“We’re all we got:” Former and current Hope Village residents fear the future of re-entry in DC
Editor’s Note: Street Sense Media spoke to six former residents, one current resident, and one former employee of the Hope Village halfway house. Nearly all would agree to an interview only under the condition of anonymity, citing concerns over retaliation or negative impacts on future job prospects. Due to the many government reports and court documents available that backed up their claims, we agreed to these terms. Anywhere only a first name is used in this story, it is a pseudonym to protect the source who shared their lived experience with us.
There are currently 4,095 male D.C. residents incarcerated by the Bureau of Prisons across the country, according to a D.C. Corrections Information Council employee. Upon returning to the District, around 50 percent typically spend time in a halfway house, according to a 2016 report by the Council for Court Excellence. But in two months, that may no longer be possible.
On Oct. 31, Hope Village’s contract with the BOP is set to expire. The 304-bed halfway house, which was established in 1977, has received $125 million dollars in federal contracts from the BOP since 2006, according to the Washington Post.
What it has also received, however, is a series of complaints from residents — many of whom said they would have preferred to stay in prison rather than live there.
And now, after a contract to construct a new halfway house fell apart in 2018, the 168 incarcerated D.C. residents scheduled to come home from October to December face total uncertainty.
It is important to us to give organizations ample time to comment when we write about their work. In this case, Hope Village staff said they were prohibited from speaking to the media and referred all questions to the Bureau of Prisons. BOP did not respond to any of the questions we submitted in the first week of July or to subsequent follow-up communications over the next four weeks checking on the status of that inquiry. However, several hours before the Street Sense Media newspaper went to press, BOP provided a brief statement that confirmed several of the facts outlined below.
A paper trail of complaints
In 2013, in response to multiple complaints and concerns, the D.C. Corrections Information Council conducted an inspection of Hope Village over a six-month period. Many community members, the CIC found, felt as though the staff was inaccessible, the facilities were dirty, and job and programming resources were lacking.
“The little bit of time and information that they give people —– it’s not enough time to go and try to get a job,” said one former resident, Henry. “People don’t know how to do that; you have a lot of people who have been [incarcerated] for decades, who really don’t know how to use those computers. They pretty much just throw you out there to the woods.”
The CIC recommended that Hope Village provide more programming via community partnerships, ensure the use of experts with education and specialized training, establish a forum for internal communication and grievances, and provide internet and job resources to all residents.
A perceived lack of empathy and patience is also an issue, former residents say.
“Whenever you have an issue, the staff is always so busy and unprofessional,” said Brian, a current resident of Hope Village. “They have so many people in their caseload. When you do request a meeting, it’s always, ‘Okay, what is it now? I’m busy.’ It’s always something. You can’t ever sit down and say, ‘Listen this is what’s going on in my life.’”
Most of the residents have lost faith and trust in the people employed to help them, according to Brian. They are not motivated or engaged when they are still being treated like prisoners.
“When you’re dealing with men who have been ostracized and separated from families from 10, 15, 20 years, you really have to deal with these guys on an intimate level, on a professional level, in a more direct level,” Brian said. “… You have to show these guys something different, and that’s not happening.”
While certain policies may seem restrictive or unnecessary, former resident Cornelious Porter explains he now understands why the safeguards are there.
“When you look at the overall picture, I understand,” Porter said. “I’m still a convicted felon, I’m still under Hope Village’s supervision. I had been gone 17 years and seven months. To come home and now have a little bit of freedom – if Hope Village just lets me immediately take off and look for a job, I’ll be all over the place.”
In September 2016, as residents and service providers continued to have concerns regarding Hope Village, the CIC sent a letter to the BOP highlighting alternative reentry strategies.
In December 2016, the Council for Court Excellence’s annual report on returning citizens included a request for BOP not to renew Hope Village’s contract. The report instead urged that funding go toward hiring a new provider that would be accountable for high-quality services such as workforce engagement, behavioral and physical health resources, housing, family support, and offense-specific issues.
Without an alternative, former resident Antoine Jones said he was wary of the big-picture question of “How are guys going to come home?”
“If you close Hope Village, what do you have?” Jones said. “I’m with Hope Village because it’s a halfway house that’s established now. There’s guys who have been [in prison] for a long time and are waiting to come home. I think any halfway house will have the good, bad and ugly — but in terms of what you’re coming to the halfway house for, it’s your halfway home.”
An (un)safe haven
In addition to the living conditions and treatment, former Hope Village residents also reported feeling an overarching lack of safety.
The halfway house is located at 2844 Langston Pl. SE, within the Woodland neighborhood. In the last year, there have been 33 reported cases of violent crime and 60 instances of property crime within a 1500-foot radius of that address.
“I had to leave prison and go back to one of the most active neighborhoods there is, as far as criminal activity,” said former resident and D.C. native Marquis Hicks. “My first day back at the halfway house, up the street in the same neighborhood, a younger individual got killed for his shoes. That’s the norm.”
Hicks was sent to Hope Village twice, for two separate sentences. The second time, he was supposed to serve eight months there. He lasted three.
“The stress of Hope Village was overwhelming,” Hicks said. “I chose prison at that point and left.”
A recent investigation by NBC’s local News4 I-Team found that 10 percent of all escapes from halfway houses nationwide occur from Hope Village. An escape, or “walkaway,” is defined by failing to return at a scheduled time.
Many people preemptively reject Hope Village as an option because of safety fears, according to Hicks.
“A lot of people actually deny the halfway house just because of where it’s located,” Hicks said. “When guys know they’re coming home, the halfway house is supposed to be transitioning. Say I’m an individual who wants to be on the straight and narrow — you’re going to put yourself in an environment where you’re going to see a lot.”
