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

The D.C. jail. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The U.S. Marshals Service plans to transfer about 400 inmates out of the D.C. jail to a federal prison nearly 200 miles from Washington after a recent surprise inspection found evidence of “systemic” mistreatment of detainees, including unsanitary living conditions and the punitive denial of food and water, officials said.

While “a formal summary” of the inspection, conducted last month, is still being prepared, Lamont J. Ruffin, the acting marshal for U.S. District Court in Washington, told the D.C. Department of Corrections in a letter Monday that the findings “may warrant further examination” by the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

The jail, formally known as the Central Detention Facility (CDF), houses about 1,500 detainees, of which roughly 400 are inmates awaiting court appearances in federal cases or post-sentencing assignment to federal prisons.

Many of those 400 inmates, if not most, are D.C.-area residents with family members in local communities. In light of the inspection’s findings, the Justice Department said Tuesday, the federal detainees in the CDF will be moved to the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., a nearly four-hour drive north of the District.

The move will not involve about 120 federal detainees, including about 40 defendants who face federal charges in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, who are being held in the corrections department’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), the Marshals Service said. That facility is located with the jail in Southeast Washington.

Ruffin, who ordered the inspection, said that conditions at the CTF “were observed to be largely appropriate and consistent with federal prisoner detention standards,” and that the problems were primarily in the main jail.

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

In the CDF, an eight-member team of deputy U.S. marshals found “large amounts of standing human sewage . . . in the toilets of multiple occupied cells” and many cells in which water “had been shut off for days,” Ruffin wrote.” He said jail staff members “were observed antagonizing detainees” and “directing detainees to not cooperate” with the review. One prisoner was warned by a staff member to “stop snitching.”

“Supervisors appeared unaware or uninterested in any of these issues” Ruffin wrote.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration opposes the planned inmate transfers, said Christopher Geldart, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety.

“We take seriously the responsibility of caring for justice-involved D.C. residents and believe they should remain in D.C.,” Geldart said in a statement Tuesday. He said the corrections department strives “to provide a safe, orderly and humane environment” while regularly working on structural repairs at “the aging detention facility.”

However, Geldart called Ruffin’s letter “deeply concerning” and said city officials “are working with our federal partners to get the complete report in order to work through the specific findings.” In his statement, he did not individually address any of the findings.

The inspection, and the planned removal of federal prisoners, raises questions about the treatment of nonfederal inmates, who make up a vast majority of the jail’s population. Most of them are being held on local charges adjudicated in D.C. Superior Court. They are officially in the custody of the D.C. corrections department, not the Marshals Service.

The transferred inmates will be farther from their families and defense lawyers and the federal courthouse in Washington. But in the Lewisburg penitentiary, they will have expanded access to visiting areas, medical care and video teleconferencing facilities, the Marshals Service said.

The service said it is “committed to ensuring that detainees have adequate access to defense counsel, family support, medical care, and [evidence] related to their cases.”

The unannounced inspection, from Oct. 18 to Oct. 23, began five days after a federal judge in Washington found the jail warden, Wanda Patten, and D.C. Corrections Director Quincy Booth in contempt of court in a case involving the alleged mistreatment of a detainee charged in the Capitol riot.

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

Judge Royce C. Lamberth said jail officials “abused” the civil rights of the defendant, Christopher Worrell, an accused member of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence. The judge said the officials failed to turn over information needed to approve wrist surgery that had been recommended for Worrell months earlier.

Lamberth called for the Justice Department to investigate whether the jail had been violating the civil rights of the dozens of prisoners charged in the Jan. 6 mayhem. The civil rights division is examining the circumstances of the treatment of those defendants but has not opened a formal investigation, people familiar with the matter said.

Lawyers, judges, detainees and others have long criticized conditions at the 45-year-old jail. The complaints peaked earlier this year after the prolonged confinement of detainees — including 23-hour-a-day lockdowns — to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

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Ruffin’s letter, addressed to Booth, said that “Evidence of drug use was pervasive” in the jail and that “the facility had a strong smoke and odor of marijuana.” It said, “The smell of urine and feces was overpowering in many locations” while “food delivery and storage” were substandard. “Hot meals were observed served cold and congealed,” the letter said.

Copies of the letter were sent to two judges in U.S. District Court in Washington, the acting U.S. attorney and chief federal public defender in D.C., other officials of the Marshals Service, and the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

“Detainees had observable injuries with no corresponding medical or incident reports,” Ruffin wrote.

“Water and food appeared to be withheld from detainees for punitive reasons,” he added. Meanwhile, “Jail entrance screening procedures were inconsistent and sloppy” and the staff was “observed not following COVID-19 mitigation protocols.”

In a statement, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the committee on the judiciary and public safety, said that “unequivocally, those held in our care and custody must be treated humanely and in accordance with correctional standards” and that the city “needs to act with urgency and full transparency in response to today’s news.” He said he would schedule an oversight hearing to learn the mayor’s plan.

The Marshals Service declined to comment on the schedule for prisoner movements, which could begin as soon as this week and continue for weeks.

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