The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pelosi joked about a jail in the Capitol’s basement. Is there a House slammer?

The "Old Capitol Prison," at the site of what is now the Supreme Court. (Library of Congress)

As it became clear in recent days that various Trump administration officials might be held in contempt by the House for failing to comply with subpoenas, talk in Washington has turned to an intriguing prospect: Can Congress jail people? And if so, where is this jail?

On Wednesday, during a Washington Post Live event held at the news outlet’s headquarters, reporter Robert Costa asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) whether Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin could be arrested for rejecting House Democrats’ request to turn over six years of tax returns for President Trump and some of his companies.

Target of the first congressional probe in U.S. history? George Washington, of course.

As the audience clapped, Pelosi smiled coyly and raised her palms to the audience in a reassuring manner. “Let me just say that we do have a jail down in the basement of the Capitol,” she said as everyone laughed. “But if we were arresting all of the people in the administration, we would have an overcrowded jail situation, and I’m not for that.”

When asked whether she would hold Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in contempt or have him arrested for not complying with Congressional demands, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she believes there are several options, one of which is going to court. She quipped, “We do have a jail in the basement of the Capitol, but if we were arresting all of the people in the administration, we would have an overcrowded jail situation and I’m not for that…There are several options, one of them is to go directly to court.“ (Video: Washington Post Live)

But it wasn’t exactly clear which jail Pelosi was referencing or joking about.

A spokesman for the speaker told The Post on Thursday that, if ever it came down to arresting people, Congress could detain them in one of the rooms controlled by the House sergeant at arms. An email to the office of the sergeant at arms was not immediately returned Thursday.

Or, the Pelosi spokesman said, they could be thrown in the lockup at Capitol Police headquarters, at 119 D St. in Northeast Washington. “We can fit a maximum of two people,” said a sergeant who picked up the phone at the Capitol Police office and who declined to be identified.

U.S. Capitol Police grew from a lone watchman two centuries ago

Shortly after Pelosi’s talk at The Post, the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend to the House that it hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt for failing to comply with its demand that he hand over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s unredacted report on the Russia investigation. If the entire House holds him in contempt, then the chamber will have to decide whether to try to compel him with fines, the courts or the prospect of jail time.

Perhaps the closest thing resembling a slammer at the Capitol is the gated, locked enclosure, under the Capitol Crypt, holding the Lincoln catafalque, a wooden platform built for Abraham Lincoln’s coffin. The room — a tomb meant to hold the body of George Washington — looks like a jail. But a jail it is not.

According to the office of the Architect of the Capitol, which preserves and maintains the buildings and grounds of the Capitol, no jail or detention area has existed on the campus since 1877. That’s when, according to a description in the Congressional Record, two Louisiana election officials were jailed in “a little room in the basement of the Capitol, with but two windows, opening upon no sunlight, but upon a narrow confined court into which no gleam of sunshine can ever enter.” (Not even a gleam!) It gets worse. The room was so dark and foul that, according to the Congressional Record, the room smelled “like the den of some foul reptile, a room where thieves arrested around the Capitol are kept.”

But during the Civil War, there was a building known as the “Old Capitol Prison” — at the site of the current Supreme Court — that the federal government used to house Confederate spies, soldiers and sympathizers, according to a historical website run by the history and art offices of the House. Before that, the structure was mostly used as a boardinghouse and a school. From 1815 to 1819, Congress convened at the site while workers repaired the Capitol after it had been ravaged during the British attack in 1814. The building was eventually destroyed to make room for the Supreme Court.

The Old Capitol Prison left such an impression on one Confederate soldier that he wrote a prison diary about his time there. In 1911, James J. Williamson, a member of Mosby’s Rangers, wrote a memoir called “Prison Life in the Old Capitol.” In the book’s preface, Williamson wrote that most of the prisoners were civilians and prisoners from other jails who were waiting to be shipped south. He spent much of his time reading, singing and playing cards, dominoes or checkers. Prison guards helped bring in contraband, he said.

“It is an easy matter to get whiskey here,” he wrote.

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