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D.C. jail ordered U.S. marshals to leave after surprise inspections, judge says

Inmates are being transferred from the D.C. jail because a surprise inspection found unacceptable conditions, authorities said.
Inmates are being transferred from the D.C. jail because a surprise inspection found unacceptable conditions, authorities said. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Authorities at the D.C. jail ordered members of the U.S. Marshals Service to leave the facility after a team of deputy marshals spent several days last month conducting a surprise inspection of the jail and cataloguing “egregious” conditions, including the mistreatment of prisoners, a federal judge said Wednesday.

Speaking from the bench in U.S. District Court in Washington, Judge Royce C. Lamberth said he and other judges were briefed about the jail this week by the court’s acting U.S. marshal, Lamont J. Ruffin, who ordered the inspection. Ruffin’s findings led the Justice Department to announce that about 400 inmates, being held at the jail in federal criminal cases, will be transferred to a penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

After the surprise inspection, from Oct. 18 to Oct. 23, uncovered what Ruffin termed “systemic failures,” such as grotesquely poor sanitation and the punitive withholding of food and water from detainees, deputy marshals showed up at the jail on Sunday, Oct. 24, but were ordered to leave, Lamberth said.

He said Ruffin, in a meeting with federal judges this Tuesday, told them about the deputies being directed to exit the facility, which Ruffin described as unprecedented in his long experience with the Marshals Service.

“For the first time in history, they were ordered to leave the jail,” Lamberth said, quoting Ruffin. “He has never seen a jail bar marshals from entering. . . . It is beyond belief, some of the reports of the marshal here to the court.”

Unacceptable conditions at D.C. jail lead to plan to transfer about 400 inmates, officials say

While a full summary of the inspection is still being prepared, Ruffin listed some of the findings in a Nov. 1 letter to Quincy L. Booth, the D.C. corrections director.

In parts of the jail, water “had been shut off for days” as punishment, creating an “overpowering” stench from “standing human sewage” in the toilets of many cells, Ruffin wrote. “Hot meals” were “served cold and congealed”; some inmates had “observable injuries” for which no documentation was available; and “evidence of drug use was pervasive,” including the “widespread” odor of marijuana.

Staff members were “observed antagonizing detainees,” telling them not to cooperate with the inspection, Ruffin said, while jail supervisors “appeared unaware or uninterested in any of these issues.” He said the inspectors spoke with more than 300 detainees who are being held in federal criminal cases.

In court Wednesday, Lamberth expanded on Ruffin’s letter, citing other incidents of mistreatment that Ruffin discussed in his meeting with judges.

One detainee reported being denied a chance to shower for days after he was pepper-sprayed, resulting in continuing chemical burns, Lamberth said. He said staff members in that instance potentially committed “civil rights and probably criminal violations.”

Another inmate said he sought medical care for weeks, but went without treatment because some of his fingers were injured and he was unable to fill out a medical request form, Lamberth said. He said deputy marshals on the inspection team escorted the prisoner to sick call so he could get help.

The jail, formally called the Central Detention Facility (CDF), houses about 1,500 detainees, roughly 1,000 of whom have local criminal cases in D.C. Superior Court. Most of the others are charged in federal cases, and, while they are being held in the city-run CDF, they are officially in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.

The Marshals Service agreed to pay the D.C. government about $122.28 per day to house each federal prisoner from 2015 to 2019. At that rate, the service would pay about $23 million to house 520 prisoners for a full year, or about 10 percent of the D.C. Corrections Department’s annual operating budget.

Read the U.S. Marshals Service Nov. 1 D.C. jail memo

In announcing that about 400 federal detainees in the CDF will be moved to the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., 200 miles from the District, the Justice Department said the transfers will not include roughly 120 inmates being held in the city’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), located with the jail in Southeast Washington. Those include 40 prisoners facing federal charges in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

In his letter, Ruffin said inspectors found conditions in the CTF to be “largely appropriate and consistent with federal prisoner detention standards,” and the Marshals Service added in a statement that its inspection “did not identify conditions that would necessitate the transfer of inmates from that facility at this time.”

Lamberth noted the cautious language. “The marshal did not say conditions at the CTF were not egregious,” the judge said in court. “He simply said they were not as egregious as at the jail.”

D.C. Deputy Attorney General Chad Copeland told Lamberth that the city “takes the issue in the marshal’s letter very seriously and it has the attention of the highest levels of the government. We are investigating. We have already reached out to the U.S. Marshals Service. We are working on next steps.”

Lamberth has been overseeing a case involving one of the Jan. 6 defendants, Christopher Worrell, who has alleged that jail officials interfered with his attempt to get needed medical treatment. In connection with that dispute, Lamberth last month found Booth, the corrections director, in contempt of court, along with the jail warden.

Worrell, an alleged Florida associate of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, was ordered released from the jail Wednesday and placed under home incarceration.

“This court has zero confidence that the D.C. jail will provide the treatment required by the defendant’s condition” and “will not retaliate against Worrell as they recently have against” others, Lamberth said.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) publicly addressed the issue for the first time, calling the inspection findings “deeply troubling.” However, she said she opposes the transfer of detainees to Lewisburg. Many of them are Washington-area residents whose local relatives can easily visit the D.C. jail.

Judge calls for Justice Dept. civil rights probe into D.C. jail’s treatment of Jan. 6 detainees

“Our focus is, of course, making sure the inmates are safe, and the staff is safe, and people are being rehabilitated,” Bowser told reporters. “But they also have to be close to court, because they’re awaiting trial, and they need that proximity.”

She did not comment on specific allegations of mistreatment, saying, “There is a lot we need to find out,” and that she has ordered her deputy mayor for public safety, Christopher Geldart, “to dig very deeply into this report.”

In several emergency court motions, the office of the Federal Defender sought to stop some of the relocations to Pennsylvania.

The office asked judges to order the transfer of federal detainees from the jail to the CTF if their trial dates are imminent or they are awaiting psychiatric care or evaluations. That would remove them from poor jail conditions while allowing them to stay in close contact with their attorneys and family members.

John Rosser, an official of the labor union representing D.C. correctional workers, suggested in an interview that the jail, with its overwhelmingly Black inmate population, has come under scrutiny because the Marshals Service now has a few dozen White prisoners in its custody, meaning the Capitol riot defendants.

He urged people not to accept Ruffin’s assessment of the jail at face value because the inspectors spent a relatively short time there and lack a broad perspective.

The ACLU of the District and the D.C. Public Defender Service, which represents prisoners with cases in D.C. Superior Court, issued statements deploring conditions at the jail. The two groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the city last year, alleging mistreatment of detainees during pandemic lockdowns.

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“The systemic racism within our carceral system could not be more stark,” the ACLU said. “It’s lost on no one that it took the complaints of White January 6 defendants for officials to finally act in response to the inhumane conditions and treatment inside the jail, which advocates and family members of the mostly Black residents at the jail have been raising for years.”

Complaints about poor conditions at the jail have been circulating in the District for as long as the 45-year-old facility has existed. For example, in a 2015 report — one of many such studies over the decades — the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs described “appalling conditions of confinement in D.C. prison facilities.”

And last spring, jail officials were sharply criticized by lawyers, judges and inmate advocates for severe confinement practices aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Referring to the Marshals Service inspection, Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washingon Lawyers’ Committee, said, “When I see the kinds of problems being described, I’m upset and disturbed but not surprised.”

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