Maybe if he could break the old ties, he could get his focus back. Maybe he’d still make something of his natural skills. But Thornton’s hoop dreams were fading to a haunting glimmer. Rather than play ball and go to college, he’d spend more than a decade moving in and out of the corrections system for a series of drug, gun and parole violation charges.
“I was a poster child for recidivism,” Thornton tells me. Each time he was released, he found himself unguarded and directionless, spiraling through his own addictions. In a 1986 Washington Post article on how drug arrests were crowding lock-ups, Thornton, then 25 years old, told a reporter, “Everything I did only hurt me.”
When he was paroled from the Lorton Correctional Complex in 1990, Thornton didn’t quite believe that he’d never again be sitting in a cell. But this time, he stumbled onto a series of rehabilitative programs: substance abuse treatment, temporary housing. Luck came when a friend gave him his first real job as a building maintenance worker, which led him to vocational training and licensing. By 1994, Thornton was back inside the D.C. Department of Corrections, but this time as a volunteer leading a number of programs for men. “Substance abuse, self-help, GED classes, you name it,” he says.
Today, his singular mission is to make it easier for people to return from prison than it was for him. And he does it from an unlikely perch, the District’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs (ORCA), an incredibly rare instance of a city taking on prisoner re-entry as a basic municipal service. Thornton is the director. He crowned the bookcase in his overflowing office with silver basketball trophies.
For all the talk about an urban agenda that builds safety and vibrancy in city neighborhoods, this is the under-chronicled story of what it takes to get there. After offenders serve their exile for crimes that break faith with the common good, a city must find a way to welcome them back as citizens. It is not just the fate of former inmates like Thornton that rides on these policies. It’s the city itself.
The problem of how cities integrate (or, more often, don’t integrate) formerly incarcerated people is not going away. The nation’s prison system grew by 400 percent after 1980, but with overcrowding and depleted budgets, more and more people are being released, mostly to urban cores. About 700,000 people — more than the entire population of D.C. — come home from prisons across the country every year. They face debilitating challenges in securing housing, jobs and transit, all of which contributes to recidivism and the most ubiquitous of urban challenges: crime and homelessness.
“If you don’t have success in supporting these individuals,” she says, “there’s more crime, and more money than you’d spend otherwise on corrections at the expense of other public expenditures, like education and housing.”
That’s why cities can no longer pawn off the work of re-entry to a patchy network of family members and charities. While it can be easy for policymakers to ignore formerly incarcerated residents — many of them have been stripped of voting rights — their sheer numbers makes the lack of civic acknowledgment untenable.
“More than 90 percent of people who are incarcerated come home at some point,” says Jocelyn Fontaine, senior research associate with the Urban Institute. “For a city to neglect the human capital, earning potential, public safety and the other tremendous costs of incarceration, that’s a crime.”
Lorton stood in a tiny Virginia town, 20 miles south of the District of Columbia, as the rough equivalent of a state prison for D.C. residents. But this wasn’t your ordinary lock-up. Built in a Classical Revival style in 1910, the campus spread over 3,000 acres, marked by arched walkways and buildings with escalating levels of security. In the early decades, inmates milked cows, gardened, raised cattle and hogs, and baked their own bread. The prison’s dairy stayed open until 1998, providing milk to students in the District’s public schools. In total, more than 10,000 men and women served sentences at Lorton for both violent and nonviolent offenses, including a number of suffragettes — Alice Paul and Lucy Burns among them — who endured a historic hunger strike to protest their arrest.
Rumblings about Lorton’s closure began in the mid-1990s. D.C. was strapped for cash, and looking to make big cuts in its budget. Why not shut down this aging prison? Given its notorious reputation, officials must have been surprised about how this talk ignited people in the community. People both inside and outside the walls were lit up. People like Charles Thornton. They were ready to fight for this place.
It wasn’t that Lorton was so great, especially in later years. Cell Block 3, where mentally ill prisoners were held, was dubbed the “House of Pain.” Assaults, escapes and attempted suicides were frequent. In 1989, inmates burned down the prison’s administration building to protest overcrowding. In 1996, they set mattresses and trash cans afire to demonstrate against poor food, poor medical care, inadequate recreation and mistreatment of visitors. But without Lorton, D.C. offenders would have to serve their sentences in federal and private prisons around the nation. They could be shipped as far away as Florida, Texas and California. Not only would they be out of range for visits from family and friends (not to mention their lawyers) but in many cases, they would be subject to the stricter regimes, reduced programming and a sterile condition of prisons meant for more serious crimes.
