The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An ‘insane’ coronavirus lockdown two miles from the Capitol, with no end in sight

For a year, 1,500 people held at D.C. jail have been confined to cells 23 hours a day in what experts call a grave human rights abuse

The D.C. jail a year ago, when an outbreak of coronavirus infections prompted an extreme lockdown that has never ended. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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More than a year ago, about 1,500 men and women at the D.C. jail were locked in their cells for 23 hours a day to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Such extreme confinement has been adopted at other jails and prisons during the pandemic as a temporary, last-ditch measure. But the District’s lockdown differed in a crucial way: It never ended.

For almost 400 straight days, the entire population of the D.C. jail has been subjected to what experts say is essentially a form of mass solitary confinement — without some of the basic services afforded even to those in solitary during normal times.

Visits were halted. The libraries were closed. So was the barber, prompting some men to grow long hair and beards. During the one hour of the day that their confinement is eased, inmates until recently were prevented from going outdoors.

D.C. jail inmates with coronavirus barred from access to lawyers, family, showers and changes of clothing, inspectors say

Jail officials say that what they call their “medical stay-in-place” policy, draconian as it might seem, has prevented the kind of covid-19 outbreaks seen at other correctional facilities. But some health experts and advocates for the incarcerated say that protective impulse has evolved into a grave human rights abuse as days and weeks have turned to months of around-the-clock confinement, either alone or with a cell mate. An overwhelming majority of the jail’s inmates are Black, and many have not yet been found guilty of the crimes for which they were arrested.

“It is a very dangerous situation that you describe,” said Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz who has studied the effects of solitary confinement. Haney said a year of “23 and 1” lockdown would ordinarily be reserved for those who commit extraordinary breaches of prison rules, most likely involving acts of violence.

The psychological and physical harms that such prolonged isolation can cause are legion, he added: depression, anxiety, heart disease, erosion of a sense of self and exacerbation of any existing mental illness, diabetes or hypertension. Those problems can last well after an inmate’s release.

“I understand that prisons and jails have been confronted with an extraordinary problem,” Haney said. “But this is not the solution.”

From the earliest days of the pandemic, covid-19 has been a scourge for those who live or work in America’s jails and prisons. Nearly 400,000 infections have been reported among prisoners and more than 2,500 have died, according to data compiled by the Marshall Project, while about 110,000 prison guards or workers have been infected and 200 of them have died.

D.C. officials were not alone in adopting near-constant confinement as a disease prevention measure. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has asserted in court documents that an ongoing 23-to-24-hour lockdown at the Tulare County jail system is unconstitutional. That policy was allegedly adopted in September, after the D.C. lockdown had already been in place for five months.

Yet many other correctional facilities have taken a different path. No comprehensive record exists of the covid-19 containment policies in America’s decentralized network of prisons and jails. But officials at a half-dozen correctional systems said the kind of across-the-board restrictions in place at the D.C. jail had either never been used or used only as a short-term approach to suppress infections.

One official outside the nation’s capital, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly attacking correctional colleagues, offered a frank assessment of the District’s approach: “That’s insane.”

D.C. Department of Corrections Director Quincy L. Booth said the jail’s policy was the only way to meet the social-distancing standards established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the D.C. Department of Health. The 23-hour lockdown is necessary to limit the number of inmates commingling outside their cells within each housing block, he said.

“Our number one purpose and goal at the DOC is to ensure the health and safety of the men and women who are in our care, as well as the staff who come to work every day,” Booth said. “For the most part, we have mitigated the spread in our facilities by implementing the practices that we have.”

He said a federal judge’s order in response to a class-action lawsuit brought by inmates last spring over inadequate coronavirus controls reinforced that there was “basically no wiggle room for us to do anything different.” Among other things, that order said jail officials should “consistently apply their stated policy of allowing no more than small groups of inmates out of their cells at any given time.”

The debate over lockdown inside the D.C. jail mirrors the debate over lockdowns outside it. Throughout the pandemic, mayors and governors have sought to balance the dangers of covid-19 against the equally real dangers of restricting human movement, commerce and social ties. The balance has been struck many different ways, always imperfectly.

A top scientist questioned virus lockdowns on Fox News. The backlash was fierce.

Yet as vaccination rates rise, schools reopen and much of the world charts a course toward normalcy — even while cases surge in some parts of the country driven by new virus variants — the lockdown at the jail continues. There is no formal plan to relax inmates’ 23-hour cell confinement or benchmarks for when an easing of restrictions might begin to take place.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the judiciary and public safety committee, said he understands jail officials’ desire to avert coronavirus outbreaks and comply with court oversight. But the status quo, he said, is doing “active harm” and cannot go on.

“The Department of Corrections needs to have an exit strategy. I’ve asked for an exit strategy,” Allen said. “This cannot be sustained.”

After this story was published online Monday, criticism also arrived from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and an avid opponent of D.C. statehood, issued a statement attacking the city’s treatment of jail inmates as “something to be expected of authoritarian governments such as Russia.”

‘Between four white walls’

Victor Davis Jr. had been in jail before. The Southeast D.C. native dropped out of middle school. He was 16 when his mother died, and 18 when he was imprisoned for four years on an armed-robbery charge. After his release, he was unable to stay out of trouble or out of custody, returning to the D.C. jail multiple times. In May of last year, he found himself there again, charged with illicit gun possession.

