MORCA Testimony

Testimony in Support of Expanded Budget for MORCA

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

Interfaith Action for Human Rights

May 4, 2017

My name is Charles Feinberg and I am the Executive Director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR).  IAHR represents people of faith from Maryland, the District, and Virginia.  Our mission is to end policies and practices that promote torture in our society as well as affirming the dignity of each human being.  I am also a member of the DC Reentry Task Force and I am a resident of the District, residing in Ward 4. 

I am testifying in support of expanding the budget of MORCA in the following ways: 

  1. Strategic Planning: Funds should be added to MORCA’s budget to engage a strategic planning consultant. The plan will allow MORCA to clarify its role in the re-entry process, define its relationship with other system players, and create an accountability structure for achieving its goals as D.C.’s re-entry hub. A larger FY19 budget ask will be based upon the results of this strategic plan.
  2. Additional Staff: Fund 2 full-time case managers for MORCA. This will double the office’s capacity to serve its returning citizen clients in the short-term.

Returning citizens have to overcome many obstacles in order to become functioning independent residents of the District.  Men and women coming home from serving time in federal prison often do not recognize the city since it has changed rapidly in their absence.  They need assistance in navigating public transportation, in attaining a photo id, in purchasing a metro card, and in finding a place to live.  Returning citizens need guidance and assistance in how to go about looking for a job in our community.  Whether it is writing a resume or learning how to conduct themselves in a job interview, they need our support.  Often returning citizens need to learn new skills in order to become employable.  They need an agency who will be their support and their advocate.  They need one central office who will give them the information they need to begin to acclimate themselves to living in Washington.  

Last fall, I attended a Seminar at the Brookings Institute on Reentry and Recidivism. Many learned professors and attorneys spoke at this program.  I learned some important facts.  One fact is that the national recidivism rate for returning citizens is 51%.  I also learned that if a returning citizen can pass through the first 18 months home without incident; then the recidivism rate drops down 5 to 10%!   A number of the experts made the point that returning citizens are most vulnerable to breaking a parole rule or breaking the law during that first 18 months. 

Why is that?  We don’t give them the necessary support during that first year and a half home.  Consider how expensive housing is in this city.  Consider how difficult it is for a returning citizen to find work with a criminal record.  While the District has passed a ban the box law, it is a law that is easily circumvented. 

DC residents who are coming home, need an imaginative, well-staffed, and well-funded agency who will be there to give them the support they need.  They need one agency with one address who will organize their integration into the community.

Today, returning citizens have to negotiate a host of agencies whose staff often do not understand the needs of these men and women.  The way we handle reentry indicates that we as a community do not really care about these folks.  We communicate a message that they really don’t count or matter and that we would be just as happy if they were back in prison.  Often that is what happens.  They get the message and they return to prison. 

Let us at least start by funding two case workers for MORCA.  MORCA then will be able to begin to address the needs of returning citizens.

Two case workers, however, is not sufficient.  In order to effect change we need a vision and a plan for the men and women who return home every day.  The first step is put into the budget of this great city the resources for MORCA to develop a strategic plan for DC residents coming home.  This plan would incorporate values, vision, as well as the kind of staff needed to make the vision a reality.  It is really important that returning citizens be involved in the creation of the vision and the plan.  They are the experts.  They know what they need and they know what has been unhelpful.  By involving returning citizens in the creation of the plan, then we would be sending a strong message to them.  We would be saying you matter; your opinions matter.  We would be signaling to them that we want them to have a stake in the future of this city. We want them to be part of the future of District of Columbia. 

Once vision, values, and a plan are in place, then we can begin to figure out how to implement the plan.  We will have to build community support for the plan.  We will have to see if we can implement it in a series of short term stages.  If the community is involved in making this plan, then there will be support to implement and to find the funds to pay for it. 

Too often, returning citizens are looked upon as scapegoats whenever there is an uptick in crime.  Too often, we as a society assume that returning citizens are not important and are really bad people.  If we continue to send that message, then I assure you the recidivism rate will remain at 51%  But if we can send a message that we value returning citizens, that we want them to be part of our community, then we have an opportunity to reduce the numbers incarcerated and lessen the anger and bitterness among so many.

I urge this Council to take the first step by setting aside funds for MORCA to develop a strategic plan and to hire two case workers.

