The Path Ahead

Rabbi Charles Feinberg
4th Annual Human Rights at the Prison Door
Thursday, October 27, 2022

Introduction: Acknowledgements

Before I begin my formal remarks, I want to thank the founders of IAHR, the first board members: Suzanne O’Hatnick, Gay Gardner, Bonnie Tamres-Moore, Jack Lahr, Zainab Chaudry, Dick Marks, and Rev Maybelle Bennett.  A special mention goes to Susan Kerin, who while not on the founding board of IAHR, was instrumental in creating our first website and in supporting what we were about to embark on. 

We were united by our commitment in our mission and our work.  As many of you know, I was a congregational rabbi for 42 years. Part of the challenge of being a leader in a religious community is bringing together a group of people who are sometimes not united around a mission and who have differing opinions on what should be the top priorities of the congregation.  When the group asked me to become the executive director upon my retirement from this synagogue, I was excited. I felt I was part of a group who was united in their dedication to the mission and to what our priorities should be.  In a sense that made the work easy.

I especially want to thank Sue Emmer and Brian Hess, who recently became board members and who took on the responsibility of planning this event.  They have done a outstanding job and they deserve everyone’s thanks.

They could not have done such an outstanding without the able assistance of Brittney Floyd, IAHR’s database entry specialist, social media director, and my assistant.  Special thanks to Brittney for making sure the zoom goes well.  I also want to thank Natasha White, who is IAHR’s director of community engagement in Virginia. She made a special trip to be with us tonight.  Natasha has done excellent work reaching out to many different community and religious groups throughout the state of Virginia.  Special thanks should go to Kim Haven, who is IAHR’s legislative liaison with the Maryland Legislature. We contract with Kim each year to shepherd our legislation through the Maryland Legislature. Kim has done outstanding work representing IAHR and getting several legislative bills passed.  Please give a hand to Brittney, Natasha, and Kim. 

Finally, I want to welcome Rev Dr. David Lindsey who has already taken up the mantle of leadership.  I will be formally stepping down at the end of December, but David has begun and has already made many excellent contributions to IAHR.  I have every confidence that David will be an outstanding leader and will develop our work in new and exciting ways.  Please give your thanks to Rev Lindsey.

What Drew Me to This Work

People often express surprise that I have become dedicated to working on human rights abuses in prisons. They don’t perceive that this is something that a rabbi would choose to be involved in.  40 years ago I was a congregational rabbi in Madison, WI. Sadly, that was a time as it is today when Central American refugees were a divisive political issue. The synagogue I led, Beth Israel Center, decided to become a sanctuary congregation. We along with three other churches welcomed a Guatemalan family of six: a mother, father, and four little children. The father was an union organizer in Guatemala and one of his colleagues was assassinated. Fearing that he was next, he picked up his family and went north.  Our government at the time refused to welcome people such as the Gonzalez family as refugees. They were clearly fleeing political oppression. We welcomed them, we found an apartment for the whole family, and we supported them for almost 18 months until they were able to legally emigrate to Canada. 

People leaving prison in this country are not that different than refugees fleeing oppression in a distant country. Too often incarcerated people are abused sometimes by other incarcerated people, but just as much if not more by correctional officers. Sometimes, they fear for their lives. If they complain and protest unfair treatment, often correctional officers will retaliate and make their lives miserable.

Many times, people are put in extended solitary confinement without being told why they are being punished.  Then they have to put up with the official line that solitary is never used to punish anybody.  People in prison live in a society in which they have no power and which they are incredibly vulnerable to the power of the people who run the institution.  Too often people leave prison more broken than when they entered.

When the incarcerated come home what do we do? We punish them some more.  We make it exceedingly difficult to find housing and employment. For those who enter prison without an adequate education or with few skills, they come out without an adequate education and few skills. We don’t use prison to help people who need more education to receive it.  Then we are surprised that they cannot make it when they are released.  Nor does prison help people understand how the world has changed during the time they have been incarcerated. Think about someone who entered prison 25 yeas ago. 25 years ago, few people used cell phones, email was just becoming widely used, and no one drove a hybrid or electric car. 25 years ago people were still driving Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, and Saturns.  No one ordered clothes or chairs from Amazon, only books and music. 

I got involved in prison work for the same reason I was involved in welcoming refugees and migrants.  The Hebrew Bible teaches us that are three commandments to love: God, our neighbor, and the stranger. Incarcerated people too often are strangers or neighbors and need our love and support. Just as we don’t give our love and support to refugees and migrants, we don’t give our love and support to incarcerated people. That needs to change.