Now 30, Davis immediately noticed things were different as he was booked into the hulking, rust-orange jail complex that looms over million-dollar rowhouses at the edge of the Hill East neighborhood. With coronavirus cases surging in the District, he wasn’t surprised at several weeks of quarantine that came before he joined the general jail population.

The surprise came when he made his way into the familiar Central Detention Facility. Weeks before his arrival, jail administrators had put all inmates under virtually around-the-clock lockdown, allowing them to leave their cells for one hour every day on a staggered schedule. Sometimes that was at 3 a.m. Visitors were prohibited, though phone calls were allowed, as well as video conferences with lawyers.

Hair cuts, shaves and nail trimming — all services normally performed by the barber — were unavailable, he said. Inmates did have access to a chemical hair remover, but Davis found it burned his skin and chose not to use it. He said his beard grew out and his hair turned into matted dreadlocks.

Cosmetic problems were the least of his worries.

With court proceedings slowed to a crawl, he did not enter a guilty plea until August. Since then he has been awaiting sentencing, as well as court proceedings on separate charges related to an alleged conspiracy to distribute drugs. As he passed his time either alone or with a cell mate, day and night began to blend together. He slept at odd hours and talked to himself. The jail handed out tablets to inmates, but Davis said Wi-Fi access was unreliable.

He read the newspaper, or sometimes books his family ordered through Amazon — he is now making his way through “The Mastery of Self,” by self-help author Don Miguel Ruiz Jr. — but that still left many hours alone with his thoughts.

“It’s mind-boggling,” he said in a telephone interview from jail with The Washington Post. “It makes you think about everything. You might even think back — how far can you think back? — to when you’re 4, 5 years old. It’s bad, to be honest. You struggle. You have to be strong mentally, not just physically. You have to be strong to be stuck between four white walls all day, every day.”

Davis said he had observed similar struggles in other jail inmates during their brief excursions from their cells.

“You might know a dude for being cool, you know what I’m saying? He might now be angry every day, or depressed … that’s what this brings on you.”

Whatever the risks of covid-19 might be with fewer restrictions, Davis said, he is willing to run them.

Booth, the jail director, acknowledged complaints from inmates about internet service but said the problem was not widespread. He said inmates are able to trim their nails, but was unable to explain how they are doing so. Jail officials said limited barber service resumed this month and should be available to all beginning in July.

Sgt. John Rosser, a veteran D.C. correctional officer and union official, said the lockdown makes the job of guards “10 times harder and far more dangerous” as they deal with inmates whose nerves are fraying. Such challenges have been exacerbated, he said, by staff shortages over the past year as many officers have taken time off for self-quarantine.

Nevertheless, he said, the policy has been worth it.

“We might be getting assaulted at a higher rate, because they’re edgy and the stress levels are up. But the covid levels are not up,” Rosser said. “The response was kind of strict. But the answer is that the disease has been contained.”

‘An extreme circumstance’

Although two correctional officers, one jail worker and one inmate have died of covid-19, the jail has not seen a major outbreak since the first weeks of the pandemic. Despite a constantly rotating population, fewer than 300 infections have been identified among jail inmates, according to city figures. About a third of inmates have now received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

Chris Geldart, the acting deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said that progress could be endangered by prematurely relaxing restrictions on inmates’ movement.

“The last thing we would want is an outbreak at the jail,” Geldart said. “That would not be good for anybody.”

Nevertheless, officials in other correctional systems in the Washington region and across the country described less draconian approaches to managing the risks of covid-19. Many have adopted limitations on in-person visits and programs, but not 23-hour cell confinement.

At New York City’s main jail complex on Rikers Island, mingling between inmates of different housing blocks is restricted, but within those units inmates still have much of their pre-pandemic freedom of movement, a jail spokesman said. The same is the case at the Fairfax County jail in Virginia.

In Maryland, Montgomery County jail inmates are released from their cells for 2½ hours daily, said Angela Talley, director of the county’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. The Prince George’s County jail adopted a policy in March 2020 that allowed for roughly 22 hours of lockdown to prevent coronavirus infections, spokesman Andrew Cephas said. But last June, that was modified to allow inmates out of their cells for recreation at least three hours daily.

Indiana’s state prison system has periodically restricted some inmates to prevent infections but has “not limited movement for long periods” in entire prisons, a spokeswoman said. The same is true in Virginia, said Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Corrections.

“It would take an extreme circumstance for us to have inmates locked down 23 hours a day for an extended period,” she said.

Jaimie Meyer, an infectious-disease physician and associate professor of medicine and public health at Yale University, has served as an expert witness in lawsuits across the country brought by incarcerated people over inadequate coronavirus controls, including the litigation in the District. The D.C. jail, she said, is the only system she examined that has adopted a continuous 23-hour lockdown since early in the pandemic.

Meyer said the challenges of implementing effective disease prevention measures inside prisons and jails — such as surveillance testing, social distancing, mask-wearing and widespread vaccination — should not be downplayed. But she said that almost uninterrupted cell confinement, even if necessary for brief periods to extinguish large outbreaks, is not an acceptable long-term alternative.

“Temporary lockdown made sense. This extended lockdown doesn’t make sense,” Meyer said. “This isn’t meant to be a forever strategy.”

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