D.C. Jail Inmates Dispute Official Account of Fight

By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

A disturbance at the D.C. jail last month was more violent than officials initially indicated, and the unit where inmates rebelled was so damaged that it remained closed for almost a month.

In the hours after the unrest, officials said jail operations had returned to normal. But in an interview last week, D.C. Department of Corrections Director Devon Brown acknowledged that the SW-2 unit where the incident occurred was unusable and that the 154 inmates housed in it were moved to other areas of the jail. On Thursday, Brown said, 92 inmates returned to the unit.

"The press release said the essence of what occurred. It was not intended to give a minute, detailed explanation of what took place," said Brown, who declined to estimate the cost of repairs. "I wasn't going to give you a blow-by-blow account of what happened."

Advocates for inmates and neighbors who live close to the jail, located on the banks of the Anacostia River near RFK Stadium, have complained for years that jail officials do not keep them apprised of all that happens at the facility. Officials contend that security risks prevent them from disclosing too much information.

It is still unclear how severely the unit was damaged in the June 22 disturbance.

In an interview Tuesday, Brown said the damage was mostly limited to broken light fixtures, which have proved difficult to replace, and one malfunctioning cell door. But D.C. City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said he was told that three to five cell-door locks, lights and other fixtures were broken. Inmates in the unit said the area looked like a war scene.

Brown said internal investigators are interviewing inmates and officers to come up with a full account of that night's events. Lacking such a report, disclosures of what transpired have come largely by questioning officials about the statements of three inmates in the unit who spoke separately to The Washington Post.

The events immediately preceding the disturbance are not in dispute. A fight broke out early that Sunday evening, delaying dinner for several hours in the SW-2 unit, which houses maximum- and medium-security inmates.

"Food is a big issue," said John Rosser, vice chairman of the union representing D.C. corrections officers. "A little tiff, like holding up food, has the potential to set things off at any moment."

Two dozen to three dozen inmates who were in a common area were upset about the cold food and became unruly. Routine efforts to pacify them failed, jail officials and inmates said.

"Inmates were fighting other inmates for different reasons, inmates were robbing other inmates, and they broke into the counselors' office" in the unit, one inmate wrote in a letter, describing the incident as a "big riot."

All three inmates interviewed said they feared for their safety that night because corrections officers had lost control. The inmates spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

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