“Not Good to be Alone”
(editor's note: This is a sermon Rabbi Feinberg gave via zoom at Temple Beth El in Richmond, VA on October 2, 2021)
IAHR is an interfaith group whose values are rooted in this week’s Torah reading which includes the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. The Torah opens with a dramatic statement that every human being is created in the image of God. One implication of this suggestive teaching is that everyone—no matter what he or she has done—should be treated with respect. We all bear God’s image and therefore abusing a person is an offense against God.
The other value that our group embraces is stated explicitly in chapter 2: it is not good for a human being to be alone. “Lo Tov heyot Adam l’vado; ehehseh lo ezer k’negdo.” We human beings are social animals. We thrive we have connections and relationships with other human beings. We wither, become depressed, and become physically ill when we are deprived of connections.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture defined one kind of torture as isolating a person for 22 or 23 hours a day for more than 15 consecutive days. Prisons throughout the United States routinely isolate people for more than consecutive days for 22 to 23 hours a day. For many days, especially on weekends, people in isolated confinement don’t have any time out of their cell. Since covid hit, prisons have routinely isolated people for very long times.
The State of Virginia says it doesn’t practice solitary confinement or prolonged isolation anymore. Indeed, the State of VA says that it everyone in a VA state prison has at least 4 hours a day of out of cell time. Yet we have received many personal testimonies from many incarcerated people saying that this isn’t true. That sadly, isolated confinement continues throughout the state prison system.
Within the last 6 months we have received many letters from men and women who are incarcerated in a Virginia state prison. I am going to read an excerpt from two of these letters. One letter is from a person I will call T.C. to protect his privacy. The other person is from Marqui who has given me permission to publicize his letter on our website. And you can find the whole letter on our website under the heading “Letters from Prison.”
My name is T.C.; I have been incarcerated since 2003 for robberies I committed when I was 15 years old. I received 47 years and throughout my prison sentence I’ve been to solitary confinement on many occasions! It never helped me in any way.
To be honest it brought anxiety, stress, and agony to me and if you are not strong it can cause many different mental illness. I’ve seen a few inmates commit suicide or try to commit suicide while in solitary confinement. You are only able to use the phone twice a month and it feels like you are cut off from the world. I’ve also been to Special Housing Unit (S.H.U.) for absolutely no reason on the pretense of investigation or “special investigation unit.” I have been in solitary confinement for weeks and sometimes months without a charge! I strongly feel like solitary confinement doesn’t work. I have not been in solitary confinement since 2019 and I don’t want to go back.
Marqui Clardy in a Virginia State Prison in Lawrenceville, VA
When offenders exhibit poor behavior, such as breaking institutional rules, staff are allowed to punish us in countless ways. They write infractions; put us in solitary confinement; fire us from our jobs; take our commissary, phone, email, and visitation privileges; order us to pay fines; transfer us to stricter, higher-level facilities; even add additional time to our prison sentences. The list of punishments at their disposal is too long to fit in this essay. And there is no limit to how much punishment can be doled out to any single offender; meaning if he perpetually displays poor behavior, he will continue being punished again and again and again for each incident.
Good behavior, on the other hand, goes largely unrewarded in prison. In fact, the only reward is being placed at the highest "good time" level. But this is not a genuine reward, as it simply allows us to remain eligible for our state's truth-in-sentencing percentage. Unlike the never-ending scroll of punishments, they use for poor behavior, staff do not continue rewarding us for positive strides such as earning college credits and vocational trades, completing rehabilitative programs, making personal accomplishments, remaining free of infractions for extended periods of time, etc. For those deeds, we aren't hired for jobs or given pay raises. We aren't given extra commissary, phone, email, or visitation privileges. We aren't continually transferred to lower-level facilities to be among other model inmates. Most importantly, we aren't allowed to earn extra time from our prison sentences. Unlike the near infinite punishments allowed for poor behavior, there are no substantive rewards given for good behavior.
