Federal Ex-Offenders at Risk of Losing Ties to Their Community in DC

August 15, 2019

A DC Real estate mega-developer has reneged on an agreement to lease one of his properties for a re-entry program for 300 men returning from federal prison. What does this mean for those men, their families, and the community?

A DC Real estate mega-developer has reneged on an agreement to lease one of his properties for a re-entry program for 300 men returning from federal prison. What does this mean for those men, their families, and the community?


Federal Ex-Offenders at Risk of Losing Ties to Their Community in DC

Story Transcript

GRAYLAN HAGLER: Don’t mute DC. Don’t mute justice. Don’t mute the halfway house. We stand up as people of God, people of conscience, goodwill, and justice. Thank you for being here.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network. After a contentious fight in Washington, DC to oust the long-term and long-troubled reentry housing provider Hope Village, men coming home from federal prison are now at risk of having no reentry housing options in the community they’re trying to reconnect to, despite the existence of a contract with another provider to offer these critical services. Why is that? What is going on in DC? Here to talk with me about this issue, why this is important, and the efforts to fight these actions is Reverend Graylan Hagler. Reverend Hagler is the Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, DC. Reverend Hagler, thanks so much for joining me today.

GRAYLAN HAGLER: Thanks for having me again.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So Hope Village has been operating the reentry housing program in DC for decades, right? And it did not have-

GRAYLAN HAGLER: 44 years.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: For how long?

GRAYLAN HAGLER: 44 years.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: For 44 years. And over that 44 years, what’s their track record been like?

GRAYLAN HAGLER: Well, the track record has been very poor. I mean, in fact, I can’t find anybody who has anything positive to say about it. In fact, when you talk about Hope Village, most people who’ve had the experience of Hope Village refer to it as Hopeless Village. And that’s many of the returning citizens who have gone through Hope Village refer to it as Hopeless Village. Because really, in a sense, there’s not a whole lot of programming taking place that is there to get men back on their feet and reintegrated into their community. But one thing that it has functioned as, over these last 40 years particularly, is that it has been a political slush fund that has spread around money to get political protection from people inside the DC government and beyond.

And basically, when they knew they were going head to head with an organization out of Brooklyn, New York that only does really reentry services and transitional housing, I think they thought they were going to lose. And they did lose the bid for the contract, and it was awarded to a new vendor called Core. And the local entity is called Core DC. But what happened was that in order to fulfill the contract, in order to really fulfill the application for the proposal–let me put it that way–you had to have a number of things in place. One of those was an agreement to lease space to demonstrate that you had space in which to open the program. They did, that was through a building at 3400 New York Avenue that was owned by mega-developer Douglas Jemal.

And what happened was that somebody circled around–I think I know who circled around–and convinced Douglas Jemal to renege on the agreement. And then Hope Village–or Hopeless Village–went to the Bureau of Prison and said, “You should not have awarded them the contract because they don’t have a place to set up.” But it was a deal that was already in place, but a deal that was started, and basically disrupted by other entities. And so, the battle has been to try to get Doug Jemal to relent in his decision to say no and allow Core DC to set up there.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, this whole battle with the city council has actually been going on for a long time. And there was one particular council member who seemed to be like the lone holdout in approving or in finally voting against Hope Village, causing them to ultimately lose their contract. And that apparently happened last year. What happened there? How do you think this one council member had a change of heart? And did he really have a change of heart?

GRAYLAN HAGLER: Let me point this out. The city council had nothing really to do with it, which was part of what the council member from Ward Five was complaining about–that’s Kenyan McDuffie–because it was a federal contract. And so, there was a federal contract that basically was awarded to a vendor, so the council had no vote on it or for any decision making power in that. But one thing that a lot of the politicians have enjoyed, contributions from entities that were related to Hope Village. And so, when I spoke to the developer, Douglas Jemal, he basically said that Council Member Kenyan McDuffie had asked him to pull the agreement, and he did that.

And now Kenyan McDuffie has supposedly changed his mind and has written a letter, made phone calls to Douglas Jemal to honor the agreement, or so he claims. We know he’s written a letter. But the fact is that there’s going to be a real crisis in DC. Because basically, the Federal Bureau of Prisons can only abide by what’s in the proposal according to their regulations. And so, since it called for 3400 New York Avenue, if that facility cannot locate the 3400 New York Avenue, the Federal Board of Prisons has the determination of either closing down all operations in DC or deciding to rebid the entire agreement. And so, in any case, you end up with no halfway houses in DC as of October, particularly for male services. No male residential reentry services in DC.

And so, you have a real crisis because people will be sent to Baltimore, Delaware. And people are saying, “Well, what’s wrong with that?” Well, you’ve got to keep in mind that when you’re arrested and locked up and convicted of a felony in DC, you generally are put into the federal system because there’s no prison that DC operates. And that means that you can be out in California, you can be in Colorado, you can be anywhere in the country serving your sentence; separated from your family, separated from any support systems local at home that could help you out get restored. And so, now here you are. You’ve been away, you’ve been estranged, and now you’re going to be estranged some more. It’s a ridiculous thing.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So here we have a federal contract that this city council had no purview over, and a member of the city council is actually influencing who the recompete or the award of the new contract goes to, all based on who can make the most money off of this piece of property.

GRAYLAN HAGLER: It’s political shenanigans. That’s what it is. It’s like I enter an agreement with you, Jacqueline, on a piece of property and somebody comes along, and they say, “Well, we don’t really want them there and you do a lot of business with the city, can you please pull that contract? And we’ll make sure that your permitting goes fine on your other projects, that the awarding of land can take place, you’ll receive tax abatements if you just do us this favor.” We know the way it goes down.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So what does this mean for not just the returning citizens who would be affected by this–especially 300 men, because this is, from what I understand, a 300-bed facility that would house men coming home from federal prison. What would this mean? Not just for them and their families, but what does this mean for the larger community, especially the larger black community in a city that has the highest concentration and rate of gentrification in the country?