Testimony in Support of the DC Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program

District of Columbia Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program 

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

DC Council

May 4, 2017

My name is Charles Feinberg, I am the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights. Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a mid-Atlantic coalition of faith communities. We seek to change the culture, policy or practices that cause torture or violate human dignity. Our guide is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the wisdom of our respective faiths. Our main agenda is criminal justice reform in Maryland, the District, and Virginia as well as countering bigotry, especially anti-Muslim bigotry.  I am a DC resident and I reside in Ward 4. 

I speak in support of the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP) which has the potential to make a real dent in the high unemployment rates for returning citizens. I am here to ask that as chairperson of this committee you work with your colleagues to appropriate up to $10 million to the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Fund (IIEF) for DC Law 21-159.  The Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program would provide business education and training for returning citizens to assist them in starting a business or fulfill other professional goals. The IIEP was passed unanimously by the Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs and then by the full council in July, 2016. 

According to the recent report on Reentry issued by the Council for Court Excellence (CCE), “employment is a major problem for returning citizens.  Among employable returning citizens entering supervision during 2015, 71 percent reported they were unemployed.  Unfortunately, D.C.’s job market poses special challenges for the city’s returning citizens.  In 2012, nearly half of the job openings in the D.C. metro area required a college degree, a rate 10 percent higher than other metro areas.  It is projected that by 2020, 76 percent of all jobs in D.C. metro area will require post-secondary education.[1]

According to the CCE report, increased unemployment among returning citizens leads to decreases in drug dealing, violent crime, and property crime.  Returning citizens have to overcome many obstacles in order to find employment.  The majority of returning citizens remain unemployed.  According to the CCE report, “national surveys of returning citizens find that as many as 60 to 75 percent remain jobless up to a year after release.[i]  The CCE report documents that the lack of formal education, the lack of experience and training, employer resistance, and racial discrimination contribute to very high unemployment among returning citizens.

In addition, 31.5 percent of those under community supervision have less than a high school or GED certificate.  Those who are under the care of the D.C. Corrections have similar levels of educational achievement.  36.2 percent of men incarcerated at the DC jail have less than a high school education; 54.6 percent reported having a high school diploma or its equivalent; 3.1 percent reported have a college degree.  Similarly, 35.5 percent of women in the DC jail said they have less than a high school education; 47.9 percent reported having a high school or GED certificate, and only 4.1 percent reported having a college level education[2].  Contrast these levels of education with what one needs to secure employment in the District!

We must face up to certain realities.  Many people have hard time with school, no matter how good the school is.  These people are not necessarily incapable.  On the contrary many of them are very intelligent but their inner makeup resists the norms and practices of formal education.  Others are very smart but they learn so differently that it is hard for them to assimilate the material as it is presented.  I know this because my wife is a special education teacher.  She specializes teaching reading to children with learning disabilities.  She and her colleagues have often reported that many children with learning disabilities are very intelligent. Indeed, they become so frustrated because they are so intelligent and yet have such a hard time learning.  Many such students who are not given special help at a young age often fail at school.  They become so frustrated and angry that they drop out.  Some then engage in criminal acts in order to succeed. 

It is not realistic to expect returning citizens who have had low levels of educational achievement suddenly to become star students.  On the other hand, these returning citizens are capable, very intelligent, and given the right incentives and training could easily start their own businesses. 

This is why the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program could become an important component in a program to help returning citizens become economically independent.  The IIEP would provide a relatively short term program that would give returning citizens the skills to set up their own businesses.  Certainly one of the reasons some people are in prison is because they have difficulty taking orders and direction from others.  That is certainly another reason that they failed in school.  But given the opportunity to be their own boss, they could very likely succeed and excel. 

I have met a number of retuning citizens who have started their own businesses. They are incredibly imaginative and entrepreneurial.  They were able to succeed because someone at some point helped them.  Given a little help, they then became incredibly successful.

Finally, I have been a rabbi for almost 44 years. One of the major lessons I have learned in my life and career is that people’s imaginations need to be stimulated and challenged.  When we challenge and stimulate people, they become excited and hopeful.  Whole worlds open up before them. 

I urge this Council to fund fully the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship ProgramGive hope to those returning from prison.  Help them become independent so that they can become productive and creative citizens in our community. 

[1] Beyond Second Chances, Council for Court Excellence, December 2016, p. vi.