Marqui’s letter highlights how punishment is the central feature of our criminal justice system. The goal is to punish people who have been convicted of crimes. Rehabilitation is not really part of the mission of our correctional institutions. Incarcerated people are not given the medical, psychological, and educational support to help them make different decisions for themselves. Educational programs are limited in prison. You can get a GED but that is about it. Here and there some universities have established courses in prisons. Georgetown University has a course that meets weekly in a Maryland State Prison. The class consists of 15 Georgetown students and 15 incarcerated men. But these programs are few and far between and they touch only a very small percentage of incarcerated people.
July 12, 2021
My colleague Pam Bailey wrote the op-ed piece below. It is an excellent explanation of why DC needs to seize the opportunity to take control of parole. The op-ed appeared in the DC Line. Chuck
James Dunn spent 29 years in prison without a disciplinary infraction. He completed every program in which he could enroll, taught classes for fellow prisoners, and mentored those younger than him. Yet Dunn was refused parole three times. He would likely still be in prison if it weren’t for the second chance offered by DC’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016. Today, he is an outreach worker for Cure the Streets, a District program designed to reduce gun violence.
Frankie Hargrove was denied parole five times despite a similar lack of disciplinary actions (just three in 34 years). He was finally released only because the U.S. Bureau of Prisons had no basis for holding him any longer. Today, he is a budding musician.
For these two men, the early release promised by parole in return for good conduct was a mirage — as it has been and still is for hundreds of DC residents whose fate is left to the opaque intransigence of the U.S. Parole Commission. That is why it is so critical for the mayor and the DC Council to take the necessary steps to transfer control over this life-determining decision from federal to local authorities.
A little background: Although DC abolished parole in 2000, anyone who received an indeterminate sentence prior to that year must still petition for release. And because DC transferred all control over its criminal justice system to the federal government in 1997, that decision is made by the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) — a body with no accountability to the District government and one that refuses to make public any information on its rulings. Based on the little data available, the District Jails & Justice Task Force estimates that about 660 mostly Black men are eligible for parole — all of whom have been incarcerated for more than 21 years. It’s believed that approximately 345 of those individuals remain behind bars after having been denied at least once. And of those, 129 have been eligible for parole more than nine years.
Too often, the Justice Policy Institute noted in a 2019 report, parole is denied “based on the severity of an individual’s original offense, rather than on evidence of a person’s progress toward rehabilitation.” In a separate report, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs concluded, “The USPC has become a driver of mass incarceration in D.C. The decisions of the USPC have been far harsher than those of the former D.C. Board of Parole, with hundreds of D.C. prisoners denied parole under punitive parole decision-making practices and thousands of D.C. returning citizens returned to incarceration for violation of the USPC’s rules.”
Numerous organizations and individuals have spent hundreds of hours researching different models for local operation of parole. And although differences exist about which model is best, everyone agrees that remaining with the USPC is the worst of all possible options for DC residents. However, before DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton will advance a bill authorizing the transition to local control, Mayor Muriel Bowser must pave the way by allocating sufficient funds and the DC Council must pass enabling legislation. To date, neither has been done.
July 7, 2021
Letter to Mayor Bowser and the Members of the D.C. Council
On July 5, 2020, Mayor Bowser sent a request to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton: “With forward momentum and progress on our journey to DC Statehood, I write to ask for your support for the District regaining local control of parole functions through federal legislation.” Now a full year later, neither the Mayor nor the D.C. Council have taken any significant actions toward achieving this crucial goal.
As a member of the D.C. community (resident of Ward 4) who advocates for the rights of D.C. residents returning from incarceration, and as a committed supporter of DC Statehood, I am sorely disappointed by our local government’s failure of leadership and betrayal of our legitimate aspirations for social justice and for D.C. Statehood.
Congresswoman Norton complied with the Mayor’s July 2020 request by introducing legislation in the 116th Congress more than seven months ago, and then again by introducing as H.R. 658 in the 117th Congress to authorize the District government to create a paroling agency to take on the duties currently handled by the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC). As the Mayor appropriately noted in her July 5, 2020 letter with regard to the power wielded by the USPC, “It is important that decisions of this magnitude be made by DC residents and that they be accountable to our community and our elected officials.”