But the community activists lost. Lorton was closing up. Congress passed the 1997 National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act, compelling the District to turn over its 5,400 offenders to the Bureau of Prisons. The city no longer had influence over where its citizens would be incarcerated and how they would be treated. In January 2001, when only a handful of inmates were left at Lorton, reporters were invited to the rolling hills of the prison grounds to watch a white school bus carry them away for good. Some men waved through the tinted windows as the journalists outside looked back at them with pens poised on their notebooks and cameras in their hands.
“The District of Columbia said, ‘Take this package off of us. We can’t pay for it,’” explained D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to a House subcommittee in 2010. “The District had good reason to do that. It was carrying a state function that no city in the United States carries, state prisons.” The city also turned over its parole and probation program to federal entities.
Between 2008 and 2014, the number of D.C. residents in prison dropped by 41 percent, with about 8,000 people returning home each year. About half of them will be back behind bars within three years, according to Thornton. Altogether, around 70,000 D.C. residents have criminal records. That’s nearly 10 percent of the total population. There needed to be, as Thornton describes it, “some plan to bring people back in the city.”
It took time to put one together, but ORCA was finally founded in 2008 as a legally mandated, Council-approved offering to a community starved for sovereignty over its justice system. The D.C. correctional system had “no local oversight, but was responsible for local residents,” as Thornton puts it. ORCA brings the city back into the story. While it is still young, its outreach is significant: It served more than 5,000 returning citizens in 2013.
Situated in a nondescript but bustling municipal building in Anacostia, not far from the largest halfway house in the nation, ORCA trumpets its presence with bright green walls that shine through the windows and set the hallway aglow. Artwork made by former inmates hangs along the walls. Applications to vote are perched prominently at the reception desk; D.C. is one of precious few jurisdictions where people get their voting rights back the moment they complete their sentence. ORCA registered 482 people to vote in 2013, and ballots were delivered to the D.C. jail ahead of the 2014 mayoral election so that people awaiting trial or convicted of a misdemeanor could vote.
An expansive computer lab takes up one side of the ORCA office, open for anyone to freely use. The director’s office, where Thornton has sat since 2011, brims with papers, books and clippings. A workbook, “How to Escape Your Prison,” lies on a table. Framed posters of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Muhammad Ali — all of whom served time behind bars — hang on the walls.
“When a person commits a crime, and is sentenced, they are given a debt to pay,” Thornton says in a quiet voice. “Once that debt is paid, then, you know, it’s crazy that you have to pay that debt for the rest of your life. That is what happens with people convicted of felonies in this country. The stigma, the barriers, the obstacles, you need that extra coordination and effort to help people get on their feet.”
When new clients arrive in OCRA’s office, staff will educate them about their right to vote, and then register them with the Department of Employment Services, D.C.’s workforce development office. They assess digital literacy: Does the client know how to move a mouse, how to browse the Internet? Does he know what social media is? Clients get assistance with creating resumes and email addresses. The lab stays open for casual use. “Get on Facebook, we don’t care,” Thornton says. “We see that as part of the social engagement that needs to happen.”
If the client is a senior citizen, ORCA will connect him or her to services provided by the city’s Office on Aging. It will make similar linkages for clients with health, parenting or disability needs. ORCA also organizes shuttles to prisons where a large number of D.C. residents are incarcerated, so that families can travel together to facilities that are up to 500 miles away. During visits, staff host a storybook room, face painting and other out-of-the-box programming that brings joy to “Family Day.”
While D.C. is unusual in that men and women are incarcerated in federal prisons, the challenge of connecting them back to the city is a problem that plays out every day across the nation. “Job training, mental health, substance abuse, family reunification, the re-entry challenges are myriad,” Fontaine says.
Ordinarily, an irregular network of faith-based and community service providers work with formerly incarcerated people. They might provide them with suits, or job training, or short-term housing. But their availability is not widespread, or indefinite. And ultimately, it is the social support network, especially families, that does the heavy lifting in the first months of release. For men, mothers and intimate partners are most often the ones who take them shopping, drive them to service agencies, and provide them with a place to stay, according to Fontaine. Probation and parole agents might also connect former inmates with things they need or beneficial programs — but that’s not standard service.
“Re-entry is a huge burden for family members, though they wouldn’t characterize it as such,” Fontaine says. Through focus groups and survey data as part of the Urban Institute’s Returning Home project,” she found that family members — often quite poor themselves, with their own job challenges and criminal justice histories — make great sacrifices to accommodate the person they love. “They do this, and they don’t see it as a hardship,” she says. “But it is, objectively, a hardship.”
