Today we celebrate DC Emancipation Day, marking the DC Compensation Emancipation Act of 1862. Signed by President Lincoln on April 16, it ended slavery in the District and freed 3,100 individuals.
In partnership with each of you, the DC Bar Foundation (DCBF) carries the values of abolition forward every day, promoting liberty, freedom, and justice for ALL District residents. That includes some of the most marginalized and forgotten of our neighbors.
Louis Sawyer was one of them.
A local resident convicted of a felony in the District, Mr. Sawyer served 25 years shuffled across the country, from DC to prisons in the states of Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. And, like most incarcerated individuals who must appear before a parole board where life-changing decisions are made, Mr. Sawyer had no legal representation at his first hearing. Despite having maintained a good record during incarceration and preparing on his own for the hearing, he was denied parole.
Having a lawyer can make all the difference. When he next went before the parole board, with an attorney from our grantee, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, he gained parole. And Mr. Sawyer began a new chapter in which he returned the District, regained employment, purchased a home in Ward 7, and became a respected advocate for prisoner issues including family unification, barriers to successful re-entry, and outreach at the office of the DC Attorney General. Today, he helps others like him create a better tomorrow.
DC has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. And more than 92% of DC prisoners are African American, coming from our poorest sectors – the same sectors frequently denied adequate housing, education, and decent jobs. Yet those District residents convicted of felonies are housed in prisons hundreds or thousands of miles from DC, sometimes in unsafe conditions, and with lack of local DC control over their parole. Most will return home to the District and are not prepared for reentry. This cycle hurts our entire community.
Resources for prisoner advocacy are extremely scarce. It is why, with YOUR support, we are committed to funding vital prisoners’ work. With DCBF funding, grantees like the Washington Lawyers’ Committee can respond to hundreds of requests for help from DC prisoners, engage in important litigation, and secure the release of dozens of long-term prisoners through parole advocacy.
The need is great, to achieve justice for ALL. Thank you for standing with us and District neighbors like Louis Sawyer on Emancipation Day and every day.