From the Post Archives

Death Without Dignity in D.C. Jail

Colbert I. King
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 1995; 11:16 AM

For 10 days, Richard Johnson lay curled up on his D.C. Jail bunk in soiled bedding, his body ravaged with AIDS. He urinated in milk cartons that were left on the floor of his cell because he was too weak to walk to the toilet. He was incontinent.

Before he died, other inmates on work detail refused to clean his urine and feces-filled cell, hoping the odor would force the medical staff to respond. It didn't.

At one point, corrections staff, for reasons that defy comprehension, decided this severely ill man should be sent back to Maximum Security. Johnson had to crawl to the door of his cell before he was placed in a makeshift wheelchair for transfer. It then dawned on them that if Johnson was too weak to walk, maybe Maximum wasn't where he belonged.

Johnson was dying; he couldn't care for himself. Yet, because of his stench, no medical staff would treat him. His final hours on this earth were his worst.

Richard Johnson died tied to a wheelchair with a urine-stained sheet. He had been left seated there for two hours, unmedicated, leaning to one side, saliva dripping from his mouth, limbs limp, and eyes open in a blank stare. It was AIDS that took Johnson down. But it was his government, that made him suffer.

When Johnson's story hit the news, D.C. officialdom did its number. "Outraged and appalled" was the way Corrections Director Margaret Moore put it. Four of the jail's medical staff took hits.

Three medical employees were suspended pending an investigation. A fourth, a physician's assistant on contract, got fired. Deserving, perhaps, but not enough.

What about the warden and other brass on whose watch this travesty occurred? Where were they as Johnson languished for days within their jail? What and when did they know and what, if anything, did they do? Those questions haven't been answered, at least not publicly. They need to be, and soon.

There are other shocking and disgusting stories about inmate mistreatment at D.C. Jail, where the suicide rate is three times the national average.

A court-appointed special master's report on the department's tuberculosis prevention and treatment program is downright frightening in its implications for public health in Washington. District jails have become prime breeding grounds for tuberculosis and AIDS, reported the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Those are communicable diseases that newly released and infected inmates are steadily bringing into the city.

Moore denounced Johnson's treatment as "inhumane." Don't limit that description to his death. You want negligence and unkind treatment? Consider D.C. Village. Or foster care, juvenile services, public housing or the accounts of sexual harassment in the jails.

These are programs with official failure at their core. If the D.C. government were a foreign nation, say critics, it might be up on charges as a violator of internationally recognized human rights.

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© 1995 The Washington Post Company