There is No Prison in Washington: Challenges of Reentry in the District

By Maria Valdovinos

In 1997, The Revitalization Act directed the Federal Government to assume responsibility for many of the functions typically managed by state governments, which helped relieve Washington, DC of some of its financial and management responsibilities (Bouker 2016). However, the Revitalization Act has created some unique challenges related to criminal justice.

After the Revitalization Act passed, Washington DC’s prison, Lorton Reformatory, closed in 2001 (Kress, Moser, Tatro, and Velazquez 2016). As a result, individuals convicted of a crime in the District who are sentenced to serve prison time are sent to 26 institutions across the country. “The DC system makes it difficult to keep families together,” says Nancy Ware, Director of Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA).

In addition to making it difficult for families to stay connected through the period of incarceration, the lack of a prison in the District poses several challenges for ‘returning citizens’1 preparing to transition back to their communities after serving their sentences. For many, there is no access to local service providers until they have set actual foot in the District. The delay in accessing services can have devastating impacts, especially for those in need of medical and mental health services.

Recognizing the challenges for returning citizens, there are discussions currently underway about creating a District-wide strategic reentry plan to make it easier for returning citizens to navigate some of these challenges.

Unless sentenced to serve life in prison, most incarcerated individuals will at some point be released from institutional confinement. Reentry is a term used to describe the process of, as well as, the “issues related to the transition of offenders from prison to community supervision” (Markman, Durose, Rantala and Tiedt 2016). In any given year, approximately 600,000 to 700,000 individuals are released from state prison to reenter society (Petersilia 2009; Carson and Sabol 2012).

In the past four decades, the prison population in America has increased considerably, from approximately 350,000 in 1970 to over 2 million presently (Travis, Western, and Redburn 2014: 33). Currently, America’s prison population comprises 25 percent of the world’s prison population in any given year (Walmsley 2009; Weiss and MacKenzie 2010: 269). Any way you look at it, the numbers are not insignificant.

Reentry Reflection

To learn more about the challenges of reentry, in February 2017, I attended Reentry Reflection 2017, which is a month long “period of observance intended to raise public awareness about the challenges facing men and women returning home from prison.” It is hosted every year by CSOSA for the District of Columbia, in partnership with various other organizations and communities. All events are open to the public.

I attended three events, each of which addressed different issues and challenges of reentry. At “Sharing Our Stories to Reclaim Our Lives” I heard stories of struggles and successes and learned about the trauma in prison for females. At the “Family Reunification: Barriers to Reentry and the Impact on Loved Ones” event, I learned about the massive reach of incarceration, and its impact beyond the incarcerated individual to families and communities. The third event was a forum held at Pepco Edison Place Gallery to disseminate the findings of the most comprehensive examination of reentry in the District to date, conducted by the Council for Court Excellence. The report details the unique challenges returning citizens face in the District; the report also provides recommendations on how to overcome some of those challenges.

Unique challenges of reentry in the District

While there are many common and expected challenges to reentry across the nation, there are some unique challenges in the District of Columbia, because there is no state government for the District.

Washington, DC’s criminal justice system is composed of both local and federal jurisdictions, which makes the reentry process difficult to navigate. Some other unique challenges for returning citizens are: (1) Affordable housing is hard to come by. It is no surprise that housing in the District is incredibly expensive.

Source: Maria Valdovinos


The Council for Court Excellence found that three months into community supervision, more than 20 percent of employed returning citizens and more than 30 percent of those who are unemployed but otherwise employable were in a precarious housing situation and at high risk of becoming homeless.

In addition to cost, housing restrictions due to felony conviction make securing housing extraordinarily challenging. (2) Most jobs in Washington, DC require some sort of post-secondary training. In 2012, almost half of all jobs in the District required a college degree and by 2020, it is expected that more than 75 percent of the jobs in the District will require a college degree (Rothwell 2012; Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl 2013).

The increase in educational requirements for employment will make it nearly impossible for returning citizens to secure employment in the District. (3) Childcare in the District is the most expensive in the nation (Fraga, Dobbins, and McCready 2015). Women are currently the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population in America (Swavola, Riley, and Subramanian 2016) and most of these women are mothers. Women who are returning citizens and primary caregivers for their children have to balance childcare responsibilities with the requirements of community supervision. These are severe challenges exacerbated by the lack of affordable childcare in the District.

Despite these unique challenges, there is an opportunity for the District to serve as a model for reentry across the nation. Recently, I met a woman at a networking event who told me she relocated to the District because of the great number of services available to help returning citizens overcome some of the challenges to successful reentry.

The event was organized to help returning citizens develop their own small businesses in the District. The challenge here seems not to be one of lack of services but rather, finding ways to improve the accessibility of these services. The District is hard at work on finding ways to overcome this challenge.


  1. The use of “returning citizen” as opposed to “prisoner” is reflective of the use of “people first” language which aims to move past the use of dehumanizing and stigmatizing language such as “offenders,” “inmates,” or “convicts” when talking about people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. For more information see: La Vigne, N.G. 2016. People First: Changing the Way We Talk About Those Touched by the Criminal Justice System. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.


Bouker, J. 2016. The D.C. Revitalization Act: History, Provisions, and Promises. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Carnevale, A.P, Smith, N., & Strohl, J. 2013. Recovery: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2020. Washington, DC: Georgetown Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University.

Carson, E. A., & Sabol, W. J. (2012). Prisoners in 2011. NCJ239808, 11, Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Fraga, L., Dobbins, D., & McCready, M. 2015. Parents and the High Cost of Child Care. Arlington, Virginia: Childcare Aware of America.

Kress, J., Moser, B., Tatro, E., & Velazquez, T. 2016. Beyond Second Chances: Returning Citizens’ Re-entry Struggles and Successes in the District of Columbia. Washington, DC: Council for Court Excellence.

Markman, Joshua A., Matthew R. Durose, Ramona R. Rantala, and Andrew Tiedt. 2016. Recidivism of Offenders Placed on Federal Community Supervision in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010. Washington, D.C: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Petersilia, Joan. 2009. When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rothwell, J. 2012. Education, Job Openings, and Unemployment in Metropolitan America. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Swavola, E., Riley, K., & Subramanian, R. 2016. Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform. New York City: Vera Institute of Justice.

Travis, Jeremy, Bruce Western, and F. Stevens Redburn. 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Walmsley, R. 2009. World’s Prison Population List. London: International Centre for Prison Studies.

Weiss, Douglas B. and Doris L. MacKenzie. 2010. “A Global Perspective on Incarceration: How an International Focus Can Help the United States Reconsider Its Incarceration Rates.” Victims & Offenders 5(3):268–82

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