I read with great interest Richard Cohen's articles in The Post Magazine on Oct. 25 and Dec. 20. As lead counsel for the family in one of the jail cases to which he refers, I was gratified by Mr. Cohen's sympathy for the ordeal and ultimate death suffered by Harry Barman and too many other pretrial detainees who are incarcerated for mental competency examinations or for minor crimes. Mr. Cohen properly recognizes that District juries rarely find sympathy for jail inmates and only react when circumstances are so improper, so unjust and so callous of physical harm that remedy becomes mandatory.
I must strongly disagree with the more recent column, however. Mr. Cohen suggests that the responsibility for what happened to Mr. Barman belongs solely with unnamed public officials, presumably the guards and medical staff of the jail, and that they should pay the judgment out of their pockets rather than raiding the public fisc.
That the D.C. Jail is a living example of Dante's Inferno, Camus' "The Stranger" and, perhaps, Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" should come as no surprise to District citizens. The state of the D.C. Jail, the Lorton facility and the District's youth correctional facility at Oak Hill has been the constant subject of articles in The Post for more than 15 years. Since 1971, the plaintiffs in the Campbell v. McGruder case have consistently sought and received court orders to improve medical and mental health services in the District's correctional facilities. Repeatedly, Mayor Barry and his administration have been held in contempt for failure to comply with orders requiring the most elementary human necessities. Citizens have nevertheless repeatedly returned this mayor and his handpicked administration to office.
After 15 years of disobeyed court orders, failure to hire and train adequate staff and failure to provide essential services, Harry Barman died. He was not incarcerated for criminal behavior; he was incarcerated because a judge of the D.C. Superior Court recognized his mental illness and ordered an examination to determine whether he was competent. The jury sat patiently through days of testimony about his suffering and eventual death, which would turn even the strongest stomach. It heard testimony about the District's failure to provide the services for which Mr. Barman was incarcerated. Then, after 2 1/2 days of deliberations, the jury awarded his estate $1,030,002 to be paid by the District.
This was not a jury that misunderstood the concept of responsibility. This jury included a lawyer who worked on a conservative-controlled Senate committee and several other professionals who work in the medical field. This jury of D.C. taxpayers understood that the money they were awarding would ultimately come out of their pockets. They unanimously decided that the responsibility lay squarely with the District, with its government and, ultimately, with them. The jurors listened carefully and nodded respectfully as the judge asked them, in light of their verdict, to consider their responsibilities as citizens and the evidence they had heard about conditions at the jail.
The fault here lies with us all, as taxpayers and citizens. We cannot allow the Barry administration to continue tossing nothing more than flowery words and pass-the-buck accusations at a problem that is killing people. We cannot tolerate it because of our belief in justice and fair play. We cannot tolerate the embarrassment should the rest of the world see how the capital of the greatest democracy treats its mentally ill -- who have been convicted of no crime but nevertheless are sentenced to forcible sodomy, assault and gruesome death from an utterly preventable cause. Finally, we cannot tolerate it as taxpayers -- because it is cheaper to solve the problem than to pay for the damages it causes. RICHARD S. STERNBERG Washington