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As COVID-19 outbreak strikes DC Jail, activists expand their push for more substantial corrective actions

This piece originally appeared on the DC Line.

As COVID-19 spreads across the District, stakeholders are warning that the coronavirus outbreak within DC Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities could have a detrimental and far-reaching impact not just on its inmate population but throughout the city.

On Tuesday, District officials reported that 1,211 people in DC have tested positive for the coronavirus and 22 have died. DOC reported Monday night that 20 detainees currently in isolation have tested positive — up from five just one week ago.

“There is a full-blown outbreak inside the D.C. Jail and nothing is being done,” defense attorney James Zeigler tweeted.

Officials contend that they are taking appropriate steps, including significant reductions in the population of the DC Jail. But detainee advocates and the union representing correctional officers dispute those claims and are seeking judicial intervention.

A week ago, the American Civil Liberties Union of DC (ACLU) and the DC Public Defender Service filed a class-action lawsuit against the DOC in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit claims that the DOC is violating detainees’ constitutional rights under the Fifth and Eighth amendments by holding pretrial detainees in conditions that amount to punishment and by subjecting detainees to what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

“The carceral system makes it impossible for people to do what they need to protect themselves,” said Monica Hopkins of the ACLU on a March 27 call with the press. “It is not just incarcerated people who have recognized this.”

According to the complaint, the DOC has denied testing and treatment to those showing symptoms of COVID-19, failed to screen new detainees for coronavirus, and neglected to meet U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for social distancing. It calls for the DOC to release almost 100 detainees convicted of misdemeanors and for a court-appointed expert to make recommendations for additional releases so that CDC recommendations can be applied in DOC facilities.

A judge is scheduled to hear oral arguments this morning on the plaintiffs’ requests for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

At a press conference last Wednesday, the DOC Labor Committee, the union representing Corrections Department employees, announced that it was supporting the ACLU lawsuit by filing a friend of the court brief. The decision was driven by desperate circumstances, the union said. According to the brief, a longtime union member and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19. 

“I can say that without exception, these are the absolute worst conditions I have ever experienced,” a 29-year DOC employee said at the press conference, as reported by the Huffington Post. “Management has left the staff and inmates to become infected, sick and/or die.”

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser declined to comment on the lawsuit at a press conference last week, saying she hadn’t had an opportunity to review it. However, at a March 19 press conference, Bowser said that she would not consider releasing certain populations from DOC custody, as advocates had already been urging.

Public health concerns about the churn of employees in and out of area correctional facilities and its impact on all area residents were voiced by health experts and a state’s attorney from neighboring Maryland in a March 25 opinion piece in The Washington Post.

“Prison walls will not stop the virus from entering” the community at large, the authors note. “Correctional officers, food service workers, and many other employees come and go, and new incarcerated people arrive. The virus will not only come in, but it will leave once staff go home.”

According to data published by the DC Department of Corrections, more than 16% of its detainees reside in Maryland. Roughly 60% live in DC and more than 9% are homeless. More than a third of male inmates are detained for a week or less. Among female detainees, more than 40% are out within seven days.

“Jail is a transit,” said Tyrone Walker of the DC-based nonprofit Justice Policy Institute, referring to the typically short stays of arrestees awaiting court proceedings in DC. “They’re not like prisons. … If they just happen to be in the jail in an outbreak and go back into the community, things could get out of hand very fast.” Walker became an advocate while himself incarcerated and now works as a researcher focused on how government programs can benefit returning citizens. “That’s why this is so serious.”

Union criticism has focused in large part on allegations of inadequate safety precautions, a point conveyed in a March 29 press release distributed by the DOC Labor Committee, which represents over 900 members who work at the Central Detention Facility and the Correctional Treatment Facility. 

“Cleaning and disinfection of the housing units is inadequately performed by inmates,” the press release states. “The director of the jail, Quincy Booth, and his leadership staff do not even work at the jail. They are at the Reeves Center in splendid isolation from the inmates, issuing directives to officers through text and email.” 

The release also notes that inmates are tested only after the appearance of symptoms — when it’s too late to prevent the virus’ spread — and testing is not available to all corrections officers employed by DOC. According to the release, when corrections officers are exposed to the virus, they are sent home for two weeks. The release reported the number of quarantined corrections officers at around 25% and climbing among those assigned to the Correctional Treatment Facility. 

“Soon the Jail will have no corrections officers,” the release states. 

(DC reports that, as of Monday afternoon, five DOC employees were out after testing positive for COVID-19 and 196 employees were in quarantine due to possible exposure; by Monday night, the union said seven correction officers had tested positive. Those numbers were up from one and 102, respectively, a week earlier.)

The union’s press release also describes a new protocol that corrections officers planned to follow while working at the jail. Officers will “shelter in place” in what the union calls “bubbles.” They will not leave their bubbles or make contact with detainees unless provided with their requested personal protective equipment. 

Mayor Bowser has said that employees in the DOC and other agencies should work within the chain of command to report any problems, such as a shortage of needed equipment. 

The press release follows a letter sent a week earlier from the union to Booth. The letter demanded medical support for DOC employees, access to personal protective equipment, and other safety precautions. Dated March 23, the letter also pushed for “daily meetings between the management and the union.” But, according to the press release issued nearly a week later, “DOC long ago ceased its labor/management meetings.” 