[2] Ibid. p. 43.


Testimony In Support of Maryland Bill SB1015 & HB1001


Testimony in SUPPORT of SB1015 & HB1001

February 15, 2017

To: Maryland House Judiciary Committee

From: Suzanne O’Hatnick, President of Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR)

Re: SUPPORT for HB1001 & SB1015 Correctional Service - Restrictive Housing - Limitations

Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a mid-Atlantic interfaith human rights organization that focuses in Maryland on the intersection of public safety and human rights.  We appreciate having the opportunity to testify in SUPPORT of HB1001 (SB1015).

Last year the legislature passed bipartisan legislation that was signed into law mandating that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services report annually on its use of restrictive housing.  Restrictive housing means a physical separation  in which the inmate is placed in a locked room or cell alone or with another prisoner for approximately 22 hours or more in a 24 hour period.

The mandated report was issued in January 2017 for FY2016. It revealed some shocking statistics:

  • 68% of inmates in state prisons spent time in isolation - restrictive housing - for an average of 50 - 60 days in FY2016. Approximately a quarter of those inmates spent multiple periods in isolation.
  • 269 inmates were released directly to the public from restrictive housing in FY2016. 
  • 172 inmates diagnosed as Seriously Mentally Ill (SMI) spent time in isolation,
  • as did 9 juveniles ages 16 or younger.

Some background about how this legislation came to be developed is useful. In 2011 IAHR was asked by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to learn about how solitary confinement (current term of use is restrictive housing) was used in Maryland. Because of the pattern of abuse seen in US prisons abroad, there was a growing concern about the use of solitary confinement in US federal, state and local prisons and the potential for abuse in a situation where there was little information and no scrutiny.

In 2012 The Vera Institute of Justice did an assessment of Maryland’s use of restrictive housing - referred to at that time as administrative and disciplinary segregation. The Institute found that 8% of the population was in solitary at any given moment representing double the national average of use. In addition, the Institute found that use was arbitrary, varied from facility to facility and that time in isolation sometimes exceeded  even the maximum length of time in COMAR, which, at 360 days, they found also excessive. The Institute made 10 recommendations for change.

IAHR attempted to learn of the response to these recommendations, but was unable to get information voluntarily from DPSCS. In 2014 Senator Lisa Gladden and Delegate Jill P. Carter proposed legislation that  IAHR supported requiring a public reporting of the use of solitary confinement. DPSCS said they had no such thing and the bill did not make it out of committee..

in 2015 Senator Gladden and Delegate Carter once again introduced legislation to require reporting on the use of isolated confinement. We did not know what data DPSCS collected at that time and the argument that year was that we were asking for too much information that would be too costly to document. Again, the bill failed. Community support led by the ACLU, however, grew. The Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post ran editorials calling for the end of solitary confinement.

Later in 2015 through the query of a state legislator, it was learned that indeed, the situation had not really changed since 2011. Some data was provided to the legislator and in 2016 a bill was crafted to request the data that DPSCS already had. In 2016 the bill gained bi-partisan support with Senator Hough joining with Senator Gladden and Delegate Kittleman leading with Delegate Carter. The bill was signed into law in May 2016.

This year’s legislation is intended to support reform efforts recently initiated by DPSCS as recommended initially in 2012 by the Vera Institute of Justice, known for its work with states to reduce isolated confinement, and in 2016 by the National Institute of Corrections. There is clear evidence that extended periods of isolation can cause or exacerbate mental instability.  It appears that with so many being subjected to isolation in Maryland prisons,  restrictive housing is not being practiced as a last resort, but rather as a catch-all.

For that reason, IAHR strongly SUPPORTS Delegate Moon’s bill, HB1001, to limit the use of restrictive housing as a last resort rather than the first for infractions of rules.  There are times when it may be necessary. However, other methods need to be tried first - and there is ample evidence that it is possible to reduce isolated confinement and increase prison safety at the same time. One need only look to Colorado, Mississippi and New Mexico, among other states for examples.

Additionally, access to data and to prison visits upon request for a selected Working Group adds an element of transparency that has been missing.

For these reasons, IAHR urges members of the Judiciary Committee to SUPPORT HB1001 (SB1015).

Thank you for your service and for allowing this testimony.



Suzanne O’Hatnick

President, Board of Directors

Interfaith Action for Human Rights

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