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D.C. jail settles lawsuit over inmate covid conditions by ACLU, Public Defender Service

Inmates at the D.C. jail alleged unsafe conditions at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Lawyers for detainees who identified unsafe conditions at the D.C. jail at the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic have settled a 2020 lawsuit, agreeing to drop the case if the District government complies with up to a six-month term of unannounced inspections, data-sharing and continued inmate access to swift medical care and cleaning materials, according to court filings.

The proposed class-action settlement, reached Monday, would end a two-year fight over allegations of mismanagement and mistreatment of inmates at the aged detention facility in the nation’s capital. The deal was submitted Tuesday for a federal judge’s preliminary approval by attorneys for four inmates represented by the D.C. Public Defender Service, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, and the Munger, Tolles & Olson law firm; and the office of D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine.

The sides asked U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to set an April 12 hearing to approve a final deal for inmates held since March 30, 2020, at either the jail’s main Central Detention Facility or newer Correctional Treatment Facility.

Lawyers for inmates said the prospect of unannounced inspections and provisions requiring medical safeguards and barring the punitive use of quarantine and isolation will yield immediate benefits, while continuing litigation could drag out the case.

“This agreement will ensure safer conditions in DOC facilities for Plaintiffs far sooner than a litigated outcome,” the sides told the court. “Under the circumstances of the Omicron variant of covid-19 now spreading throughout the world, the Parties determined that the benefits of the proposed settlement outweigh the risks of continued litigation.”

Lawyers told Kollar-Kotelly the agreement provides “substantial and immediate relief,” including continued access to hygiene and cleaning supplies and timely medical care as monitored by an independent epidemiologist paid by the D.C. government over a six-month term. Compliance by the jail for two consecutive unannounced inspections will eliminate the requirement for further inspections, the agreement proposes.

“This settlement is an important victory for protecting the health and safety of residents at the D.C. jail, especially as the pandemic continues to evolve,” attorney Zoé Friedland of the PDS’s special litigation division said.

In a statement, the ACLU of D.C. called on the D.C. Council to enact long-term reforms, including creation of an independent oversight body with unrestricted jail access to regularly report on conditions to legislators and the public.

“These measures will protect incarcerated people, officers, and the whole community,” lead named plaintiff Edward Banks added in an ACLU release, saying, “It should have never come to a lawsuit to force the D.C. Jail to protect the people in their custody.”

The deal does not seek financial damages or attorneys’ fees. The D.C. government agreed to continue to provide information about jail vaccination rates and data related to infection rates, as well as Department of Corrections pandemic-related policies and procedures. The jail agreed to continued contact tracing for inmates and staff who test positive, require staff to wear face masks, promote social distancing, ensure that conditions in quarantine and isolation units are not punitive and allow out-of-cell and recreation time “as reasonably possible.”

The deal comes as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Monday she is dropping the city’s requirement that people show proof of coronavirus vaccination before entering many businesses in the city, as coronavirus transmission continues to trend downward throughout the region. Masks will be maintained past March 1 at congregate facilities including schools, nursing homes and jails.

D.C. to drop coronavirus vaccination requirement to enter businesses

Since Feb. 3, the D.C. jail has reported no inmates in pandemic quarantine or isolation. The figure hit an omicron wave peak of 1,081 on Jan. 10, or roughly two-thirds of the inmate population, and roughly twice the number quarantined or isolated when delta-variant infections crested in October.

In fact, the lawsuit triggered changes that eventually were overtaken by circumstances including the surging and retreating pandemic, a national backlash to the jail’s heavy-handed implementation of health protocols for inmates and new allegations last fall by the U.S. Marshals Service and a federal judge of “systemic” abuses against prisoners, including the punitive denial of food, water and medical care.

Kollar-Kotelly in April 2020 ordered the D.C. jail to immediately overhaul health, sanitation and social distancing measures to combat climbing infection rates of the coronavirus, finding that the ACLU and PDS were likely to prove, as alleged in a lawsuit the month before, that corrections officials had violated inmates’ constitutional rights by showing a “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ health, including “failing to take comprehensive, timely, and proper steps to stem the spread of the virus.”

At the time, the initial pandemic wave had put 60 percent of inmates under quarantine and knocked one-quarter of corrections workers out of action, with inmates infected at a per capita rate 15 times as high as that for the District’s population as a whole.

Corrections workers union leaders joined inmates in warning of conditions behind bars, included delayed or denied medical care, restricted prisoner access to lawyers and relatives, and “punitive conditions of isolation,” in Kollar-Kotelly’s words, including denial of changes of clothing, masks, cell cleaning, showers or contact with others while inmates were ill.

Conditions improved under the court’s order, But by last spring, human rights advocates condemned jail authorities for maintaining a nearly 23-hour-a-day lockdown on inmates for more than a year. D.C. Corrections officials began easing coronavirus restrictions in May 2021, and then in July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed on appeal by the D.C. government that Kollar-Kotelly’s initial injunction against the city had lapsed, leading to settlement talks.

The settlement does not resolve new allegations raised by a surprise federal inspection in October of “systemic” mistreatment of detainees at the jail, including unsanitary living conditions and the punitive denial of food and water. The U.S. Marshals Service since November has transferred hundreds of inmates out of the jail to a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., while working with a mediator and federally appointed inspector at the jail.

Since then, Racine’s office has refused to continue to represent the Bowser administration in talks with the U.S. Justice Department, and the D.C. mayor has responded by replacing D.C. Department of Corrections Director Quincy L. Booth and jail Warden Lennard Johnson.