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D.C. jail inmates with coronavirus barred from access to lawyers, family, showers and changes of clothing, inspectors say

Inspectors say there aren’t enough staff to enforce social distancing at the D.C. jail.
Inspectors say there aren’t enough staff to enforce social distancing at the D.C. jail. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Staff shortages prevent the D.C. jail from keeping inmates six feet apart to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, with one guard monitoring up to 45 prisoners, court-appointed inspectors told a U.S. judge Wednesday.

Painting a squalid if not shocking portrait of sickness behind bars, the inspectors — two veteran D.C. criminal justice experts — said inmates with the virus are isolated and prohibited from showering or cleaning their cells. The inmates are also barred from contacting loved ones or attorneys and cannot change soiled clothes, linens or masks for the duration of the illness, inspectors said.

The findings from three days of unannounced visits since Friday were laid out by inspectors Grace M. Lopes and Mark Jordan, appointed as part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of D.C. and the D.C. Public Defender Service seeking the urgent release of prisoners.

Across the 1,442-prisoner system, inspectors found inmates lack adequate cleaning equipment and training to disinfect cells, toilet areas and communal areas.

“They are resorting to ripping up their T-shirts and using them to clean,” Lopes told U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly during a two-hour teleconference.

Many prisoners have masks but at least until recently were not required to wear them or were given more than one, so that “many were ill-fitting, visibly soiled and ripped,” Lopes said.

Lopes said social distancing is not being enforced because of a lack of staff and supervisors.

With the jail housing 22 percent fewer inmates than a month ago, Lopes said, “there’s certainly the space to do it, but no effort to enforce it.”

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Although the jail promised inmates up to 30 minutes of unmonitored calls daily after banning in-person visits, defendants are unable to speak with their attorneys, the judge said.

“Lawyers are having a terrible time getting in touch with them. Forget 30 minutes or anything else. They’re not getting 10 minutes. I don’t know what system you set up, but it’s not working,” Kollar-Kotelly said.

“We’ll take it with all the other things and put it at the top of the list of what we’ve heard today and investigate it,” Assistant D.C. Attorney General Andrew J. Saindon answered.

Kollar-Kotelly ordered the emergency inspection while weighing whether to appoint an independent prison downsizing expert as part of the lawsuit filed March 30, although the judge has not said when or how she will rule. Since then, the number of inmates testing positive has grown 11-fold, from five to 56. One inmate has died.

With another 18 employees testing positive, D.C. jail facilities have emerged as one the region’s hardest hit spots outside of nursing homes for the elderly, according to government reports.

One in three inmates is in quarantine or isolation — 452 out of 1,442, D.C. officials said.

Over the same period, the jail has moved workers from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts to reduce overtime costs triggered by staff shortages.

Jordan said the problem has many causes but is made worse by required self-quarantining of employees assigned to units where inmates or staffers have tested positive.

“There’s enormous fear . . . and a substantial need for much more education” of both staff and inmates about protective equipment and cleaning supplies to keep themselves safe, Lopes said.

Late Wednesday, the union representing the jail’s correctional officers filed a class-action lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court demanding authorities provide personal protective equipment to the officers and inmates. The lawsuit, filed by the Fraternal Order of Police Department of Corrections Labor Committee against the District and jail officials, asserts a “failure to protect” officers from the virus and possible death.

Inspectors said that inmates appear to be able to access medical care and that those in quarantine are regularly monitored. But many who tested positive “volunteered that isolation is far too punitive” and that the deprivation they met is “plainly a disincentive . . . likely to deter future reporting of symptoms,” Jordan said.

At the end of the teleconference, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said the Department of Corrections “totally wants to be cooperative in this process.”

“To the extent there are corrective actions to be taken, that’s what they’re going to do, because they want to run an operation that the District of Columbia can be proud of,” Racine said.

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Jordan said the jail received a new shipment of protective gear on Friday, coinciding with the inspectors’ arrival, and they observed more staff wearing masks over the three days of visits.

The jail population has dropped about 22 percent from about 1,850 in March, and all but nine of 94 inmates convicted of misdemeanors have been released under D.C. emergency legislation.

Nearly all those remaining, about 1,442 prisoners, are held in connection with District or federal charges brought by U.S. prosecutors, or detained under federal authority.

Kollar-Kotelly is also weighing a motion to add the federal government as a defendant in the case. The judge asked for a list of prisoners held for technical parole violations such as failing drug tests or missing appointments and those who may be eligible for home confinement under expanded guidance issued by U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr.

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