GRAYLAN HAGLER: Well, we’ve got to remember, nearly 10 percent of DC’s population is slated to come home, roughly about 700,000. And so, you have no facilities because they’re really from Ward Eight, they’re from Ward Seven and from Ward Five, places like that. So you have no place to return to, therefore you have no guarantee of services. Because one thing that I’m convinced of is that Core is able to offer the contract services that we need. That’s what I’m hearing from everybody, including people in Brooklyn who know about the group, what they are reporting to me. And so, one of the things that we’ve got to be interested in is quality, effective, and decent services for our returning citizens.

The other thing I need to point out is Doug Jemal has, through his getting very wealthy in DC, off of DC, basically has helped to contribute to the gentrification that’s taking place; the development of high-end condos, high-end buildings, those types of things. And he’s continuing that all the way down New York Avenue. His bulldozers are operating right now, today, preparing to put buildings up along New York Avenue. That’s been a part of it. I need to also point out that Doug Jemal himself was convicted of bribing city officials years back, and was convicted by a jury. And instead of him doing any time, the judge literally said, “You’re a great contributor to DC and it would be a disservice to send you away.” And so, he was not sent away, though he was convicted of that crime.

And so, in a sense, we see sweetheart deals all the way down the road taking place and taking shape that continues to thwart any type of effort to get people back in place and people reconciled to their families and communities. The other thing that we need to understand is the intentionality of trying to disrupt this deal. That had to do with the fact that DC–just like you pointed out–is on steroids in terms of gentrification, in terms of the displacement of poor people, of black people from DC. And so, in a sense, they’re looking through the lens of, “Why do we want to set up a center that allows people to get back on their feet and resettle in DC? We’re trying to get rid of those people.” That’s the attitude, unfortunately.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: It’s quite ironic that Doug Jemal is a convicted felon and he is profiting off of gentrification. And he’s trying to profit off of not providing services for other people, without his resources, to be able to reenter society and participate in society in a way–well, not even in a way that he was able to, but at all… simply because they are mostly poor, they are mostly black, and they don’t have the money to influence a judge to tell them, “Well, we’re not gonna send you to prison. We’ll just let you go ahead and continue to do your business.” So Reverend Hagler, I’m curious; why is a minister of the cloth so interested in fighting for these kinds of services for people that a lot of religious people don’t pay much attention to? 

GRAYLAN HAGLER: Well, we’re reminded about this over and over again in our scriptures. And you know, Jesus teaches using the story; he says, “When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was in prison, you visited me.” And they said, “When were you ever in any of these things?” And he says, “If you haven’t done it to the least of these, you have not done it to me.” There is a whole social justice component to our gospel that gets avoided every single time.

People are more comfortable with talking about getting to heaven by and by, rather than trying to create a place where we can all sit at the welcome table together as brothers and sisters. And those who have made mistakes, mistakes should not last always. There should be a place and an opportunity for forgiveness, for correction, for reconciliation to one’s community. That’s what we’ve got to be about. We can’t allow anyone of us to be lost, let me put it that way.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And we do know from the data that when returning citizens have access to services that can help them connect to jobs and deal with other issues, and they have access to their families when they return and finish out their sentences on parole, the recidivism rates actually go down. So this is not just a spiritual issue, it’s also if people want to focus on safety and criminal justice. This is also an issue surrounding those two discussions. But Reverend Hagler, please tell us what is going on this evening. Because there’s something you’re doing through your organization, Faith Strategies, that is very interesting. Could you explain to me what the collaboration is that you have going on that’s coming up?

GRAYLAN HAGLER: Today at 5:30, we’re going to do a go-go concert for justice, with numbers of groups that are going to turn out and to help lead that effort and draw the crowd as we sort of continue to boot out the message around Core DC having a halfway house at 3400 New York Avenue Northeast; as we continue to target Doug Jemal, as we continue to talk about the dirty politics that take place in DC.

So at 5:30 today, we’re going to have a band ackyard, the group TOB and EU ft. Sugar Bear. And that’s gonna take place at the corner of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road Northeast, Washington DC, 5:30 in the open air, which is close to the site where the halfway house would be. It’s close to a lot of Doug Jemal’s construction and all those other types of things. So we hope to make an impact there, to bring out hopefully hundreds, hopefully thousands of people to get focused on this issue and to remind people that people power do count.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And Reverend Hagler, just in closing, what has to be done? If, let’s say, Doug Jemal continues to resist these efforts and he refuses to honor this deal, what’s the next step for you, for Faith Strategies, and for the community that is supporting returning citizens to get services and to get them home and connected to their communities again?

GRAYLAN HAGLER: Well, I had a conversation with the chair of the DC council yesterday, Phil Mendelson. I’ve also talked to council member Vince Gray and I’ve talked to, also, council member Elissa Silverman. Because an angle you can take is that with this kind of crisis, with this kind of really health crisis–because if people don’t have an opportunity to get back on their feet, that’s a health crisis for the individual end for the city as a whole–that the city council needs to move towards eminent domain to take over that building from Doug Jemal, and to, in a sense, intervene in such a way that halfway house services can be established there.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is a lot of work to be done, especially on behalf of a community that is already so marginalized and overlooked. And we really appreciate the time you’re taking, not just to do the work that you’re doing, Reverend Hagler, but especially to come and talk to us about these efforts today. So thank you so much for joining us.

GRAYLAN HAGLER: Thank you very much.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. We will continue to keep an eye on the developments on this story. I am Jacqueline Luqman. And this is The Real News Network.

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