D.C. jail conditions: Cruel and unusual punishment?
The pandemic has ravaged the criminal legal system, and COVID-19 has only aggravated the poor conditions within jails and prisons nationwide. Between Oct. 18, 2021, and Oct. 23, 2021, the United States Marshals Service (USMS) conducted a surprise inspection of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections (DC DOC). The unannounced inspection was “prompted by recent and historical concerns raised regarding conditions at the DC DOC facilities, including those recently raised by various members of the judiciary.” Five days prior to the inspection, a federal judge held the DC DOC director and jail warden in contempt of court for failing to provide information regarding the medical treatment of a January 6 insurrection defendant. The judge also asked the Justice Department to investigate whether DC DOC was violating inmates’ civil rights.
Following the inspection, the USMS announced that they would be relocating 400 inmates to a federal prison in Pennsylvania due to the inhumane conditions within the jail. The transfers began the week of Nov. 8, 2021, and by Dec. 3, only 200 inmates had been relocated—news of which came after weeks of confusion for families and advocates. While the inspection was prompted by complaints from Jan. 6 insurrection defendants—40 of whom have alleged having their rights violated or being denied medical treatment—none of them are being transferred. All the inmates being held in pretrial custody for alleged offenses related to the Jan. 6 insurrection are located in the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), one of the two DC DOC housing facilities, only houses low and medium security inmates. The USMS determinedthat the conditions at CTF “were observed to be largely appropriate and consistent with federal prisoner detention standards.”
According to a memo sent to the D.C. Department of Corrections Director on Nov. 1, 2021, USMS Officials found “evidence of systemic failures,” particularly at the Central Detention Facility (CDF). Some of their specific findings included: food and water being withheld from inmates as punishment, an overpowering smell of urine and feces, days-long water shut-offs in the cells, and inmates with observable injuries and no corresponding incident reports or medical treatment. The memo also noted that DC DOC staff were observed defying COVID-19 mitigation protocols.
At the end of December 2021, roughly 20% of DC DOC staff were out of work because they had COVID-19. Around the same time, approximately 12% of the DC DOC inmates were isolated because they had COVID-19. While these numbers have since fallen, an estimated 60% of inmates are in quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19. In an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus, inmates are confined to their cells for 22 hours a day and in-person visits have been put on hold. Other mitigation efforts have been delayed due to a lack of access to booster shots and rapid tests. The Policy Director for the ACLU-DC asserted that “[t]his crisis was entirely preventable, and negligence by the Department of Corrections has jeopardized the health of hundreds of D.C. Jail residents.”
Last month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that Tom Faust, the former DOC Director, would be returning to take over the department. When asked why she decided to change the jail’s leadership, Bowser told reporters, “I felt right now, especially . . . given the challenges that we’ve experienced with COVID, that a change at the jail would help advance all of our relationships and the experience for people who are with us at DC Jail.” While COVID-19 exacerbates the already abysmal conditions at the DC DOC facilities, inmates’ complaints have gone largely unaddressed for years. It will likely take more than a regime change to fix the “systemic failures” at the DC Jail.