ORCA, then, offers a tentative but radical model for how cities can own some of their responsibility for the well-being of returning citizens — though Fontaine cautiously notes that it is a “fairly new” model and one being tested with relatively minimal resources.
ORCA only receives 0.2 percent of the D.C. Department of Corrections’ $151 million budget. It operates on less than $400,000 annually, which is less than the amount the city spent this year to market the city at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. A recent request for additional funding was frustrated by ORCA’s difficulty in providing clear metrics on re-entry outcomes and a substantive plan for achieving its goals to the oversight committee. The small office also struggles with a lack of control over the service other agencies provide their clients once they make a referral. Anthony Irving returned to D.C. in 2011 after nearly two decades in prison, most recently in Colorado. ORCA was open, but not of much use.
“When I came home, I never received help from them or the D.C. government. It was basically, like, you have to wait, and you’re waiting on that jobs placement and things of that nature, and it’s really not all that helpful,” he says. Irving did end up getting a job, thanks to a referral from his brother, at a company that was willing to work with him as he struggled to adjust to a changed city and society. Irving is now the owner of Golden Seed Landscaping and Cleaning Services. When not working to grow his small business, he makes YouTube videos meant to help young people in cities to make positive choices. In the meantime, he wants to see a bigger investment in reaching out to the families of incarcerated people and, through fliers, events and more, making sure that returning citizens are aware of what programs are available to them.
“[ORCA is] trying to get its bearing, and figuring out what position it has, exactly, between the city and the citizens,” Fontaine says. “Its funding is not exactly robust. In effect, it’s mostly operating as a drop-in center.
“But,” she emphasizes, “that’s not nothing.”
Washington D.C.‘s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs — an incredibly rare example of a city taking on prisoner re-entry as a basic municipal service — is located at 2100 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SE.
Absent funding for new or strengthened services, the ORCA model can still serve returning citizens who are navigating a city that may be quite different than the one they left. “We know individuals spend a lot of time trying to figure stuff out,” Fontaine says. “Where can you go online? Where can you get free clothes so you can look presentable at a job interview? Where can you go to have someone look at your resume? If the office’s purpose is to catalogue the myriad social services, where to go to get what, that alone would be helpful.”
It’s not uncommon for people who Thornton served time with to wander through ORCA’s doors. Purposefully, his office walls are made of glass. He wants people to see him — the same person they maybe sat next to at Lorton — working in a professional setting. And it’s not just him; by design, most of ORCA’s staff have served time. “We want people to see how, with hard work, people turned their life around,” Thornton says. “They might say, ‘it’s impossible,’ and we can say, ‘oh yes, you can. I did it.’”
Is the ex-offender now homeless? Thornton can tell him that he, too, has had his hand in a trashcan. He, too, knows what it means to be hungry, to feel like a ghost in his own city. Then, he says, “it becomes a different conversation.”
The value of that kind of demonstrable hope cannot be measured. The Urban Institute’s surveys found that most people are quite optimistic about their chances of succeeding once they are released, Fontaine says. But when one challenge piles on another, the disappointment can feel catastrophic. Having staff with lived experience in prisons helps people coming home to feel motivated and connected.
ORCA’s services are voluntary and free. The staff visits several facilities to reach D.C. residents before they exit the prison, advising them on where they can go on Day 1 of their release. They bring along representatives from other city agencies — from employment services to child support to motor vehicles — so that inmates can ask direct questions. But the message that Thornton really wants his clients to hear is that they are eligible for every service and program and right that any other District resident enjoys.
“Even coming out of an institution,” Thornton says, “your citizenship is a given.”
Teresa Hodge, a stylish woman with an easy smile, served her sentence in a federal facility in Virginia, about five hours from home. It held 1,100 women, though the visiting room only had space for about 100 people. Not to worry, she notes wryly. With gas prices being what they were, it was difficult for her loved ones to “invest that kind of money” in frequent visits anyway.
Of the 87 months she was sentenced for a federal crime — mail fraud, her first offense — Hodge served 70 of them, or nearly six years. She returned home on August 3, 2011, first to a D.C. halfway house. As of February of this year, she is officially off probation. “I sleep better,” she says.
Having come from a suburban Maryland family that had “tremendous resources and was highly functional,” and armed with both a college degree in sociology and years of experience working in federal government and real estate, she didn’t expect the transition from prison to be as hard as it was. But finding a job was exceptionally difficult. She remembered one online application that she filled out, item by item. After asking her basic details, a pop-up window inquired, “Have you ever been committed of a crime?” Once Hodge checked “yes,” the application abruptly shut down, leaving behind only the message that “something you said disqualified you for this job.”
