D.C. corrections officials will ease an array of coronavirus restrictions in the coming weeks and relax the nearly 24-hour confinement that inmates endured for more than a year, according to plans released Thursday.
Corrections Department Director Quincy L. Booth said in an interview that the changes reflect the latest directives released by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and guidance from city health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Booth said his staff was challenged with implementing widespread changes to help limit the spread of the virus and accommodate connecting inmates with family, education and legal support outside of correctional facilities.
“This is our attempt at going back to a level of normalcy without compromising health,” Booth said. “We didn’t get the chance to shut down to help figure it out.”
Beginning June 11, inmates will be released from cells for about 5½ hours a day, which mirrors pre-pandemic levels, officials said.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen, who chairs the committee on the judiciary and public safety, said the new plans from the Department of Corrections were “heading in the right direction” though there is still more work to do. He was one of many lawmakers who have been calling on the department to come up with a plan to ease restrictions safely.
“I asked DOC to go back to the drawing board and create an exit strategy that both protects resident and staff safety and also recognizes the harm of what is essentially a year of solitary confinement on residents’ mental and behavioral health,” Allen (D-Ward 6) said. “This proposal is much improved, particularly around access to legal representation, contact with loved ones, and out-of-cell time, and it still guards against the spread of the virus.”
Inmates once again will be eligible for in-person attorney and family visits. Educational instruction, religious services, group sessions and increased access to indoor recreation such as basketball and board games also will restart, according to the plans. Activities such as barber services that were shuttered in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus also will resume for those who are inoculated.
All activities will require use of masks and adherence to social distancing guidelines, officials said.
Outdoor recreation will resume to pre-pandemic scheduling for all inmates beginning June 11.
In-person visits will begin July 6 for fully vaccinated visitors and inmates at the central detention and treatment facilities, the plans said.
Jail officials faced allegations of human rights abuses over the 23-hour-a-day confinement of about 1,500 inmates in their cells since last spring, which critics described as a form of mass solitary confinement.
Inmates were not allowed outside until last month, despite the decreased risk of infection in outdoor settings.
The Washington Post previously reported on the details of the lockdown and the lack of plans for ending it.
About a third of jail residents have received two vaccination shots, as jail officials work to educate a predominantly Black and Latino populace that may be hesitant to receive the shots, Booth said. Targeted video and podcast messages about vaccines are being uploaded to tablets that inmates have used throughout the pandemic to increase access to education and family, he said.
In recent weeks, city officials resisted calls to relax what they termed as a “medical stay-in-place” policy and cited federal court oversight that forced enhanced safety protocols following a lawsuit filed by inmates last spring.
City leaders insisted that the efforts prevented large outbreaks and stated last month that fewer than 60 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus in a 10-month period after hundreds of people in the jail were infected in the early months of the pandemic, before the lockdown began.
The D.C. government has asked an appeals court to end a federal judge’s oversight of its pandemic response and resisted turning over documents in the lawsuit, filed on behalf of inmates by the ACLU and D.C. Public Defender Service. The city has argued that continuing the litigation would divert resources from its response to the pandemic.
Booth cited six-foot social distancing mandates and limited space availability as reasons for the restrictive movements within correctional facilities. Other safety concerns beyond the pandemic also required certain groups or individuals to remain separated.
“It’s not in the nature of being punitive. We don’t have unlimited space, and we don’t have multiple facilities,” Booth said. “The reality is we are a microcosm of the city. What is happening on the outside is happening on the inside.”
Court appearances will continue to take place by videoconference until court officials change their safety protocols, the plans said.
Clergy, educators and other volunteers will need to be recertified to provide in-person services, corrections officials said.
Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.