Why, then, is the D.C. government designing and building a new jail without asking the public, especially those most wounded by the city’s criminal justice system?
Leaders have shared little about their plans to replace the District’s two correctional facilities, yet they appear to be approaching the project’s starting line. Murmurs began in late 2012 when then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) floated the idea of building a “justice center” to include a jail and police building. In 2015, the District’s Public Safety Master Plan, procured by Gray, recommended such a center be built in Southwest.
But in May last year, when the District solicited architectural firms to begin designing a jail, many of the details had changed. And now, according to an article in the Washington Business Journal, the District plans to begin procurement this spring. The project will cost upward of $500 million and will include a jail but not a police building. It may include administrative offices for the Department of Corrections. A location has yet to be determined. The District has also decided to use a “public-private partnership” procurement model, which means financing will come from the private sector rather than the traditional method, municipal bonds.
There’s no question the District needs to replace or renovate its current facilities to protect prisoners and staff. The Department of Corrections has been forced to relocate hundreds of prisoners during summer months in recent years because of bad ventilation. In 2015, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee found an “active infestation of vermin/pests,” crumbling walls, mold and a leaking roof at the primary jail, which is more than 40 years old.
But the District’s sudden and aggressive timeline raises a major red flag. Word of a new jail thus far has been reserved to business press read by developers and architectural firms, who have a limited perspective on what a jail means to a city. Returning citizens — the very people who have suffered through conditions at the existing jails — appear to have not been consulted. Making decisions about where the jail will be, its capacity and what will happen inside of it, without public and stakeholder input, is a shaky and potentially disastrous foundation for a project of this size.
D.C. leaders appear to be missing the forest for the trees. By focusing on lining up private sector involvement rather than cultivating public discussion and input, they are treating a new jail as mere infrastructure rather than a key and influential piece of the District’s criminal justice system. Jails are not soccer stadiums. Who ends up in them isn’t just a matter of personal responsibility. Decisions about policing, courts and laws and funding — or the lack thereof — for affordable housing, schools, social services and mental health care are real forces on a city’s incarceration rate. Building a new jail must be part of a larger, democratic discussion about laws, policies and budgets. This is especially so in a city in the midst of an affordable housing crisis and where blacks make up 48 percent of the population yet 89 percent of those in jail.
The plan to use a public-private partnership is particularly alarming. First, private financing is more expensive than tax-exempt public debt. The consortium of private firms that would eventually finance, design, build and maintain the jail would demand a healthy profit. Second, because such a partnership would bundle project phases into one contract, there would be potential for less public input compared to traditional procurement methods. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) proposal for replacing D.C. General with a network of homeless shelters proves that early and genuine communication is crucial. The project has suffered delays and criticism because of a refusal to communicate with the public and the D.C. Council early in the process. Finally, compared to traditional procurement methods, public-private partnerships have the potential for less transparency and democratic control after project completion — the devil will be in the contract’s details.
Speaking of the details, the mayor’s Office of Public-Private Partnerships (OP3), just launched in 2015 and tasked with handling the new jail procurement, is using a courthouse constructed in 2013 in Long Beach, Calif., as a model partnership. But opinions differ on the partnership’s success. For example, a study performed by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office after the contract was signed questioned the underlying math used to justify private financing—called a “Value for Money” analysis. The study concluded that a traditional procurement approach may have been cheaper by as much as $160 million. While District leaders plan to begin procurement this spring — any moment now — they’ve yet to publicly release a Value for Money analysis for the new jail.
Before the District begins building a new jail, policy makers, prisoner advocates and residents should ask questions and settle for nothing less than honest answers. Why use private money if public debt is so much cheaper? When will returning citizens and residents of Wards 5, 7 and 8 have a say? Will the jail be accompanied by investments that treat crime as an issue of public health and inequality?
These are tough questions that create hard choices. But if city leaders were to answer rather than attempt to dodge them, the city with an incarceration rate that makes exceptionally punitive states like Louisiana appear somewhat virtuous would have a chance at turning things around.
Jeremy Mohler performs strategic communications for In the Public Interest and is a member of the ReThink Justice DC coalition. Monica Hopkins-Maxwell is executive director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia.