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D.C. enters agreement with Marshals Service to address ‘systemic failures’ in city’s jail

The deal is the latest step toward tackling deficiencies at the jail after a surprise inspection prompted marshals to transfer inmates because of poor conditions

The D.C. jail's Central Detention Facility last year. (Angus Berwick/Reuters)

The D.C. Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshals Service signed an agreement Tuesday night, saying they will work together to improve conditions at the D.C. jail after a surprise inspection last month turned up “systemic failures” and poor treatment of detainees.

The agreement adds a representative from the Marshals Service to an oversight and management team that the city formed last week to launch a formal review of the D.C. jail. The Marshals Service liaison is tasked with monitoring the implementation of “corrective action plans” developed by the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC), according to the memorandum of understanding first revealed by the city’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice during a committee hearing Wednesday.

The agreement is the latest in a series of steps to address deficiencies at the D.C. jail since Nov. 1, when the Marshals Service sent a letter to the DOC detailing mistreatment of detainees and announcing plans to transfer about 400 facing federal charges to a prison in Lewisburg, Pa. The letter described the punitive denial of food and water and unsanitary living conditions at the jail.

During Wednesday’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee hearing, the Public Defender Service played audio of clients describing conditions similar to those described in the letter from the Marshals Service. One person described being treated worse than an animal, without regular food or the ability to bathe.

The agreement between the city and the Marshals does not explicitly halt the transfer of incarcerated people, but D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart said Wednesday that he hopes it will eliminate the need for such movement. The Marshals Service transferred 90 people out of the Central Detention Facility (CDF) on Tuesday, Geldart said, and had plans to move 47 additional residents on Wednesday. The deputy mayor said he did not expect further movement this week.

“We appreciate this collaboration with the U.S. Marshals Service,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a statement. “And are ready to utilize the necessary resources, both federal and local, to improve conditions and address any deficiencies at our DOC facilities.”

Transfer of defendants at D.C. jail to begin Monday after inspection found unacceptable conditions

At a Judiciary and Public Safety oversight roundtable Wednesday, local elected officials, attorneys and activists slammed Geldart — and by extension Bowser — for failing to address what they characterized as long-standing and inhumane conditions at the jail. In tense exchanges, Geldart said there are “some systemic issues” at the jail but insisted that the facility has remained habitable for residents.

“Are we meeting the standard that we owe persons under our custody?” D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr., a Democrat who is running for mayor, asked Geldart at the hearing.

“I believe in many areas of the facility we are,” the deputy mayor replied, before acknowledging the “challenges within the facility.”

DOC Director Quincy Booth did not attend the roundtable because he is on “personal leave,” Geldart said.

Council members, attorneys and activists alike said they had been trying to alert D.C. officials of breakdowns at the jail for years, if not decades, and were dismayed that it took a federal agency intervening — after complaints from largely White inmates — to inspire significant action from the city.

The vast majority of incarcerated people who had been complaining of mistreatment for decades, attorneys and council members said, were people of color. Ninety-three percent of people currently detained are Black or Brown, according to the Public Defender Service. Black people alone make up 87 percent of detainees in jail but only 45 percent of the District’s population.

But the surprise inspection from Marshals Service followed a flurry of complaints from White prisoners charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot about conditions at the jail’s Correction Treatment Facility (CTF). The Marshals Service found that the CTF was “largely appropriate and consistent with federal prisoner detention standards.”

Still, the Marshals Service letter elicited public outrage from both sides of the aisle as elected officials demanded tours of the facility. On Nov. 4, a delegation of council members visited the facility alongside Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who blasted the jail on social media. Greene and Gohmert said Jan. 6 defendants are being treated as if they were in a “prisoner of war camp.” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sent a letter to Bowser on Wednesday requesting an explanation as to why she allowed the two “pro-Trump right-wing members of Congress” to visit the jail.

“I’m deeply disturbed that we only have attention now that the January 6 insurrectionists carried attention to this issue,” D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said at the hearing Wednesday. White is also running for mayor, and Bowser has announced a run for reelection.

Geldart pointed in part to the pandemic for generating “persistent problems to fill positions with qualified candidates” and creating backlogs in the court system that have filled the jail to levels not seen since the 2018 fiscal year. He said employees at the jail have been working 12-hour shifts, up from eight hours, since April 2020.

He also underscored the age of the facility, which was erected in 1976, to explain why DOC staff members have had little time to tend to “more in-depth regular maintenance.” In fiscal year 2021, Geldart said, the agency performed 927 repairs. Now, he said, it averages 200 to 250 work orders each month, almost 80 percent of which are for clogged toilet pipes or sink drains.

The deputy mayor’s concerns about the physical conditions were echoed by council members, who in a letter to Bowser on Wednesday urged her to follow a blueprint for a new correctional facility that a D.C. task force on jail and justice created over the past two years.

“In short, we call on you to immediately improve conditions at the Department’s facilities and prioritize funding for the design and construction of a new correctional facility in the District,” wrote the five council members on the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, chaired by Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).

They said failing to fund the project would “knowingly expose the District to increasing liability and federal intervention.”