In spite of efforts by DC Superior Court and the DC Council to ease congestion in DOC facilities, the coronavirus outbreak in DC’s Central Detention Facility — commonly known as the DC Jail — continues to worsen with no signs of slowing down. Activists, lawyers and even DOC employees who raised the alarm before the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the jail said that the steps taken by the government aren’t enough to prevent a disaster.

On a March 27 press call, representatives of a coalition that includes the ACLU said that although the number of people being processed through the DOC-controlled Central Cell Block  (CCB) and DC Superior Court had decreased, not enough action had been taken to release people serving short sentences. 

“There is a brewing crisis unquestionably in the jail,” Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, said on the press call. “We’ve already seen in other jurisdictions significant reductions in jail populations.” 

The ACLU also signed onto a letter put together by Jews United for Justice and a coalition of faith leaders, legal service providers and community organizations. The letter to the mayor and DC Council members calls for limiting custodial arrests to situations that present a public safety risk; for reducing the population of the DC Jail; and for adopting CDC guidelines in both the jail and the Central Cell Block. 

On March 16, the DC Superior Court decided to allow police to release those picked up for lesser offenses during the COVID-19 emergency with a citation. This was intended to reduce the churn of detainees through the cell blocks at the Superior Court and the CCB, where new arrestees are taken before seeing a judge. The Superior Court also suspended the execution of some bench warrants. On March 31, acting on an emergency motion filed by the Public Defender Service, the Superior Court ordered the U.S. Attorney’s Office to file a response explaining why DOC detainees serving time for minor crimes, including shoplifting and drug possession, should stay locked up in light of the pandemic.

On April 3, the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a response to the Public Defender Service saying that releasing misdemeanants could pose a public safety risk. The office notes that convicted misdemeanants are serving sentences imposed by judges for offenses that could include “assaults on police officers and other first responders, bomb threats, voyeurism, stalking, indecent exposure to minors, and domestic violence. This pandemic should not be used as a basis to release violent criminals onto the streets of Washington.” 

As part of the DC Council’s far-reaching emergency legislation designed to dampen the worst effects of the pandemic, DOC was given increased latitude to issue “good time” credits to detainees. Under that program, some detainees can shed days off their sentences by participating in jail programs or work projects. Before the council’s intervention, inmates could not receive more than 10 credits per calendar month.

The jail’s population has decreased somewhat in the days following the new legislation. On March 18, the day after the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act was signed by Bowser, there were 1,247 people in DC’s Central Detention Facility, which has a capacity of 2,164. On April 3, there were 1,087 people — a 13% reduction. The total number of detainees in DOC custody dropped from 1,817 to 1,557 in the same span of time.

On Jan. 20, when the first patient in the United States tested positive for COVID-19, there were 1,331 people in the Central Detention Facility and 1,903 total in DOC custody

At one of the mayor’s press briefings last week, DC Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue said officials have made a “concentrated effort” to minimize new arrivals to the DC Jail by having the Metropolitan Police Department issue citations when possible and the U.S. Attorney’s Office decide early on whether to prosecute those who are arrested. As a result, he said, “dramatic declines” in the population at the CCB reached 75% on some days. 

Later in the week, Donahue discussed the impact of the DC Council’s approval of the more flexible “good time credits” policy. He said the provision applied to around 80 sentenced misdemeanants in custody when the new rules took effect. Speaking on Wednesday, he said DOC had released 20 of those detainees in March and would be releasing another 25 that day because they had just become eligible with the arrival of a new month.

In a March 26 letter to DC government officials, a coalition of criminal justice professionals led by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs said the changes to the good time credits policy were not enough to significantly improve conditions in the jail.

“While well intentioned, the enhanced credit for programming is not impactful since most

programming has been suspended as a result of the pandemic,” the letter states. 

“DOC has not used this discretion, which the Council clearly intended to be used widely to blunt the effects of a catastrophic public health emergency,” the letter notes. “Instead, DOC has implemented a policy with extremely limited scope and no retroactive effect, resulting in the release of very few, if any, persons sentenced for misdemeanors.”

The coalition recommended further decreasing arrests and populations in DOC custody, and providing re-entry support for newly released people. The letter also said that the District should rent space for people who would become homeless upon release, and pointed out that shutting down most of the Superior Court’s functions could create a dangerous bottleneck in the jail since there will be no dismissals or acquittals for those currently awaiting trial.

“Facilities are unhygienic, medical care systems are understaffed and underequipped, and the social distancing mandated by public health experts is impossible in these settings,” the letter states. “We cannot spare any measure that will save lives and reduce the burden on our health care system.”

On Tuesday, the DC Council will vote on another massive legislative package designed to curb the impact of COVID-19. The bill, which was drafted in consultation with the mayor’s office and Attorney General Karl Racine, includes a more ambitious expansion of the distribution of good time credits and a provision that retroactively awards credits to some detainees. 

In addition, the bill includes guidelines for the “compassionate release” of some individuals who have been convicted of felonies, provided the court finds that that individual is not a danger to the community and that they have one of several qualifying characteristics. For instance, felons may qualify for compassionate release if they are terminally ill, over 60 years old and more than 25 years into their sentence, or suffering from an age-related disease that makes them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

This piece originally appeared on the DC Line.



Posted in JPI in the News

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