Some context is important. In 2018, the U.S. Congress had reauthorized the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) with a "sunset" provision to abolish this federal agency’s authority in November 2020. Throughout 2018 and 2019 a working group of advocates and various justice reform organizations urged the District government to take advantage of this opportunity to assume local control of parole functions.
In October 2019, the District Task Force on Jails and Justice comprised of members of government agencies, research organizations, scholars, community representatives and members of faith-based communities recommended that the District government “plan now to localize parole and supervised release decision-making.” A District-funded study by the Justice Policy Institute recommended several programmatic options in a report concluded in September 2019. Despite these calls for action, the District took made no decisions and took no action.
In her July 5, 2020 letter, the Mayor requested a two-year extension of the November 2020 deadline, which she claimed “would be sufficient for us to plan, prepare and fund an orderly transition of the parole function to local control.” For the past year, experienced justice reform and community advocates undertook as volunteers the heavy burden of articulating principles to guide a new parole authority, publishing documents delineating structure, staffing and budget for a new parole authority, and crafting recommendations and legislative language to protect due process and assure the integrity of parole release and supervision revocation decisions. The documents can be found here.
In contrast, over the same year’s time D.C. elected officials have failed to engage in any effective planning or preparation for the transition to local control of parole. The Council has not introduced, and the Mayor’s office has not proposed, appropriate legislation. The Mayor has included a token allocation of $100,000 in her draft FY2022 budget, inadequate to create and begin operating a new paroling agency with a capacity to assume responsibilities in November 2022.
Over the last few weeks, the entire D.C. political leadership has forcefully demanded Congressional action on DC Statehood, while failing to take any concrete steps to restore a fundamental state function to local control.
June 30, 2021
Today I bring you a guest editorial from Dr. Raymond Scalettar and Steven Salky.
Methods to Reduce Incarceration
By Steven Salky and Dr. Raymond Scalettar
Fortunately, the morbidity and mortality related to COVID-19 has declined significantly. The CDC guidelines are now less prohibitive. However, we should focus our attention on prisons as a future source of serious infections that can affect the entire population. It is apparent that there is no such thing as social distancing in prison. “COVID-19 in Prisons and Jails in the United States” (1) focused on this serious challenge, high risk prisoners, and attempts to reduce harm in prisons and jails. In a recent Perspective article “Vaccination vs Decarceration,” the authors explain why to reduce the spread of COVID-19, we must reduce excessive prison and jail populations, and offer vaccines to all those housed in such facilities. However, they do not elaborate how best to achieve this objective. We have been involved in cases by which federal prisoners vulnerable to COVID-19 can seek early release from prison via the “compassionate release.” Here are proposals to reduce prison populations.
First, both the federal and state executive branches need to revitalize their use of clemency to commute excessively long periods of imprisonment. There have been recent recommendations by a bi-partisan group of advocacy organizations that the White House should reactivate the process for considering applications for federal clemency. This effort was deactivated during the Trump administration and there is now a backlog of more than 15,000 cases. As was demonstrated during the 2014 Clemency Initiative used by the Obama Department of Justice, there are thousands of non-violent federal drug offenders serving sentences that are much longer than would be imposed today. The President should consider many of these people for immediate release through a grant of clemency. But federal prisoners are only a small fraction of drug offenders serving disproportionately long sentences; larger numbers of low-level drug offenders are serving time in state prisons. Governors should also make use of their power to grant clemency. Although the number of sentence commutations granted by many governors in 2020 exceeded those granted in prior years, the numbers remain paltry, especially when compared to the imperative created by the pandemic.
1 Hawks, L, Woolhandler,S, McCormick,D. Covid-19 in Prisons and Jails in the United States. jamainternmed 2020; 180(8);1041-1042
 Barsky, BA, Reinhart, E., et al, Vaccination pus Decarceration---Stopping Covid-19 in Jails and Prisons N Engl J Med 2021;384;1583-85.
