Several District agencies are pushing efforts to educate and administer constructive change for former inmates in Washington, D.C., also known as returning citizens. The National Association of Returning Citizens (NARC) headed by President Eric Weaver, in conjunction with the Office of D.C. At-large Council member Robert White (D) and various sponsors recently held a screening for the documentary, “Returning Citizens.”
The screening of “Returning Citizens” narrates the challenging transitions former inmates have when returning to their lives. The event was held at the R.I.S.E Demonstration Center in Southeast D.C. on Nov. 2. Guest speakers included Charles Thornton, Lashonia Thompson, Brittany Floyd and Eric Weaver, each a resident who was once incarcerated. The screening was followed by a roundtable discussion dissecting the various perils of citizen re-entry after prison.
Panelist told the audience about their transitions after serving time. Each speaker said they experienced adversity from different angles, including lack of employment opportunities, lack of emotional support and missing large periods of life.
Brittany Floyd, who was a senior in high school when she was incarcerated, spoke about the social challenges she faced during her transition and the gaps in support for residents with criminal records.
“We do have a lot of youth services in the District, but you do not find a lot of intimate youth services where it’s intimate settings where people can come and trust and really know this is a safe place,” she said. “A lot of youth services that’s offered [for] youth come at a time where you’ve been entered into the justice system, you’ve been arrested, or your parents for some reason neglected you and you were introduced to child and family services.”
White helped to direct the conversation to an often-ignored prospect of mental health and the role it plays in the District’s disaster of crime and mass incarceration. District resident and returning citizen Eric Weaver provided his insight on the mental and emotional scarring that accompany prison life, as he compared his 22 years in prison to a “war zone” where one becomes numb to the emotions and happenings of the outside world.
“I remember coming home and my mother hugging me. I hugged her back because I knew that was the right thing to do but I felt nothing,” he said. “After being gone twenty-something years and coming home hugging my mother, I had no feelings at all. None at all. So, I think it’s nothing in jail that prepares you to come out there and have to deal with those type of emotions.”
The District of Columbia Police Department previously faced a backlash for jailing mentally ill residents and was tasked by agencies within the city to find more humane and fair ways of handling prisoners with mental health issues.
“We just can’t arrest our way out of this,” White told participants. “I think in the city we tried this in the 80s and 90s. We tried this as a way to deal with the crack epidemic and what it left was a generation of fatherless and motherless children who, I think, lack the supports that they needed and then these folks are still coming back into our city without college degrees, without the majority of the time, almost half the time, without high school diplomas or GED’s, and finding it very difficult to get back on their feet and to support themselves which results in higher costs for our city.”
Newly appointed D.C. Chief of Police Peter Newsham agreed that arrests should not be the first and final solution. “I have been saying it since I’ve been assigned as the Chief of Police that we cannot arrest our way out of the crime problem that we have in the District of Columbia. We have done a number of things in Washington, DC as a police department to move the focus away from arresting people, in particular who have substance abuse or mental health issues, because when you introduce folks like that into the criminal justice system, it doesn’t change the behavior,” he said.