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Inmates from D.C., who are mostly Black, face worse prison conditions, lawsuit says

A sign for the Justice Department's Federal Bureau of Prisons at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
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Black prisoners sentenced in D.C.'s local court face harsher prison conditions than White people with similar criminal histories sentenced in the District’s federal court, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the city’s public defenders.

The suit said D.C. prisoners, more than 95 percent of whom are Black, must battle violence, restrictive conditions and a lack of programming in prison that those sentenced in the city’s other courts do not because of the way the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) makes security classifications.

The suit, filed Thursday, sought to end alleged disparities that have arisen since D.C. lost its local prison decades ago, sending defendants from two different courts with different demographics to the same system.

With the closure of Lorton Prison in 2001, prisoners from both the local D.C. Superior Court and the federal U.S. District Court — where the class action was filed — have been sent to federal institutions around the country.

Federal defendants get a security classification under national sentencing guidelines, the suit said, while local defendants are classified according to an “arbitrary and unequal” Bureau of Prisons system that often puts them in higher-security prisons.

The federal scoring system limits consideration of juvenile convictions, convictions from more than 15 years prior, suspended sentences and misdemeanors, according to an affidavit from former U.S. Sentencing Commission staffer Brent E. Newton accompanying the lawsuit. The BOP system is not as lenient, Newton wrote, and its calculations also rely on a national database that is often inaccurate.

“I believe that the BOP program statement’s criminal history score calculus likely results in significantly higher criminal history scores for many, if not most, of D.C. code offenders,” Newton wrote.

Black prisoners bear the brunt of this disparity, the suit said. More than 95 percent of Superior Court defendants who go into BOP custody are Black, while only 38 percent of the overall federal prison population is.

The BOP criminal history score is used to determine whether prisoners go to a high-, medium- or low-security facility, and also whether they are eligible to be released to home confinement. Prisoners in the lawsuit say they have less time outside their cells, less ability to talk to loved ones, and less access to religious and educational services. There are also more fights in higher-security prisons, the plaintiffs say, and more lockdowns.

“Applying a harsher criminal history scoring system to the majority-Black population of individuals ... puts them at a significant disadvantage to their majority-white federal counterparts,” the suit said. It added: “[T]hese individuals have systematically higher criminal history scores, higher security classifications, and more restrictive housing placements.”

The suit sought an order that would force all D.C. prisoners to be re-scored under the federal sentencing system.

A grandmother didn’t answer her phone during a class. She was sent back to prison.

A spokesman for D.C. Superior Court declined to comment, and the D.C. Department of Corrections referred questions to the BOP or the D.C. attorney general’s office. The BOP did not return a request for comment.

The suit recounted the case of Jonathan Blades, who is serving time in a high-security federal prison in Louisiana. Blades was convicted in 2015 in Superior Court of assault with intent to kill after a shooting outside a K Street nightclub.

Blades wrote in a declaration that he learned of the security classification disparity last year. At the high-security prison, he said, people are only allowed out of their cells for two or three hours a day, and gang violence is pervasive. Meanwhile, he is deprived of programming he needs to succeed when he is released.

“Programming provides me the opportunity to rehabilitate myself and let me build skills that I can use to find jobs when released,” he wrote. “I don’t have the same opportunity to build skills and improve my education right now, which puts me at a disadvantage.” He added: “I don’t understand why I am being treated worse only because I am from D.C.”

Kavya R. Naini, one of the attorneys for the D.C. Public Defender Service who filed the suit, said in an interview that some prisoners seeking home confinement or compassionate release amid the pandemic have seen their security classifications used against them.

“What we know is there is a disproportionate racial impact,” she said.

In an email, Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said the current security classification system “has a harsh impact on the prisoners, their families, and their communities.”

“This is a very important case that seeks to solve a decades long problem,” he said.