 U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Office of the Inspector Gen., Review of the Dep’t Clemency Initiative (2018), available at https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2018/e1804.pdf.
April 17, 2021
Yesterday, I participated in a clergy rally for DC Statehood which was also a celebration of Emancipation Day. On April 16, 1862, all the slaves in the District of Columbia were freed.
Click here for the Washington Post article
Interfaith Clergy Statehood Rally
Friday, April 16, 2021
Rabbi Charles Feinberg
Fellow Clergy, Friends, Residents of DC:
I stand here to speak on behalf of DC Statehood! Fifteen years ago, I moved to the District of Columbia. I first realized how disenfranchised I was when I saw information online protesting a human rights abuse. The organization urged me to sign a petition, which I promptly did. Then the petition asked me to identify my Senators and Representative. Wait a Minute—I don’t have any Senators representin
g me in the Senate. I found out I have Representative Norton in the House of Representatives, but she doesn’t have a vote. I realized then that my signature on that petition and my voice did not have the same weight or effect because I am a resident in the District of Columbia
I am the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights. We represent people of faith from the District, Maryland, and Virginia. One of our goals is to end human rights abuses in correct
ional facilities, especially the abuse of prolonged isolation or solitary confinement.
Did you know that in 1997, the District gave up many of its criminal justice responsibilities? Did you know that anyone convicted of a felony in the District serves his or her sentence in a federal prison? Did you know that over 3000 DC residents are incarcerated in 122 prisons around the country: from California to Arizona to Texas to Louisiana to Florida to Minnesota? Did you know that the Federal Bureau of Prisons still does not inform any agency in the DC government when they are releasing DC residents? When DC residents are released from prison in California, they are put on a bus and they make their way back here. But often there is no one to receive them.
Think about it. Suppose you have been released after serving a 15 or 20 year sentence. You have been incarcerated in a prison in Indiana or in North Carolina or in Arizona. Think how much the District has changed since you were sentenced. Now you are put on a bus and dropped off in a city you don’t even recognize. Moreover, very few people even know that you are coming home. You have
not been given any direction or guidance on how to access reentry services. Every day, every month, people are released from the Bureau of Prisons in this way.
Testimony before DC Council Judiciary & Public Safety Committee
April 8, 2021
B24-0063 - Second Chance Amendment Act of 2021
B24-0110, THE “CRIMINAL RECORD EXPUNGEMENT AMENDMENT ACT OF 2021”
Rabbi Charles Feinberg
Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning regarding B24-0063, “Second Chance Amendment Act of 2021,” and B24-0110, “Criminal Record Expungement Amendment Act of 2021.”
My name is Rabbi Charles Feinberg. I am the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights which represents people of faith who educate and advocate in Maryland, DC and Virginia for corrections systems that avoid unnecessarily punitive practices such as solitary confinement and that instead focus on rehabilitation and successful reentry.
I commend the Council for taking up legislation that will expand the number and kinds of records that can be sealed. I support amending Chapter 8 of Title 16 to increase the number of eligible convictions that may be sealed, to reduce the number of years a resident must remain off papered to seal an eligible conviction, to simplify and shorten the process that a resident must undertake to seal a charge that does not end in a conviction.
I also support expanding the definition of an eligible felony and to make all misdemeanors eligible for sealing. Felonies are expanded to (A) Failure to appear (§ 23-1327); 31 “(B) First or second degree theft (§ 22-3211); and 32 “(C) Felony possession (§ 48-904.01(a)
However, I am disappointed that this legislation does not go far enough. This legislation does not address granting eligibility for expunging serious felonies. Nor does it include simplified waiting period and simplified burdens of proof. Furthermore, the legislation should mandate clearer rules on how sealed records may be accessed and used. It should also give clearer guidance to our courts to decide motions as well as limiting the time for a court to decide a motion to seal. Finally, the legislation should make the instructions on how to file simple and easy to read. People should be able file without hiring an attorney.
