The change, which took effect Friday, is part of a modest easing of restrictions at the jail, where the D.C. Department of Corrections imposed a tough confinement regimen at the start of the pandemic. Compared with steps taken at other detention facilities in the country, the measures adopted for the District’s approximately 1,500 prisoners were severe and protracted.
A Corrections Department document on the loosening of restrictions also lays out a partial return to normal visiting procedures, in which visitors typically sat in video centers on the jail grounds or elsewhere and met with prisoners via closed-circuit cameras. That practice was suspended at the onset of the worldwide health crisis.
By June 7, the document says, the jail “will begin limited video visitation, which will be dependent on staff availability, modification of movements to maintain public health guidelines, and installation” of video equipment in housing units. In addition, “more phones will be available on the units” next month, the document says.
Those and other planned improvements in the quality of life for inmates are far too modest, said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.
“This is not an exit plan,” he said in a statement Monday. “I recognize this is a challenging situation, but people who are awaiting their day in court or serving their sentence deserve better.”
He said that if corrections officials “can’t create an exit strategy that is practical, just, and safe, I will hold a public oversight hearing so the council can assist.”
The corrections document also outlines a gradual increase in access to educational programs and says that outdoor recreation, now limited to an hour a day, will be expanded to 90 minutes in mid-May. Also, “barbering and cosmetology will resume” in June, as long as the inmates and contractors involved can show that they have been vaccinated.
Mental health experts have said that lockdowns lasting nearly around-the-clock — amounting to almost constant solitary confinement — can be psychologically debilitating for prisoners. But city officials said that fully lifting what they call a “medical stay-in-place” policy could expose inmates and staff to the coronavirus.
Authorities have also cited federal court oversight, which was instituted after inmates sued the city last spring for inadequate virus containment policies.
“The medical stay-in-place is not designed to be punitive and is not the same as placing residents in restrictive housing,” Keena Blackmon, a corrections spokeswoman, said Monday. She said medical experts advised officials that “there was minimal public health risk to a one-hour increase” in the time prisoners are out of their cells.
“The agency anticipates additional easing of [restrictions] as the rate of vaccinations increases among residents and staff,” she said.