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.

Confront city hall with these abuses, however, and the first thing you're likely to hear are the strains of "Mo' Money Blues." Tune it out. The District's fiscal woes didn't cause Richard Johnson's suffering, or make those jail suicides possible, or consign the elderly and disabled to live in squalor. Credit those horrors to callousness, cruelty and indifference.

And those are problems that money won't solve.

Moore cites her staff's lack of training as a major agency deficiency. She's undoubtedly right. The American Corrections Association recommends 40 hours of training annually for staff having direct contact with inmates. D.C. Corrections staff get only eight hours a year.

But the government also has an attitude problem. Senior U.S. District Judge William Bryant has been presiding over civil lawsuits involving the jail for more than 20 years -- and with the patience of Job. But this week he'd had enough. At Monday's hearing on a special master's report about the horrific conditions at the jail, Judge Bryant seized control of the jail's medical and mental health services. Some corrections officials, he concluded just "don't give a damn." "They have jobs, titles, they get paid, and they do nothing," he said.

That judgment could apply elsewhere in the government. Make no mistake, most D.C. government employees do their jobs as best they can. They're honest and take pride in their work. But they can't make up for that other band of workers who have been hired on the basis of "dumbed down" standards that ignore skills and personal qualities the government really needs.

We're talking here about certain basic values that employees ought to bring with them from home when they first report to work. Notions of respect and concern for others, of accepting responsibility for one's actions, of using authority to do what is right and expected -- these are values that government shouldn't have to teach adults.

But the employees bereft of those values are the very ones who have become part of the D.C. government's "getting over" work culture. That is a culture where the thought of getting to the job on time, of regarding work as a legal and moral obligation, and treating the public with respect is held up for private ridicule. I hope these will be the workers who will fill the ranks of the 2,000 employees the financial control board wants gone.

They represent a culture that is bringing down this city. It was that culture that left Richard Johnson to die without dignity.

© 1995 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive