Four months after the D.C. jail became a national story for reports of squalid conditions, a city council oversight hearing provided the D.C. Department of Corrections an opportunity to explain what steps it had taken to improve life behind bars.
On Wednesday, acting DOC director Tom Faust told the council he had implemented specific corrective action plans to address concerns raised by the U.S. Marshals Service, which transferred more than 100 federal defendants in November after its inspection found “egregious conditions.”
In response to questions from council members, however, Faust did not provide insight into the details of those plans or what the Marshals Service was requiring to return defendants to the facility.
“We have collaboratively come up with specific corrective action plans to address each finding, each concern of the U.S. Marshals Service,” Faust said.
“Such as?” asked D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who presided over the Wednesday hearing as chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. “Help me. I’m sorry, but you’ve got to help me with a little more than that.”
Faust, who replaced Quincy Booth at the helm of the DOC in late January, said he is focused on resolving issues in food service, cleanliness, grievance procedures and staff training. The department has purchased large food warmers in response to complaints about the temperature of meals, he added.
Still, the tension at the Wednesday hearing was palpable. Council members and public witnesses expressed frustration over what they characterized as a lack of improvements at the facility. Attorneys, advocates and formerly incarcerated people on Wednesday said that months after the Marshals Service’s inspection, the food was still often inedible, the medical care was still substandard, the lockdowns were still too stringent and the culture among employees was still toxic.
The DOC and the Marshals Service, meanwhile, have provided little transparency into their changes since they signed a memorandum of understanding in November that forbade either agency from conducting media interviews on jail conditions without consent from the other.
“In the 112 days since the last oversight hearing on the Department of Corrections, nothing has meaningfully changed for PDS clients or for any of the other approximately 1,400 people in DOC custody,” said Katya Semyonova, an attorney with the Public Defender Service for D.C.
Council members and advocates stressed that there needs to be stronger oversight at the jail, especially after testimony from the director of the D.C. Corrections Information Council angered listeners.
Director Donald L. Isaac Sr. told the council that his group, an independent body tasked with oversight of the jail, has not inspected the Central Detention Facility or Central Cellblock since May. The CIC has not inspected the Correctional Treatment Facility since March 2021, he said.
Isaac cited staffing transitions and pandemic protocol but also raised questions about whether the inspection dates he provided were accurate.
“That’s not acceptable,” Allen said. “I don’t understand why CIC isn’t there on a regular basis.”
“The dates concern me as well,” Isaac said, adding that he would have to check to confirm they were correct.
Faust, who said he has spent the first month on the job “stabilizing operations,” touted the department’s recent progress in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus after a devastating wave of the omicron variant in January, saying that the jail had zero positive cases and that no units were in quarantine as of Tuesday. He announced that he was increasing out-of-cell time to five hours, up from 2.5 hours, according to the DOC website.
Faust also repeatedly emphasized his focus on creating a “safe, secure and humane” environment for jail employees and incarcerated people. Last week, an investigation by the DOC, the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI resulted in the arrest of a correctional officer charged with smuggling contraband into the facility.
Faust said he is working to recruit employees to fill “critical vacancies” in part through a new incentive program that offers monetary awards to workers for referring friends and family members who complete the correctional training academy.
Faust also recounted successes from the jail’s education programs — such as a 100 percent employment rate from a prerelease support program in the past fiscal year — and said the DOC plans to open a men’s substance use disorder therapeutic unit this spring.
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Public testimony, however, suggested little has changed at the D.C. jail over the past decade, if not longer, despite several directors and a constant barrage of reports and complaints detailing crippling deficiencies at the facility.
“As I was preparing to testify today, it felt a little bit like deja vu,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, which published a 2015 report on the D.C. jail that found “appalling conditions of confinement in D.C. prison facilities.”
Emily Tatro, deputy director of the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence, quoted a 1972 report on the old D.C. facility, which the current jail replaced a few years later. “It is shameful that we are still facing the same range of problems now as we did 50 years ago,” she said.
Multiple people at the hearing urged the city to pay closer attention to the treatment of women behind bars and focus on poor conditions at the city’s Central Cell Block, a separate facility from the D.C. jail.
“Women in D.C. DOC custody are not given the same opportunity for programs and reentry services as men,” said Taylar Nuevelle, founder and director of Who Speaks for Me?, a group that raises awareness about incarceration rates among women, girls and LGBTQ people of color.
Speakers at the meeting also urged city officials to move forward on recommendations by the District Task Force on Jails and Justice to build a nontraditional facility focused on rehabilitation.
“The last year has highlighted how DOC is poorly equipped to protect the health and safety of our incarcerated neighbors,” said Shelley Broderick, chair of the task force, “and that we cannot continue housing people in a deteriorating facility, especially during a pandemic.”