The basic question that we all have to address is how many times and how long do we punish someone who was convicted of a crime? Once convicted of a felony, a DC resident becomes incarcerated in the Bureau of Prisons. He or she spends a number of years there. While there they do not receive the educational, psychological, and medical services they need to help them make different decisions for themselves. Many have served lengthy sentences and they return to a city that has dramatically changed since they lived here. Many are not prepared to re-enter. Many do not have homes to return to.
Then they return to the District and the punishment does not end. Do we provide housing for those returning from prison? No, we really don’t. Do the landlords want them? No, they don’t. Here is another barrier that is so difficult to overcome: finding a decent and affordable place to live in. Many then have to jump from one couch in one house to another and too often end up living on the street.
April 1, 2021
On April 1, 2021, D.C. Council Member Vincent Gray circulated the “Downtown Ward 7 Urban Park Eminent Domain Authority Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2021,” to the D.C. Council, with accompanying emergency and temporary legislation that would allow the District to use its eminent domain powers to seize the Ward 7 property where a new halfway house is slated to open in May.
Opponents to the planned halfway house first claimed that it should not open there because it would hurt the economic development of the Benning Road corridor. Then they claimed that the old meat-packing building on the site was historic and must be preserved. After that, they claimed that a 300-bed facility was too big. Now, they’re proposing that the property should be used as a park, citing such an urgent need as to require a governmental taking of private property. Unfortunately, these claims all obscure the truth of the opposition – some residents do not want a halfway house and its residents in their neighborhood.
Returning citizens, their loved ones, and local organizations have long advocated for a safe, supportive environment to facilitate residents’ reentry into our community. The journey to a halfway house that supports the success of returning citizens has been a long, and complicated saga.
- January 2016: The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) issued its solicitation for proposals for a new halfway house for men in D.C.
November 2018: The BOP initially awarded the 5-year, $60+ million contract to CORE DC.
- April 2020: Hope Village closes with less than two-weeks notice, leaving D.C. without a halfway house for men.
- June 2020: After a prolonged contract battle, and several blocked sites, CORE DC receives final contract approval from the BOP to open a new 300-bed halfway house at property they purchased at 3701 Benning Rd. NE. The facility was scheduled to open October 1, 2020.
September 2020: ANC7F files a historic preservation claim to prevent CORE DC from demolishing the existing building on the Benning Rd. property.
December 2020: The Historic Preservation Review Board votes 7-1 to deny the historic preservation claim, clearing the way for CORE DC to file its raze permits.
- December 2020: CORE DC files raze permits and building permits with DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).
February 2021: Councilmember Gray files resolution to cancel a contract extension between DC’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and CORE DC for CORE DC to continue running a family homeless shelter in Ward 7.
- April 2021: Councilmember Gray files emergency and temporary bills and an emergency resolution to use eminent domain to seize CORE DC’s property and instead use it to build a park.
Since Hope Village abruptly closed its doors during the COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave, D.C. has gone 336 days without a halfway house for men. With no halfway house within city limits, D.C. residents – more than 90% of whom are Black – face enormous additional barriers to their successful reentry. Some people are sent by BOP to a halfway house in another state (like Baltimore, MD, Wilmington, DE, or Norfolk, VA); others are sent from prison straight back to the streets of the District, often without a plan for housing, a job, or any connection to reentry services. Of course, the lack of safe housing, employment, and supportive services for returning citizens has been exacerbated by the pandemic, just as it has for all District residents.
In May 2020, the DC Reentry Action Network asked the ReOpen DC Task Force to “support the new halfway house contractor in opening the doors of the new facility as quickly as possible.” In February 2021, the District Task Force on Jails & Justice also recommended the District prioritize “quick and safe approval of the raze application and all other permits required for CORE DC to open its new halfway house facility at 3701 Benning Rd. NE.” The BOP itself stated in an email on April 1, 2021 that, “continued efforts to delay, or not allow this facility to operate as intended, will result in the inability of the BOP to provide these critical services to offenders releasing to this area.”
