“Do I got the list? Who’s on the list? Man, I think I’m one of the people on the list,” Weaver says on a recent morning, describing the ways people in the jail have tried to find out whether they will be among the 400 sent to a U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., which is about 180 miles from the District.
“Nobody here is racing to try to get on that list,” Weaver says. “No one wants to be part of that 400.”
People across the nation are suddenly paying attention to the D.C. jail. They are expressing outrage at the unsanitary living conditions the U.S. Marshals Service documented during a surprise inspection.
Among the findings: cells without running water, an “overpowering” smell of urine and feces, and meals served “cold and congealed.” The team of deputy U.S. marshals also reportedly observed staff members “antagonizing detainees” and, at one point, telling a prisoner to “stop snitching.” Those findings are, as D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George put it, “damning and deplorable.”
They also aren’t the only things that are damning and deplorable about the situation. So, too, is the reason that inspection occurred and who stands to pay the steepest price as a result of it.
Within the unfolding jail mess are two undeniable realities: Black D.C. residents who have complained for years about the conditions at the jail have been ignored. And now that action is being taken, they are the ones being sent away.
“It’s crazy that some racist White people get more attention than people who been crying out for 30 years about the treatment in the jail,” says Ron Moten, a longtime city activist who started an anti-violence youth mentoring group after serving time in prison on a drug charge.
He landed in the D.C. jail in the early ’90s and says the conditions posed health risks even then. He describes cells with roaches, showers that didn’t work and violence coming from prisoners and guards.
He and others also slept outside the jail last year to bring attention to a covid-19 outbreak within those walls.
“We see cranes reaching the sky in every direction for upscale commercial, retail and housing developments,” reads a Washington Post piece he and Ralph Anwar “Big G” Glover wrote at the time. “The city can invest in making conditions for D.C.’s incarcerated more humane. The District can build safe and effective jails and reentry facilities and bring our people home.”
The recent inspection took place after a federal judge found the jail’s warden and D.C. corrections director in contempt of court for failing to provide medical information in a case involving a prisoner charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection. That prisoner is an alleged member of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence.
The results of the inspection: The conditions at the building where the 40 rioting suspects are being held, known as the Correctional Treatment Facility, were “consistent with federal prisoner detention standards.”
The other building, known formally as Central Detention Facility, was where the problems were identified. The 400 people who face transfers are currently housed there, and, despite being held on federal charges, many are D.C.-area residents with roots in the community.
Sending those D.C. residents away won’t just separate them from their families, Moten says. It will also take them far from their attorneys and the services they have come to depend on.
“They aren’t even going to be able to get a fair trial or justice,” he says. “What lawyer is going to Lewisburg? How are you going to see your family?”
What he would like to see happen instead: Officials transfer the accused Capitol rioters out of D.C. and give their cells to some of those city residents.
It’s not a bad idea, and if feasible, should be considered. Those rioting suspects have complained about the jail’s conditions — and they are not even in the most concerning building — so place them elsewhere.
That would free up at least some space for D.C. residents whose rehabilitation is crucial for a city that has already lost too many people to violence.
It is in D.C.’s interest to make sure they make connections to people and programs that can help them find a way to become productive returning citizens.
The Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, which uses the literary arts to help incarcerated people, has recently heard from some panicked participants.
They have expressed worry that they will end up among the transfers and will have to leave behind notebooks filled with their poetry and prose.
“They’re begging us, ‘Take my books. Take my poems,’ ” Executive Director Tara Libert says. The group isn’t allowed to transfer participants’ personal items to their family members and is looking for an alternative way to collect those stacks of writings and creative expressions, knowing people won’t be allowed to take them to Lewisburg.
When Weaver talks about the people he works with in the jail, he uses the words “us” and “we.” Known as Smooth to many, he is a program manager, but he also spends his time trying to empower them, trying to get them to see that, like him, they can choose to live otherwise.
A new building is needed, he says. What’s not needed, he says, is sending more D.C. residents away and trusting they will get critical services and support. Already, people in Texas and other states are writing reentry plans for people who will return to a city they don’t know, and the lack of a halfway house in D.C. has left its residents staying in Baltimore before they come home.
“I just think we got to realize that the majority of people that are in here, regardless of what they in here for, they are coming home,” Weaver says. “How do you want them to come home?”
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