By Emily Gasoi, Ward 1 Representative
On February 6, 2020, the State Board team visited the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) Central Detention Facility (CDF). Upon arrival, we were greeted by Director Quincy Booth, Deputy Director of Professional Development & College and Career Readiness, Amy Lopez, and Public Information Officer, Dr. Keena Blackmon. Before beginning the tour, Director Booth and Deputy Director Lopez gave us a quick overview of D.C. Jail.
For starters, they emphasized that the terms “jail” and “prison” are not interchangeable. Jails are facilities for those who are awaiting trial or have committed minor offenses while prisons tend to be facilities for those who have been convicted and have longer sentences. This means that D.C. Jail’s population is rather transient—some residents are housed for as short as a day, week, or month, while some are housed for several months or years. Consequently, while Director Booth and Deputy Director Lopez have invested heavily over the past two years to develop and implement educational opportunities and programs for all of their residents, a persistent challenge is how to ensure that their residents are gaining valuable skills, certifications, or even degrees before they leave.
Furthermore, Ms. Lopez discussed how one barrier is the building itself—there is one building unit in CDF that has no windows and little space. It is hard to expand programs when the building was not designed with classrooms in mind. However, despite these challenges, it seems that many of the educational initiatives are making a difference. We heard from residents enrolled in a number of the programs and they really impressed upon us how meaningful these opportunities are to them—like a window on the world that they hope to re-enter with new and immediately applicable skills. Here are a few examples:
• Many residents are enrolled in CTECH, an industry certification class for installing and programming broadband connection and smart devices in homes. In fact, one of the teachers we spoke with mentioned that there is a graduate of her class who is now making $56/hour because of the skillset he acquired through the program!
• D.C. Jail has partnerships with a handful of universities, including the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), Georgetown University, Howard University, American, and Ashland University. Some residents are on track to earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
• Ashland University, for instance, provides a distance-based learning program for incarcerated students across the country. Students are provided tablets to complete their coursework.
• Students at Howard and American University participate in the Inside-Out Program, where students go to D.C. Jail over the course of a semester and learn alongside DOC students and engage in a dialogue about the criminal justice system and other social issues. The men we spoke with said the program has helped build a community connection.
• Georgetown University runs the Prison Scholars Program, the “only co-education prison education program in the country.” Through this program, Georgetown professors teach credit and non-credit courses every semester and students from Georgetown’s campus are brought in to learn alongside their incarcerated classmates. We were able to talk with some men in the program who are on track to get their bachelor’s degree.
• There are some requirements regarding who can be enrolled in these programs such as age, whether or not a resident has a GED, and so on, but Ms. Lopez mentioned that if a resident does not qualify for one of these programs on account of not having a GED, D.C. Jail also provides a GED class to help them earn one.
• In addition to some programming available in Spanish, there are also English language learning classes and mentorship programs.
• D.C. Jail also has partnerships with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and D.C. Public Library (DCPL). The librarian we spoke with noted that DCPL treats the library in D.C. Jail the same as any other library in the city, meaning that their library collection is fully resourced with thousands of titles. Furthermore, DCPL issues library cards to returning citizens as they are released.
• We all got copies of the October 2019 edition of a resident-run newspaper called, Inside Scoop. It is a co-ed publication in which residents can share stories and poems, cover the news, write advice columns, and more. As Inside Scoop is “by scholars, for scholars,” it is content that resonates with residents. There have been fourteen editions to date.
• We were able to stop by a life-skills course called, “Thinking for Change.” Made up of twenty-five lessons, students focus on three main components: active listening, asking questions, and problem-solving. So far, this class has graduated seven to eight cohorts.
The shift in direction to a more education-focused approach at D.C. Jail is no coincidence—Mr. Booth and Ms. Lopez are both former public-school teachers. Additionally, for the unacquainted, Amy Lopez is a big fish in a small pond—she was hired by the Obama administration to oversee educational programming in prisons at the national level. We are incredibly lucky to have her at the D.C. Jail. She has done so much in such a short period of time.
We greatly appreciate the staff at D.C. Jail for their time and for giving us the opportunity to meet and speak with so many of the residents. Listening to the men enrolled in degree programs or taking advantage of other educational offerings made me realize that these opportunities give them a window onto the world and hope for the future. It was a very powerful experience.