I also got involved in this work for another reason.  I believe in the teaching that opens the book of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible: every human being is created in the image of God. For me that means that every human has an irreducible core that is holy, that reflects the divine. Every human being, no matter what he or she has done, must be treated with respect because they reflect God’s image.  Sadly, people in prison are rarely, if at all, treated with any respect.  Treat them like animals they will act like animals.

The creation story also underlies my faith in another way. People can change. Every day is an occasion for change. In the Jewish daily prayer we say twice each morning this phrase: “In His goodness, God renews the act of creation every day.” Every day God offers us the opportunity to change our habits and the way we live.  This work has shown me example after example of how people who were out of control, who committed serious crimes, changed their lives.  Our pen pals often give eloquent testimony of how they have changed. They are not the same person they were when they entered prison. People do change. Even people who have committed terrible crimes can change and become renewed. They discover their holy core. They come to understand that they were created in the image of God.  All they want is an opportunity to make something out of their lives. They need the tools to do that---tools that we can give them.  All I can tell you is how satisfying and hopeful it is to meet people who have changed. 

Read more

"Do Not Forget to Show Hospitality to Strangers"

(Editor's Note) Jeanne Marcus is an IAHR pen pal and recently delivered the following sermon on solitary confinement at a Christian worship service. We are honored to publish it for her and you.

Jeanne Marcus
[email protected]
September 22, 2022

This article is adapted from a worship sharing given within a small Christian community on September 8, 2022, based on a portion of the Bible appointed to be read for that week1

 “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

This scriptural advice to Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, was like an alert light asking me to pay attention.  For the last 2 ½ years, I have been writing to several incarcerated men, mostly in Maryland state prisons. Each person has had different experiences and will have different outcomes. One is back home on parole, and is thriving—taking classes at the university, and with a job paying a fair wage. Another will be heading home just after the new year after decades away.   I have valued each of these correspondences, and have been blessed by them.

Earlier this year, at the beginning of March, I first wrote to Tyrone.  Tyrone is imprisoned at a Maryland correctional facility located in Allegany County in rural Western Maryland.  The facility is 135 miles from downtown Silver Spring or midtown Baltimore City, longer to most points in Prince George’s County. It is just a few blocks from a point on Maryland’s border with West Virginia. Allegheny County is 88 % White, 9% Black.

In my second letter, I invited Tyrone to write about anything that was on his mind. He started his next letter to me: He needed to get help to get out of his situation. He is in solitary confinement in that prison.  

Since reading this letter, I’ve given a lot of attention to learning about Tyrone’s situation: about the facility in Western Maryland, and about solitary confinement.  The scriptural instruction I quoted urged me to remember Tyrone as if I were together with him in prison: it made all I’d learned much more personal—taking it from being cerebral to being more visceral.

The institution where Tyrone is being held has been described proudly as a "hyper-max prison."   At the time construction was finished in 2007, it was said to be one of the most technologically advanced prisons in the world.

If I were coming onto the grounds, I would first pass through the outer fence, 15 miles of fence covered with rolls upon rolls upon rolls of razor wire rising out of the flat land. I’d see the master control tower in the middle of the complex.  I have read that the control tower has an unobstructed view of every point on the entire grounds, as well as complete surveillance over CCTV of every area accessed by inmates. The tower has control over all security doors, cameras, and even the flow of water into individual cells

If I were sitting with Tyrone in his cell, we would be in a space that is 60 square feet. This is the size of a very small parking space. That small amount of space is made more claustrophobic by the fact that the cell door is not made of bars: it is made of solid steel. It has a window of bullet-proof glass. There is a slot in the door to pass meals through; or through which guards can shackle a person’s hands.

There is one short wide window to the outside that lets in light but does not allow views of the outside. The concrete cells are constructed offsite so that there are no seams or imperfections that, in theory, could conceivably hide contraband. The concrete is coated with a strong epoxy paint that, it is said, even acid couldn’t break through.

The beds are bolted directly into the concrete and the bolts are rounded down so they cannot be removed. Storage is a space under the bed.  The toilet/sink is stainless steel; there is a steel shelf that serves as a table.2

Even imagining that I’m hearing the steel door with the bullet-proof window clanging closed behind me creates anxiety. Not only is there no physical escape, but it feels like the space also seeks to allow no mental escape.

But the horrific thing is: this is the space that Tyrone must remain in for 23 hours a day, each and every day.

1Letter to the Hebrews 13:2-3

2Physical description: Big, Bigger, Biggest. Season 3, Episode 4


Read more

Unequal Before the Law

November 29, 2021

Unequal Justice Under the Law

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

Last year Slate Magazine highlighted this story that took place in New York City.

