The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They’re in federal prison, and they’re done staying quiet

One D.C. man in a federal facility describes a ‘revolving door of death and depression’ in a new report that offers a unique look into the nation’s prisons

A cell inside a federal prison in Coleman, Fla. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

When his chest started hurting and breathing became difficult, Shannon Derrell Williams considered his history of blood clots and worried he had a pulmonary embolism.

Then he tested positive for the coronavirus.

If Williams had been home in D.C. when he got that news, what happened next would have unfolded differently. But he was in one of the worst places in the country to suddenly fall ill — a federal prison. Soon, he found himself coughing and shaking in a “suicide cell” with three other men who had also tested positive for the virus.

“The cell was cold and the lights were on throughout the night,” Williams recalled in a written account. “When you’re sick with COVID, hydration is essential. But the water in the cell was disgusting and unhealthy … The water that came directly from the sink was literally hot and had to be cooled down first. Plus, it was filled with impurities. It was OK for brushing our teeth, but to drink? No. In addition to the warm temperature, you could actually taste something in it. Whenever the toilet water was dark brown (which was often), so was the water from the faucet.”

As Williams tells it, by the time he left that section of the prison, he had lost 25 pounds, was dehydrated and had missed doses of his high blood pressure medication.

“This place is a revolving door of death and depression,” he said.

On Thursday, the new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Colette Peters appeared before Congress for the first time and vowed to take responsibility for the work that is needed to fix the country’s crisis-plagued prison system. In her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing, she spoke of believing in transparency and acknowledged the “gravity of the alleged misconduct” inside the prisons in recent years.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to help bring greater reform, oversight, accountability, and further innovation to the bureau,” Peters said in her testimony. “While ensuring operation of safe and secure institutions is key to the bureau’s mission, it is also important to focus on employee wellness and ensure we treat those in our care with humanity.”

The openness Peters showed that day is encouraging. But a recent report by two D.C. organizations shows how much work she and lawmakers have in front of them to reform a system that often falls short of treating people “with humanity” — and then sends them back to their communities.

The report is unique in that it is filled with the voices of people who are often left out of prison-reform conversations: those who are housed inside of them.

“This report fills a yawning void in a couple of respects,” said Pam Bailey, co-founder of the nonprofit More Than Our Crimes, which released the report with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “First, it centers the voices of the individuals who are incarcerated inside. Everyone seems to talk about them, but few talk directly to and with them. They are among the most qualified experts on the problems of our system of incarceration, yet we don’t tap into their lived experience. Second, it documents that there is systemic abuse, neglect and corruption.”

Many of the people featured in the report have roots in D.C., which has a large stake in the issue. Since the city does not have its own prison, people convicted of local and federal crimes in the District are sent to facilities across the country.

In a recent column, I told you about two D.C. men who were killed in a Louisiana prison weeks apart. A relative of one of the men said her family received his body in a box but no answers about how the 39-year-old was fatally injured in federal custody.

A D.C. man died in a Louisiana prison. Then came a second death.

“The Federal Bureau of Prisons is in crisis,” Jonathan M. Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said. He pointed to reports of sexual assaults by staff, physical abuse of prisoners, excessive use of isolation and restraints, botched responses to covid-19, and a failure by the agency to effectively implement the First Step Act, which aims to lessen disparities in punishment for nonviolent drug offenses. “Our report documents the widespread nature of the problem and makes recommendations for oversight measures necessary to restore some semblance of human decency.”

A day before Peters testified, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced the Federal Prison Oversight Act, which would require the Justice Department’s inspector general to assess risks at 122 correctional facilities and establish an independent ombudsman to receive and investigate complaints.

The recent report, which is titled “Voices from Within the Federal Bureau of Prisons: a System Designed to Silence and Dehumanize,” supports the need for that independent scrutiny.

‘I’m angry & rageful & sad’: A Virginia inmate’s letters show why solitary confinement should concern us all.

In one account, a father describes staff members sexually assaulting his son with a baton while he was handcuffed and shackled.

In another account, a man tells of sitting on a waitlist for 12 years in hopes of getting dental care. “I was in prison for 15 years,” he says. “I went in with 28 teeth and came home with about 14.”

Several prisoners in the report address how simple solutions could have prevented painful situations.

Showing the need to shift the grievance system from a paper format to an online format, a man shared how he went on a hunger strike to protest how the staff purposely delayed getting to his grievance and then denied it for not being filed on time. He dropped from 207 pounds to 146 pounds and ended up hospitalized. “I am now in a wheelchair and use a cane, because I can’t walk a great distance without losing my breath and experiencing dizziness,” his account reads. “I get weak when washing my face, brushing my teeth and showering.”

People in jail sued over covid safety. The oversight didn’t last.

Another man described a riot that erupted over a broken phone following a three-week lockdown as preventable. “What do you think would have been the prudent thing for the administration to do?” he said in his account. “Maybe … fix the broken phone? Add another phone? Extend the allotted call time? Let fewer people out at a time? Allow us to participate in other activities, like go to the library, enroll in a program, get some fresh air outside? … NOPE!! They did none of the above. Instead, they let all 120 guys descend on the phones and computers at the same time, knowing we’d be frustrated and anxious to talk to our loved ones after being denied the ability to do so throughout the entire Christmas holidays due to another lockdown.”

I asked Bailey whether any of the prisoners feared they might face additional punishment for sharing their stories, since only a few chose to go by their initials. She said they all know of people who have faced retaliation from staff for complaining about what happens inside the prisons, but they didn’t care. They wanted to speak out.

“I hope this report informs people who don’t know just how bad the Federal Bureau of Prisons is,” she said. “Although there is a new director, it will be difficult to change such a huge, out-of-control system.”