We demand that the Mayor and D.C. Council immediately and permanently put an end to these delay tactics and take all steps needed to safely and quickly approve all permits needed for CORE DC to open a new halfway house for men at 3701 Benning Rd. NE. No more contract disputes, no more attempts at eminent domain, no emergency changes to zoning laws or municipal regulations, no more veiled attempts keeping our returning citizens from coming home.
The DC Council must VOTE NO on Tuesday on the “Downtown Ward 7 Urban Park Eminent Domain Authority Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2021,” the “Downtown Ward 7 Urban Park Eminent Domain Authority Emergency Act of 2021,” and the “Downtown Ward 7 Urban Park Eminent Domain Authority Temporary Act of 2021.” All District leaders must send a clear message that further delays will not be tolerated – we must open a new halfway house for men now.
CLICK HERE TO SIGN ON
March 25, 20201
IAHR welcomes the news that the State of Virginia has abolished the death penalty. Virginia is the first southern state to do so. The death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment because it discriminates against the poor and people of color. It is cruel and unusual punishment because mistakes and prosecutorial misconduct often mar death penalty decisions. The next step is to ban life sentences without the possibility of parole. It is time for all of us to accept that people can change. https://www.governor.virginia.gov/.../headline-894006-en...
March 5, 2021
Today, I sent the letter below to DC Council Members Mendelson, Cheh, McDuffie, Pinto, and Bonds who are trying to undermine a shelter for the homeless in Ward 7 and a new halfway house for returning citizens from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. CORE DC has contracted both with the District and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to run a homeless shelter in Ward 7 and a halfway house for returning citizens. The Shelter for the Homeless is up and running and the people it serves seem satisfied with the CORE DC's management. Separately, CORE DC has contracted with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to manage a halfway house for returning citizens in Ward 7. The halfway house has yet to be built and Councilman Gray is trying his best to prevent it from being built. To that end he persuaded Council Members Mendelson, Cheh, McDuffie, Pinto, and Bonds to sign a resolution withholding permission from the contractor to build the halfway house. This is another example of our leaders saying they want to support the poor and those who are returning prison but then do the opposite. Here is the letter I sent to the five Council Members.
Dear Council Members Mendelson, Cheh, McDuffie, Pinto, and Bonds:
As the Director of an organization which believes that we all have a responsibility to offer support and guidance to those who have fallen on difficult times, I am deeply troubled to hear that you are supporting an effort among your colleagues on the city council that could result in a disruption to emergency shelter and vital social services for dozens of families experiencing homelessness at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and economic hardship. I am referring to the resolution you have signed along with five other Council Members that aims to terminate the current service provider’s contract to run the short-term housing program at The Horizon in Ward 7.
As you may know, The Horizon is part of Mayor Bowser’s bold plan to establish dignified, service-enriched programs across all eight wards – a centerpiece of her agenda. At The Horizon’s opening in October 2018, Mayor Bowser said, “With these new short-term family housing programs, we are providing a chance for our families to rebuild their circumstance as they continue to contribute to our greater DC community.”
By all accounts, the existing provider operating The Horizon, CORE DC, has been an ideal partner to the community in making that vision a reality. In fact, it is our understanding that CORE DC was selected to lead a similar short-term housing program in the District, which opened in July of 2020, as well as another DHS program for returning citizens.
At The Horizon, CORE DC provides 35 families experiencing homelessness with safe emergency shelter, case management, and community-based support programs to help them achieve stable and permanent housing. The site also includes computer labs for the residents, outdoor playground and recreational space, age-appropriate indoor recreation space, a homework and a study lounge for residents. Residents of The Horizon are predominantly Black and Brown, and CORE DC’s staff reflects the populations it serves, which is a critical component of building trust.
The effort to dismantle this program is troubling enough on its own. But it is even worse in light of the fact that CORE DC is planning to open