Christopher Parham was grocery shopping for his boss when Henry Daverin, a plainclothes NYPD officer, approached him. Daverin accused Parham of driving recklessly on an illegal scooter without a helmet; a few minutes later, Parham was writhing in pain on the sidewalk outside. What happened during those few minutes was a matter of dispute. The NYPD said that Parham, a Black 19-year-old, had violently resisted arrest. Daverin and his colleagues said that they did not use force against him even though Parham had gruesome Taser burns all across his back.

Then surveillance video of the episode emerged—and proved that nearly every detail of the NYPD’s account was false. Parham had immediately cooperated with Daverin; he did not resist arrest. Nonetheless, Daverin and his colleagues had assaulted Parham, tackling him to the ground, then Tasing him over and over again. After Parham’s attorneys released the video—and his local representatives raised concerns—the district attorney dropped all charges. Daverin, who had been named in at least 10 other misconduct lawsuits, was never disciplined, either for brutalizing Parham or for lying about it. Two years later, he remains on the force.

After the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis Police Department issued a false statement that George Floyd had “physically resisted officers”. The statement mentioned nothing about Officer Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes.

Last month the public learned that the State of New York exonerated Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam who were convicted of assassinating Malcolm X in 1965.  Both Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam served over 20 years in prison for a crime that they did not commit.  Moreover, both men produced witnesses who knew that Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were not present in the hall in Harlem where Malcolm X was murdered. 

According to the New York Times, a 22-month investigation conducted jointly by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men found that prosecutors and two of the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies — the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department — had withheld key evidence that, had it been turned over, would likely have led to the men’s acquittal.

Police and Prosecutors commit crimes through giving false testimony or by withholding exculpatory evidence from the accused.  How many incarcerated people may be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of?  According to a Mother Jones article that was published 10 years ago, it may be as many as 20,000 people! And this could be a low estimate.  We just don’t know how many innocent people may be languishing in prison or jail. 

The sad and bitter fact is that police and prosecutors are rarely held accountable when they commit a crime.  The trial and conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was and remains unusual and exceptional.  In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976) that a “state prosecuting attorney who, as here, acted within the scope of his duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution and in presenting the State's case, is absolutely immune from a civil suit for damages under § 1983 for alleged deprivations of the accused's constitutional rights. Pp. 424 U. S. 417-431.” 

A defendant who has been wrongly convicted because of police perjury or prosecutorial misconduct cannot sue for the damages incurred.  Of course, the state can indict the policeman or policewoman for committing a crime. We have seen that the state is often reluctant to bring charges against the police. If criminal charges are brought, it is often difficult to win a conviction.

Prosecutors are never indicted for gross and criminal misconduct.  Instead, these cases are brought before a judicial ethics committee where often nothing happens.  Recently the New York Times reported on a how a group of law professors made public charges of prosecutorial misconduct (called grievances) in Queens, NY on a website they created.  They were advocating for at least transparency. The public should know which prosecutors have been accused of misconduct.  Yet these law professors were condemned.

According to the Times, “the blowback from New York City was swift. A city lawyer called the grievances an abuse of the system and said that they had “concerned” local prosecutors. He accused the professors of politicizing the process and violating the law in a letter sent directly to the grievance committee responsible for disciplining lawyers.”

When police can lie under oath and get away with it, when prosecutors can withhold exculpatory evidence, there is no equal justice under the law in the United States.  By not holding police and prosecutors to the same standard of honesty and truth, we undermine the moral ideal that everyone should be equal before the law.  By undermining this ideal, we created bitterness, cynicism, and often rage. 

The Hebrew Bible teaches that the law should be applied in the same way to both rich and poor. The Bible instructs judges neither to favor rich nor poor.  In our country we favor the people with power and we imprison the poor.  This must change.  

"It is not Good to be Alone"

“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. 

Read more

Local Control of Parole in DC

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

Pam Bailey: DC officials should act now to restore local control over parole

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.

Read more

Time is Running Out for Local Control of Parole in DC

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.

Read more

Prison Population and Public Health

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,”[1] 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,[2] 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

[1]     Barsky, BA, Reinhart, E., et al, Vaccination pus Decarceration---Stopping Covid-19 in Jails and Prisons N Engl J Med 2021;384;1583-85.

[2]     U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Office of the Inspector Gen., Review of the Dep’t Clemency Initiative (2018), available at

Read more

DC Clergy Statehood Rally

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.  



Read more

Testimony on Legislation to Expunge Criminal Records in DC

Testimony before DC Council Judiciary & Public Safety Committee

April 8, 2021

B24-0063 - Second Chance 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.

Read more

Federal Halfway House Threatened

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.