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D.C. attorney general stops representing corrections officials in ongoing battle over jail conditions

The D.C. Department of Corrections Central Detention Facility in 2018. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The D.C. attorney general’s office has stopped representing the city’s Department of Corrections in “all matters arising out of or related to” a surprise inspection conducted by the U.S. Marshals Service that prompted the removal of hundreds of those housed at the D.C. jail over what officials described as poor conditions and treatment.

Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) notified DOC Director Quincy Booth of the decision Dec. 9 in a letter that said “the interests of DOC … will be better served by outside counsel” and urged the agency to “seek outside counsel as soon as possible.”

The attorney general will continue to represent the city in other litigation pertaining to the jail — including a class-action lawsuit alleging a “life-threatening lack of COVID-19 precautions” at the D.C. jail — but the unusual withdrawal has left the city without its typical counsel in a legal agreement with the federal government.

The letter, reviewed by The Washington Post, did not detail why the city’s attorney general was backing away from representing the DOC, and Racine’s office declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege. The decision came after the city held a Dec. 7 media tour of the jail and officials talked to the press to rebut allegations of unlivable conditions at the facility — a move that could be seen as a violation of an agreement signed with the U.S. Marshals Service last month.

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

The agreement bound the city and the Marshals Service to work together to correct deficiencies at the jail and forbids either party from conducting “a media interview in connection with the activities that are the subject of this agreement without prior consent by the other party.”

Booth; Christopher Geldart, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice; and other top government officials joined the tour and spoke to reporters from the library in the Correctional Treatment Facility, which is adjacent to the Central Detention Facility where the Marshals Service said it found “egregious conditions.”

“At the end of the day, we care deeply about the men and women that we have in our care,” Booth said. “So some of the things that were articulated, we don’t agree occurred.”

City officials dispute reports of ‘egregious’ conditions at D.C. jail

The city declined to answer questions about the terms of the agreement with the U.S. marshals or the reason for the attorney general’s withdrawal but forwarded a letter that D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) sent Friday to D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson and member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

In the letter, Bowser said Mendelson and Allen had met with her Tuesday to discuss “the sudden need for the District government to forge a new process for its legal representation.” The mayor requested that the city set up legal funds and a process to replace the office of the attorney general’s withdrawn services and, more long-term, develop a “framework” for times when the attorney general “considers opting out of representing the District.”

“It’s too soon for me to say whether I would commit,” Mendelson said. “I do think it’s worth discussion between the council and the mayor, whether some adjustments need to be in the law.“

She also said in her letter that Racine had decided to “step away without notice.”

The Marshals Service and the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., which represents the marshals, declined to comment on the attorney general withdrawing representation and the city’s compliance with the agreement.

The rift between the Department of Corrections and its attorney is the latest in a series of crises to surround the D.C. jail. There have been reports of poor conditions at the facility for years, but public pressure mounted most recently in October, when a U.S. judge held D.C. jail officials in contempt of court over the alleged mistreatment of a defendant being held on charges related to the Jan. 6 attack. The judge also called on the Justice Department to launch a civil rights probe of the jail.

The Marshals Service conducted an unannounced inspection of the jail later that month, and in early November the agency sent a letter to the DOC describing “egregious” conditions. The following day, the Justice Department announced plans to transfer about 400 people out of the D.C. jail to a facility in Lewisburg, Pa.

As of Dec. 7, the day D.C. officials walked the media through the jail, the Marshals Service said it had moved approximately 200 people “as part of the ongoing drawdown to other facilities, the majority to USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania, as well as other facilities in the region.”

The agency said the population remaining in the Central Detention Facility has “stayed in place for a variety of reasons, such as pending court-related matters, emergency stay orders granted by the court, and medical issues which prohibit transfer at this time, among others.”