In a location full of such violence and external stressors, former residents say they have had to band together to support each other.
“We’re all we got,” Brian said of his fellow residents. “We have to be there for each other. I’m trying to show these brothers that there’s a better way, that you can make it, and I know that the situation is overwhelming right now but just pray and have faith.”
Overworked and overcrowded
While many residents have expressed concern and discontent with support from Hope Village staff, an interview with a former employee shows the tensions placed on the staffers themselves.
Hope Village, with its 304 beds, is the largest residential reentry center under BOP’s control. The next largest halfway house is located in Texas and holds 171 beds. The BOP supports 166 halfway houses, or residential reentry centers, total.
The closest halfway house outside of D.C. is located in Baltimore and was already over capacity in 2016, according to an audit report. At the time, there were 65 staff members assigned to the 185 residents, with roughly one employee for every three residents.
Meanwhile, Hope Village employed 94 full-time staff members in 2013, according to the CIC report. Among them were social workers, vocational counselors, case managers and drug counselors. At the time the report was released, an average caseload for a vocational counselor was between 40 and 70 residents.
Typical responsibilities included leading a job readiness course, holding goal-setting meetings for residents, checking in on residents in home confinement, and conducting on-site visits to any resident’s job, according to former vocational counselor Mary.
In the disorganized environment at Hope Village, Mary said she felt unable to commit adequate time to each resident.
“The job itself, I don’t think it’s a bad job if that’s something you want to do,” Mary said. “In order to do a job like that, you have to be in it. If there was more professionalism in Hope Village overall, I think that it would come together.”
Each resident must create a customized action plan with their vocational counselor if they remain unemployed for 45 days, according to the 2013 CIC report.
A lack of training was one downfall, Mary said. She recalled being placed into her position after one week of training, and expressed feeling a lack of confidence as a result when she began counseling.
“When I was placed in my building, apparently there wasn’t a counselor that was there for maybe a month or two prior to me getting my position,” Mary said. “They had me in a two-week training with my supervisor, but I did a one-week training and I was just put in my building and pretty much had to figure things out.”
The CIC was told by community services providers and residents that Hope Village staff members were reported to be unqualified and unhelpful in handling their position.
Mary claimed that social workers at Hope Village were not “actually licensed.” The minimum qualifications for a social worker position at Hope Village is a Bachelor of Arts degree, according to the CIC report. At other halfway houses, applicants must hold a Master’s degree; vocational counselors must hold a high school diploma, a Bachelor of Arts degree, and one-year experience are preferred; and case managers and drug counselors must be more specialized.
A push for a new option
Although Hope Village has been the only halfway house for men in D.C. for many years, it’s not for lack of effort. BOP began soliciting proposals in 2016 to open a second halfway house in the District. The 5-year, $60 million contract was eventually awarded on Nov. 1, 2018 to Core Services Group, which has run a similar nonprofit facility in New York.
The proposed 300-bed center was slated for 3400 New York Ave. NE, in Ward 5. Soon after the contract was announced, however, there was major pushback from two fronts.
Two weeks after the new contract was awarded, Hope Village filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office on Nov. 13, 2018, claiming that Core D.C.’s proposal did not “provide sufficient proof” of the company’s right to use the proposed building as a halfway house. BOP issued a stop-work order to Core D.C. after the November complaint was filed, according to their statement issued to Street Sense Media.
The next month, 12 residents who lived near the proposed site filed a lawsuit against Core D.C. for an injunction to stop the project. Residents, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton all claimed there was a lack of community outreach and a disregard of zoning regulations.
Councilmember McDuffie did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In February, the GAO recommended that BOP reopen discussions and competition for the contract. Hope Village and the BOP requested a reconsideration from the GAO, but in May the office denied that second request. There have been no public announcements since that time regarding updated solicitations for the new contract.
In the face of such actions, Douglas Development pulled out of the project with Core D.C. in December 2018, according to the Washington Post. There has not been clarity since as to whether Douglas Development or Core D.C. intend to restart conversations.
Douglas Development did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Core D.C. declined to comment.
Amidst the uncertainty, community partners and residents are becoming more nervous about the prospect of D.C. losing its only halfway house for men.
On June 25, the D.C. Reentry Action Network sent a letter urging the BOP to build a new halfway house in the District, with Core D.C. as its provider. The looming void of halfway houses is not viable, according to Paula Thompson, co-chair of the RAN.
“What we hope is that we’re not in a position where we won’t have a facility in the city,” Thompson said. “Should the decision be made that Core D.C. cannot operate that facility and the award is rescinded in some manner and we’re left with no option — that is not an option.”
The men set to come home from prison, noted former resident Jones, don’t have time to wait.
“Let’s think about the people,” he said. “What do they want? They want to have a halfway house now.”
On Aug. 8, Delegate Norton sent a letter to the BOP asking for updates regarding Hope Village’s contract status and a formal response to the GAO decisions. The next day, activist Ron Moten organized local go-go bands and speakers to hold a “Go-Go for Justice” rally that was attended by more than 1,000 people.
Last night’s #DontMuteDC Rally for Reentry drew 1,000. On a weekday. On traffic-choked NY Ave. EU/Sugar Bear, @BackyardBand cranked, Rev. @Graylanhagler WENT IN on Douglas Jemal, made connection to #gentrification plain. Great to see @revtonylee @Raheem_DeVaughn @dontmutethemvmt pic.twitter.com/hmiYdrPHDJ
— Natalie Hopkinson (@NatHopkinson) August 9, 2019
This story has been updated to include a letter sent by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and a #DontMuteDC rally held after this story was published.