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500 parole cases delayed

D.C. corrections officials say they’re ‘working on it’

(Published July 26, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

Following widespread reports that parole hearings for D.C. inmates are months behind schedule and that some inmates remain behind bars long after their release dates, D.C. corrections officials say they are working to resolve more than 500 backlogged cases by the end of September.

"These are cases where they should have had a hearing and have not yet had one," said Ed Walsh, administrator of case management services for the D.C. Department of Corrections. "We are trying to find out why not and what exactly is going on."

According to a recent in-house audit by corrections staff, an additional 180 inmates coming up for hearings will fall behind schedule unless essential paperwork is prepared immediately, Walsh said. "We’re aware of the problem and we’re working on it."

Parole problems have been building for about a year, ever since the U.S. Parole Commission took control of the District’s parole system and prisoners were transferred from Lorton to contract facilities across the country, said Eric Lotke, executive director of D.C. Prisoners Legal Services.

"It’s terrible for morale. Frustration and disappointment are really high among the inmates’ families," Lotke said. "People are angry at the system."

The possibility of parole offers inmates a reason to behave well during incarceration, Lotke said. Prisoners who struggle to make it through their prison time without getting into fights or other trouble often do so in the hope that a good behavior report will shorten their sentences. When parole hearings get delayed for months, Lotke said, some inmates feel that they’ve been deceived.

Parole delays also wreak havoc with plans for housing and employment after inmates are released.

"It’s very difficult not even to be able to let your family or a potential employer know when your hearing date is," said Giovanna Shay, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, who works with women in prison. "They have a piece of paper with a date, and that date just comes and goes. It feels like indefinite limbo."

Elizabeth, who asked that her last name not be used, said her son James finally had his parole hearing last September at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, which houses D.C. inmates. When he got to the hearing, however, the hearing officer didn’t have James’ supporting paperwork. James had to lend the hearing officer his own copies.

The problem, Walsh said, is that the U.S. Parole Commission requires additional documents from the city’s corrections department — such as arrest reports -- that the D.C. Parole Board did not require.

"The city’s criminal justice system is not used to providing that information," Walsh said. "Nobody — not the (police) nor the court — had the resources to provide this tremendous volume of information."

The process was hampered by lack of communication and antiquated equipment, Lotke said.

"The public defender services had some of the arrest reports the parole commission needed, but no one knew it. The parole commission had to buy a microfiche reader to access some of the files."

The federal takeover of parole administration is required as part of the 1997 Revitalization Act, which calls for the shutdown of the District’s prison complex in Lorton, Va., by the end of 2001 and the transfer of all D.C. felons to federal custody.

Walsh said the Department of Corrections is slowly eliminating the backlog of parole cases in spite of a steadily dwindling workforce and a recent department-wide furlough that reduced the workweek by 20 percent.

"D.C. Superior Court and the police are going to devote additional resources to obtaining records," he said. "We’ve trained the staff at our contract facilities (in Ohio and Virginia) to write up the progress reports on site."

In the meantime, he said, his office is flooded with calls from irate inmates and their families complaining about parole delays.

"Each inmate will have three different people call us," Walsh said.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator