400 D.C. jail residents will be moved after inspection finds 'systemic failures' Advocates say it's disheartening to see such unprecedented action taken on jail conditions only after accused Jan. 6 insurrectionists have drawn attention to problems.
From NPR station


400 D.C. jail residents will be moved after inspection finds 'systemic failures'

400 D.C. jail residents will be moved after inspection finds 'systemic failures'

The D.C. Jail complex. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

toggle caption
Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

The U.S. Marshals Service for D.C. will transfer 400 people in federal custody from the D.C. Jail to a federal prison in Pennsylvania after an inspection found what the agency described as "evidence of systemic failures" and unacceptable living conditions. The move will affect nearly a third of the approximately 1400 people currently incarcerated in the jail.

The transfer is an unprecedented response to conditions that advocates and D.C. residents have been raising alarms about for years. The USMS inspection found general unsanitary conditions in cells, including toilets clogged with large amounts of human sewage, and also witnessed inappropriate behavior by guards who punitively withheld food and water from jail residents, among other problems.

Article continues below

The inspection began just five days after a federal judge found D.C. Department of Corrections leadership in contempt of court for failing to provide requested information on the medical treatment of a defendant in a Jan. 6 insurrection case. Conditions at the jail have come under increased scrutiny in recent months as lawyers for approximately 40 Jan. 6 defendants have alleged their clients are being denied medical treatment or having their rights violated within the jail.

Those 40 defendants are not among the 400 federal inmates being transferred. But advocates say it's disheartening to see such unprecedented action taken on jail conditions only after the accused insurrectionists have drawn attention to problems.

And there are other concerns, too: lawyers and others who work with jail residents fear that the people being transferred will lack meaningful access to their lawyers and to their families after they are sent to USP Lewisburg, a facility nearly 200 miles from the District.

In a statement, the U.S. Marshals Service said its 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."

The USMS conducted the inspection from Oct. 18 to Oct. 23, according to a memo acting U.S. marshal for D.C. Lamont J. Ruffin sent to D.C. DOC Director Quincy Booth on Monday. Inspectors interviewed more than 300 people in federal custody being held in the D.C. Jail.

"Based on the USMS inspection, I believe there is evidence of systemic failures, in particular at the Central Detention Facility (CDF), that may warrant further examination by the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division," Ruffin wrote.

Ruffin said he was still preparing a formal summary of the inspection, but outlined some of the inspection's findings in the memo. The memo said that it appeared people detained at the jail were being denied food and water "for punitive reasons." It described an overpowering smell of urine and feces in the jail, caused by large amounts of standing human sewage in the toilets of multiple occupied cells. Water in many cells in two units, South 1 and North 1, had been shut off for days, according to the memo. This prevented people in those cells from washing their hands, flushing toilets, or accessing drinking water. People in the jail were being served congealed and cold meals, according to the memo.

"Evidence of drug use was pervasive, and marijuana smoke and odor were widespread," the memo went on. Some people being held in the jail had visible injuries but no medical or incident reports associated with them, and inspectors observed guards "antagonizing" detainees and failing to follow COVID-19 protocols. The inspectors said they saw corrections officers telling people not to cooperate with them: At one point, an inspector saw a guard tell a detainee to "stop snitching," according to the memo.

"Supervisors appeared unaware or uninterested in any of these issues," the memo said. Ruffin wrote that he had forwarded the inspection's findings to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice for review.

The serious issues surfaced in the inspection were observed at the Central Detention Facility, the older and more high-security facility in the D.C. jail complex that is colloquially referred to as the D.C. Jail. The other, adjacent facility is the Correctional Treatment Facility, which is newer — and Ruffin said the conditions there "were observed to be largely appropriate and consistent with federal detention standards." All of the approximately 40 people facing federal charges in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection are being held on the CTF side, and the USMS says they are among 120 federal defendants who will not be moved to Lewisburg. The area where these Jan. 6 defendants are being held is known as the "Patriot Wing," and a lack of de-radicalization programs in the jail has some experts concerned that their extremist beliefs might become further entrenched.

A spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment on the inspection and decision to move the people in USMS custody.

Christopher Geldart, D.C.'s Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice, said in a statement that Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration was examining the specific findings and taking them seriously.

"The charge and mission of the DC Department of Corrections (DOC) is to provide a safe, orderly and humane environment for the men and women under our supervised detention," wrote Geldart. "We regularly work on structural repairs to the aging detention facility; however, the allegations in the summary letter from the Acting U.S. Marshal are deeply concerning. We are working with our federal partners to get the complete report in order to work through the specific findings, and we have also asked the [independent monitoring organization] Corrections Information Council for their latest inspection reports. We take seriously the responsibility of caring for justice-involved DC residents and believe they should remain in DC. DOC leadership is evaluating moving inmates within the facility so that issues raised can be addressed efficiently and expeditiously."

Patrice Sulton, the executive director of DC Justice Lab, an organization that advocates for and studies criminal justice reform in the District, said nothing she saw in the memo surprised her.

"Everything discussed in there is what people who have been in the jail have been saying, what their loved ones have been saying, what defense attorneys have been saying and what many of those groups and communities have been reporting to the [D.C.] Council for a long time," Sulton says. "Requiring this investigation was a welcome outcome, but the process shouldn't require white people being arrested. Our jail is almost entirely Black. It's not like other states where it's just disproportionately Black, it is almost entirely Black. And we've had ... people complaining about these very same issues for many years without any response."

A 2015 report from the Washington Lawyers' Committee deemed conditions at the D.C. Jail alarming and unsalvageable, saying the only solution was building a new facility. Earlier this year, a task force charged with coming up for a plan to replace the jail issued a report outlining how D.C. could close the D.C. Jail within a decade and build a new, smaller facility in its place.

But there has been no meaningful action since. In 2016, 200 people incarcerated at the D.C. Jail were moved to either CTF or other facilities because the jail's air conditioning failed during a heat wave. For more than a year during the pandemic, people at the D.C. Jail were placed on a 23-hour-lockdown that advocates said was medically unnecessary and physically and psychologically harmful. And this summer, a report from D.C.'s Office of the Inspector General found that DOC routinely mishandled use-of-force incidents and failed to receive, investigate, and handle them properly.

Deborah Golden, an attorney who has worked on prisoners' rights issues for two decades and represented clients in the D.C. Jail and federal prisons, said that she was not surprised by the conditions outlined in the USMS report — but what shocked her was the fact that corrections officers and DOC staff were directly observed telling people at the jail not to cooperate with inspectors.

"What must happen when they're not under inspection if the COs are emboldened to say that stuff while federal inspectors are walking around?" she asked.

In response to the USMS decision to move people in its custody, the Public Defender Service for D.C. issued a press release calling for the immediate release of all people detained at the D.C. Jail. Clients of the Public Defender Service of D.C. include people awaiting trial in D.C. Superior Court --- which means they are not in USMS custody and will not be moved. The statement said public defenders and other legal and grassroots organizations have called out inhumane conditions at the jail for years — including "the use of long-term solitary confinement for people with no disciplinary issues, lack of running water, full illumination of cells for 24-hours-per day that resulted in sleep deprivation, cells soiled with feces and blood," and a series of other issues with mistreatment, physical and mental abuse, and lack of medical care.

But, the statement added, "only when a federal judge was unhappy with the way that January 6 defendants have been treated was any action taken. Now the U.S. Marshals Service has determined that they will no longer allow people under their care to be held at the D.C. Jail."

"We refuse to stay silent and call on the U.S. Attorney's Office to stop seeking clients' detention and the D.C. Superior Court judges to take immediate action and release clients who are facing these unconstitutional and inhumane conditions," said Avis E. Buchanan, Director, Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

The 400 people being moved include people who are awaiting court appearances in federal cases, people who are awaiting assignments to federal prisons after sentencing, and people who are in the D.C. Jail as they go through certain legal processes or make court appearances. That includes people who are seeking sentence reductions under a series of D.C. laws that give people convicted of crimes when they were young a second chance at release, including the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA).

Shannon Battle, who was released from prison in 2019 through IRAA, says he's particularly concerned about people going through similar processes at the D.C. Jail right now who may be facing a move to Lewisburg.

"They're here for a particular reason," Battle says. "They are here with a good chance to go home, and they're shipping them to Lewisburg, Pa. It's hours away. And it takes away many opportunities — not just for their families but for their lawyers. It's a punishment, in a sense."

USP Lewisburg is a nearly 4-hour drive from D.C.

James Zeigler, the founder of the Second Look Project, which represents people seeking these sentence reductions, says he's concerned that if clients seeking sentence reductions are moved, they will lose the decent access they have had to them in the D.C. Jail.

"One thing that is markedly better in the DC DOC than in the BOP is access to counsel," says Zeigler. At the D.C. Jail, he says, lawyers can generally arrange legal calls within a day and their duration is not limited. Lawyers can easily go see clients in person. But in the BOP, he says, "phone calls are severely restricted," and it's often "onerous" for lawyers to arrange legal calls. In fact, attorneys at the Second Look Project have been trying to get more of their clients transferred to the D.C. Jail in recent months so they can have access to their attorneys, their families, and the educational programming available at the jail. Transfers have been limited because of COVID-19 protocols.

"Most of our clients want to come back to the D.C. Jail, and our clients are not naive about what conditions in the D.C. Jail are like," says Zeigler.

The timeline for the transfers is not currently clear. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the committee that performs oversight of the D.C. Jail, said he was informed about the transfers Tuesday afternoon and would be scheduling an oversight hearing to have the mayor's team explain their response and plan of action to address the jail conditions.

"Unequivocally, those held in our care and custody must be treated humanely and in accordance with correctional standards," Allen said.

People from D.C. who are sentenced for local D.C. crimes are often sent to federal facilities across the country, so the idea of being sent to a federal prison is not new. But the scale, suddenness, and events that led up to the transfer make the situation unprecedented.

"I'm kind of shocked that they are immediately pulling out 400 people," said Golden. "I have never seen this in 21 years, the marshals basically pull everyone out of the jail — and God knows it's been a problematic hell hole for years."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU values your feedback.

From NPR station