Prison stigma followed Hodge like a shadow. “It’s ego depletion,” she says. “You feel bad about yourself.” And the amount of hustle it takes to leap hurdles in the first months of release are especially daunting when the individual is also acclimating to a world that’s become foreign. They don’t recall what size of clothes they wear. They’re no longer mentally attuned to small talk. “I forgot words,” Hodge says. Funny thoughts skitter through the mind. When Hodge wore high heels for the first time after her release, it felt like walking on hot coals. Looking down at her pretty but pained feet, Hodge remembers thinking blankly, “My feet went to prison.”
And, like many of the hundreds of thousands of people returning home from prison each year, Hodge is a parent. “The most disruptive time in a child’s life,” Hodge says, “is not when a parent goes to prison, but when they return.”
Ban the Box, a campaign urging employers to stop asking applicants about their criminal history, is gaining momentum in cities around the country as a way to give returning citizens a fair shot at a job. The District recently adopted it as city policy, and since then, it’s made a point of hiring more than 530 former inmates for positions that range from school bus drivers to camp directors. More than 400 ex-inmates were placed by the city in private construction jobs. The city has also paid for 112 ex-inmates to complete training for a commercial driver’s license. For his 2014 re-election push, former Mayor Vincent Gray hired Rahim Jenkins, Thornton’s predecessor at ORCA, as his deputy campaign manager east of the Anacostia River.
But while the Ban the Box campaign’s intentions are noble, its impact is limited. The “box” on the application isn’t the only way for an employer to discern criminal history, after all. Plus, the city-by-city adoption weakens the policy’s power. Of, say, 10 cities in a given person’s region, employers in maybe one or two of them may have a Ban the Box policy.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that Hodge would find her vocation by creating her own job. She is the co-founder — along with her daughter Laurin — of Mission Launch, a nonprofit tech incubator tailored to improving re-entry outcomes in the D.C. region. The idea is to use civic tech to heighten self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship for former inmates. People won’t hire you? Mission Launch will teach you how to hire yourself. In its new 16-week accelerator program, hosted in a co-working space in Northwest D.C. called Impact Hub, it trains people in “how to create a lawful way of living.” That means everything from taxes to tech design. Mission Launch also hosts hackathons. Among the projects that came out of this was Clean Slate, an open source software application that seals and expunges eligible criminal records.
Hodge is Mission Launch’s director of strategy and innovation. She is also a life coach, specializing in working with people who have been released from prison. When she speaks about her re-entry work, Hodge brims with passion. But she’s also clear about the narrow path she’s walking, pointing out that only about .06 percent of all philanthropy dollars go toward returning citizens. “We can’t waste money,” she says.
In another model of what re-entry looks like, there is D.C. Central Kitchen, a community kitchen with a program that trains unemployed and under-employed adults for culinary careers. As a nonprofit, the program raises millions through donations, corporate and philanthropic grants, and a giving program through the local United Way. Social enterprise, like catering and school food programs, give it an additional boost in earned income. Its most recent numbers totaled annual revenue at nearly $14 million.
Marianne Ali was 37 years old and addicted to heroin when she stumbled upon D.C. Central Kitchen. After graduating from the program, she accepted a job first in the organization’s catering arm and later as a supervisory chef and culinary instructor. Seventeen years later, she’s still in the kitchen, and still passionate about helping people reintegrate in the community. While Ali has never been physically incarcerated, she feels kinship with those who were. “[I was] certainly mentally, emotionally, spiritually locked up,” she says.
Marianne Ali at D.C. Central Kitchen, a community kitchen with a program that trains unemployed and under-employed adults for culinary careers
There are eight classes a year at two locations, 14 weeks each, 25 students apiece. Students learn cooking and food safety. All students are offered training in allergies and food handling. They learn job skills, like how to fill out an online application. They do mock interviews and absorb lectures about work ethic. There is a built-in internship that’s four weeks at one of 40 different sites, each handpicked because a chef there is prepared to offer mentoring to D.C. Central Kitchen students. Perhaps the chef even came through the kitchen himself. “We don’t want to go with someone who doesn’t understand,” Ali says. These hands-on mentors can also be trusted to call to report problems, like absences or tardiness.
Besides teaching cooking skills and providing workforce development, D.C. Central Kitchen also offers a self-empowerment program. Every morning, for one-and-a-half hours, students move through a workbook and discuss behaviors that have been working for them and those that haven’t.
