A court-appointed monitor for the D.C. jail is seeking a federal investigation into allegations that officers battered and humiliated prisoners, allowed inmates to beat other inmates and overlooked filthy conditions in the high-security cellblock.
Karen M. Schneider, who detailed the inmates' charges to District authorities in an Oct. 14 letter, called her own recent experiences at the jail "shocking and disturbing." Scenes videotaped by jail officers themselves, she wrote, are "extremely troubling."
In one, Schneider reported, an inmate is seen doubled up in pain, complaining that a jail officer kicked him. In another, a corrections lieutenant threatens to use a disabling chemical spray on a sleeping prisoner and revokes recreation time from many inmates because one prisoner laughed loudly. Schneider warned in a letter to the D.C. Office of Corporation Counsel that she would deliver the complaints to the U.S. attorney's office or the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division if District corrections leaders did not.
Corrections Director Odie Washington replied by asking D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox to examine the allegations. A spokesperson for Maddox said yesterday that Maddox would not confirm or deny that an inquiry is underway.
Jail conditions have been the subject of federal court litigation since 1971, five years before the current jail, on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital, was opened at 19th and D streets SE. The population of 1,674 includes inmates sentenced for crimes and others awaiting trial. South-One is another term for the Special Management Unit, parallel tiers of whitewashed steel and thick glass whose 11-by-8-foot cells are reserved primarily for problem prisoners.
After Schneider complained of crowding and poor conditions, jail authorities reassigned the lieutenant in charge, Orlandis Harper, and two other officers pending investigation. The number of inmates on South-One has dropped from 43 to a more manageable 13, jail officials said, and the cellblock is cleaner than before.
Washington, who took charge in March, pledged to take a "very hard line" when bad behavior by corrections staff is shown. But he cautioned that important details in this case remain unknown and that the charges remain unproved.
"When there are allegations made, it is important to ensure there is a thorough, balanced investigation before we reach conclusions," Washington said. "We're not disagreeing with her. What I'm saying is, it needs to be investigated. You can't be judge, jury and executioner."
Sgt. Bernard Williams, accused by one inmate of hitting him and permitting another prisoner to beat him, said in an interview that no such things happened: "Why would I jeopardize my 17 1/2 years in the department for someone who's not even a threat?"
Inmates in South-One are generally permitted 30 minutes a day of recreation in a fenced gym. When they shower, they are led one by one in leg irons to nearby stalls.
Among the current residents is convicted cop-shooter and killer Aundrey Burno, protagonist of the television documentary "Thug Life in D.C.," in which he tells an interviewer, "I'm the definition of thug." Also on South-One is Michael "Pretty B" Wonson, now on trial for the 1997 slaying of inmate Quan Levonte Harris inside a jail cell.
Schneider, who became the jail monitor in November 1997, wrote D.C. counsel Richard Love as early as June 9 to complain of "inappropriate, arbitrary and inconsistent punishments" on South-One. She cited reports from inmates and their lawyers.
In her Oct. 14 letter to Love, Schneider detailed in 10 single-spaced pages her "grave concern regarding the mismanagement of South-One." She described a Sept. 30 visit to South-One to examine inmate allegations. Ed Wiley III, one of her deputies, joined her.
As soon as they arrived, Schneider said, an inmate yelled to them that a jail guard was going to beat him. The monitors went to one of the tiers, which they described as "filthy."
"It was strewn with debris, the floor was dirty and sticky and there was a horrible odor emanating from the shower area," Schneider wrote. She reported that inmates complained of foot rashes.
The shower was also dirty and smelly on several earlier visits, Schneider wrote: "Worms have been observed squirming in black sludge that oozed from the floor drain."
Warden James C. Riddick Jr. said jail authorities are working to repair what he described as structural problems. On a tour of a noticeably clean South-One on Wednesday, Riddick said: "The water runs underneath the shower, which will cause an infestation. We routinely spray."
Deputy Warden Steve Smith said prisoners flooded their cells and threw feces in protest the night before the Sept. 30 visit. The cleanup, he said, had not been completed before the monitors arrived at 10 a.m.
Inmates told Schneider and Wiley that they were all denied recreation for several days if a single inmate broke rules that included talking out of turn or speaking too loudly. One inmate slipped Wiley a note that said, "As soon as you leave, these officers are going to beat me."
Schneider was troubled by four videotapes made by jail officers, a policy designed to create a reliable record -- for both sides -- when inmates are searched or moved. On one tape, according to Schneider's summary, Harper warns the cellblock before a shakedown, "If one guy yells, the whole tier will be shaken down every day."
The second tape shows an inmate standing on his cell door and exposing himself. He goes to the rear of his cell, following an officer's order. Within moments, Schneider wrote, Harper approaches the cell. Without giving instructions to the inmate, whose back is to the door, Harper sprays him with a chemical for several seconds, leaving him "weeping and drooling."
"It is truly a disturbing scene," Schneider said.
Harper, according to Schneider's correspondence, was assigned to the jail from the Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County in April, in part to improve the security of South-One. An effort to reach Harper through the Department of Corrections was unsuccessful. He has been assigned to Lorton.
The third tape shows what Schneider describes as "outrageous behavior." To remove a prisoner who reportedly hoarded disinfectant, Harper sprays chemicals into the cell several times. Other officers struggle with the inmate and eventually handcuff him. As he is ushered to the medical unit, Schneider said, a sergeant punches the inmate in the face.
The fourth tape shows Harper using pepper spray on an inmate who refuses for five minutes to be shackled. Harper and Pvt. James Rowe, the third officer reassigned pending investigation, escort the prisoner to the medical unit as the camera rolls.
Schneider reports that the camera stops and, when it begins recording again, the inmate "is bent over, in apparent pain, crying and saying, `That's wrong. Why did you kick me in the balls?' "
"A doctor asks the inmate what happened," Schneider continued. "Lt. Harper answers that the inmate's only problem is that he's been sprayed with chemical agent. The inmate interjects angrily, `He kicked me in my balls in the elevator!' "
The camera stops again during the inmate's return to the cellblock, Schneider said. When it begins, he is in a different spot, again crying and complaining he has been beaten. The camera stops a third time and then shows the prisoner "in his cell groaning."
"This troubling video," Schneider wrote, "suggests that [the inmate] may have been beaten by officers three separate times." Schneider, in her letter to Love, criticized jail authorities for a failure to supervise South-One. She requested by Oct. 28 a written plan that addresses 14 concerns, including policies for using chemical spray and canceling recreation.
"This is not a dirty, filthy place. It's not mismanaged," Warden Riddick said. "We do the best we can with what we have. We do a thousand things right in the course of the day. It only takes a couple of wrong things to get a whole lot of attention."