The 40-year-old D.C. jail, with its moldy walls and cellblocks stacked on top of one another, was built for an earlier era when suicide prevention, juvenile rehabilitation and preparation for inmate reentry into society weren’t the priorities they are today.
Now some of that age is starting to show, prisoners’ rights advocates say — and one answer may be to replace the jail.
At the District’s main correctional facility, the roof leaks, “vermin” roam the grounds, flies buzz in the kitchen, and the plumbing is in varying states of disrepair, according to a report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Correctional officers have a misguided way of treating prisoners at risk of suicide, the report states. At a smaller facility where juveniles are held along with adults, young people have little space and too few opportunities to change course.
According to the report, these are reasons the District needs a brand-new correctional facility — and the D.C. Department of Corrections apparently agrees.
“We’re on the same side of this one,” said Deborah Golden, the director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee.
On Thursday, the committee, along with lawyers from Covington and Burling, released the 53-page report, compiled mostly from District agency reports detailing the jail’s problems and making the case for a new, modern facility.
Routine inspections by the District’s Department of Health have raised “grave concerns” about jail conditions, the report said. And while some problems “could conceivably be addressed” through better maintenance and sanitation, “others speak to larger problems with the physical infrastructure of the D.C. jail and indicate that the facility itself — which opened nearly forty years ago — may require significant renovations or need to be replaced,” the report said.
Four suicides over 10 months in 2012 and 2013 prompted the Department of Corrections to bring in outside consultants to figure out what was going wrong. Since 2013, the department has made some improvements, including more than quadrupling the number of “suicide prevention cells,” the report said. But other serious issues still needed to be addressed.
For example, the consultant Lindsay M. Hayes found, in a report produced for the city, that when inmates displayed suicidal behavior, they were prevented from using the telephone or having family visits, and their movement was greatly restricted.
“The expert Hayes noted that it was obvious that these punitive measures were basically premised on misguided belief that many of the inmates who threatened suicide or engaged in self-injurious behaviors were simply being manipulative,” said Shelton Abramson, an associate at Covington, at a media event Thursday to publicize the report. “It’s not clear how the improvements in place so far have done anything to address that,” he added.
The prisoner advocates urged better training for correctional officers, but also a better — and separate — facility for youths.
Washington’s inmate population is disproportionately black and male; while less than half of the District’s population is black, 91 percent of its inmates are.
And advocates for youth and prisoner rights say the District’s stated commitment to helping black and poor youths should be reflected in the correctional system where many wind up.
The report found that youth facilities at the Correctional Treatment Facility, which also houses adults, were “inadequate.”
Weekends are unstructured; there are no educational opportunities beyond the GED; and many juvenile prisoners are allowed only video visits with their families, in lieu of in-person visits — a “significant issue” for a vulnerable age group, Abramson said.
The Department of Corrections could not be reached immediately for comment, but the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and the D.C. Council have both commended it for making positive changes in response to earlier reports. Golden said the department’s director also wanted to see the District build a new facility.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who visited the jail last fall, said the rationale made sense. “The reality is that the jail building is very old. It was built at a time when the model was a different approach,” he said.
The D.C. Council recently approved a 2016 budget that includes $150 million for the Department of Corrections, $1 million of which will go toward general renovations. The budget also included funds to explore the need for a new facility.
“This would certainly be a costly endeavor but it could save the District funds in the long run,” the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary said in its budget recommendations.