In the final three weeks, the program leads a guided job search: Each student has to do at least three job searches per day, two online and one in person. D.C. Central Kitchen follows students after graduation for a year to ensure that the transition is successful. Ali readily admits that this part of the program is challenging. “We struggled to track graduates the way we want to, so we actually hired a graduate to do evaluation.”
After three weeks in the program, students receive an evaluation: How do they think they are doing. Are you going to meetings? It is also a chance for them to say whatever they need. Many of them, she says, cry. “No one ever asked me about myself,” they say. “They have tears in their eyes,” says Ali. “It’s really, really sad.”
An average of 80 percent will graduate, and most of them, up to 75 percent, will be employed before they graduate. But the number of placements in restaurants has fallen. The kitchen has had to cast a wider net; it’s begun placing students in hotel kitchens.
The most effective way for a formerly incarcerated person to find a job is to move through a skill-building works program that leads to a staff person vouching for them with their potential employer — “a professional staff person … who will stick their necks out a bit,” Fontaine says. That gives the employer “a way to check in, someone to call if an individual is slipping on the job, another way of holding someone accountable.”
That’s what D.C. Central Kitchen offers. And it goes the other way too. Often, people are referred there by a probation officer, or an outside agency like ORCA. “If we partner with those agencies, together we have our arms wrapped around them on both sides,” Ali says.
Billy Johnson, 58, is currently working full time at D.C. Central Kitchen, a community kitchen with a program that trains unemployed and under-employed adults for culinary careers.
The power of a centralized city office focusing on re-entry is that it harnesses the collective power of agencies like Mission Launch and D.C. Central Kitchen. It makes thoughtful referrals to both public and private programs, and then offers background support as their referrals move through a program, increasing their success rate. ORCA, then, is a gateway.
Though, you could argue, this is about more than tactics. By bringing the city into the coalition serving returning prisoners, it is also offering a psychic benefit of untold value.
This year, inequities in the criminal justice system reached the national stage. By August, 46 states introduced legislation or resolutions about body cameras worn by police officers. The spike is directly related to the high-profile deaths of citizens during police encounters. Statewide laws passed in California, South Carolina, Nevada and New Jersey that require key officers to wear them in order to enhance police accountability. Cities including Richmond, Chicago and Cincinnati have launched efforts to address longstanding problems in how police relate to the communities they serve, and improve outcomes.
But there is no similar reform effort around re-entry. Advocates say there should be.
Best practices for re-entry call for a seamless transition that begins inside prison walls, with job training, education and treatment programs. Family members should be included in the process of transitioning someone out of prison. If the corrections department and parole staff were “just calling and talking with them more often,” says Fontaine, in order to share information and ideas about how to provide support, that would be transformative. Also, no person completing a sentence should leave a state institution without state identification — photo IDs are essential for most jobs and support programs. “That’s one of the more idiotic things we do,” Fontaine says. “And a lot of state agencies don’t even recognize a [Department of Corrections] ID as a valid form. It’s issued by the state, so how can it not be valid in other state systems?”
And it’s in the best interest of city government to take the lead on integrating formerly incarcerated people back into the civic fold. Ignoring them, or assuming that charities and families will pick up the slack, leaves these citizens vulnerable and increases the likelihood of recidivism, homelessness and chronic unemployment, all of which comes at a cost to city coffers.
Charles Thornton is aware of ORCA’s rarity. “The main thing is that this is a model for localities to look to,” he says. “We’re taking a lead.”
He gets inquiries from people around the nation and “as far away as England” about ORCA’s work. But what will it take for cities to actually implement a re-entry program like this, let alone amplify its reach, and also to support programs like Mission Launch and D.C. Central Kitchen that are doing that work in its stead?
Teresa Hodge, right, works with Ryan Ryskamp, entrepreneurial fellow, in Mission Launch’s co-working space.
Fontaine says that the case for re-entry services can be made by framing it as sane economics. “If you don’t have success in supporting these individuals,” she says, “there’s more crime, and more money than you’d spend otherwise on corrections at the expense of other public expenditures, like education and housing.”
Hodge thinks the dial can be moved by emphasizing the bipartisan interest in public safety, as well as values of basic fairness. After all, the cost of inaction is steep — both financially and ethically. “We can all agree that when people return from their sentence, they should be done serving their sentence,” she says.
Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.
Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of THE POISONED CITY: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books in 2018.
Jessica Kourkounis is a Philadelphia-based freelance photographer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
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