D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced Monday that she has tapped Clinton Lacey, director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, to lead emergency court-ordered coronavirus interventions at the city’s jails and psychiatric hospital.
Lacey’s appointment came after U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered the jail on Sunday to immediately overhaul medical care, cleaning and social distancing measures for 1,440 prisoners. The judge found a class-action lawsuit was likely to prove that the city had shown a “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ health in the nation’s capital. Kollar-Kotelly said inadequate precautions have increased the risk of inmates contracting covid-19 and facing serious consequences, including death.
“I have asked him because of his long experience in corrections,” Bowser said, noting that D.C. youth rehabilitation agencies emerged this winter from court monitoring under a 35-year-old consent decree.
“We were very pleased with that,” the mayor said. “We also know that infection control practices that may be successful at one congregate setting, such as the jail, may also be informative at another congregate setting we’re concerned with, which is St. Elizabeths,” she said.
Bowser said Lacey will be supported by health and operations experts from his agency, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Behavioral Health, which leads the District’s mental health and addiction treatment systems. The agencies employ over 3,000 workers and administer budgets over $500 million.
The D.C. Public Defender Service and the American Civil Liberties Union’s D.C. affiliate filed suit demanding the release of inmates at the jail on March 30, asserting that those in custody were at risk of coronavirus infections. Since then, 60 percent of inmates have been put under quarantine, while one-quarter of Department of Corrections workers were out of action as of Thursday because of sickness or quarantine.
As of Monday, the infection rate for inmates was 15 times that of the city’s population as a whole. One prisoner and one worker have died. The District reported that 97 inmates had tested positive for the virus and that 880 were in isolation or quarantined because of symptoms or suspected exposure. Among corrections personnel, 25 had tested positive and 152 were not working, because they tested positive or were in quarantine.
At St. Elizabeths, 37 patients have tested positive, 74 are in quarantine and four have died. Also at the hospital, which provides intensive care for people with serious mental illness and evaluates patients committed by the courts, 57 employees have tested positive and 83 were in quarantine.
Kollar-Kotelly singled out understaffing at the jail as contributing to the failure to enforce U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to keep staffers and inmates six feet apart to limit the spread of infection.
Kollar-Kotelly mandated immediate improvements in screening, tracking and delivering prompt medical care for those showing symptoms. She also ordered restoring and maintaining prisoners’ right of legal access by telephone while visitors are banned and halting “punitive conditions of isolation” that she wrote make it more likely that inmates hide symptoms and infect others.
Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling relied on the findings of inspectors Grace M. Lopes and Mark Jordan from three days of unannounced visits from April 10 to 12. Both are veteran public safety officials in the District with experience as court advisers spanning decades, with Lopes having served as general counsel to former mayor Anthony Williams and Jordan as chief of staff to a deputy mayor for public safety under Williams. They also had roles monitoring the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.
Inspectors found the D.C. jail system is housing 22 percent fewer inmates than a month ago but is making “no effort to enforce” stated social distancing rules or other procedures, because it has too few workers and supervisors, with one guard monitoring up to 45 prisoners.
Bowser said the city is working on deploying “medical volunteers” to assist with monitoring staffers and inmates for symptoms, along with distributing more protective gear such as masks, gloves and gowns. The city is also acquiring computer tablets and entertainment and education options for prisoners so there will be less crowding around televisions.
Bowser said the city is “calling in experts on hygiene advice and deep cleaning at the facilities” and providing “daily and in-person showers” for prisoners who have tested positive.
Inspectors’ had found that inmates were using torn and soiled T-shirts and towels as cleaning rags and that neither guards nor inmates knew how to mix cleaning chemicals. Inspectors also said inmates in isolation had not been permitted to shower, clean their cells or change soiled clothes, linens or masks for the duration of their illness.
The District is “committed to [social distancing] operations and accountability,” Bowser said.
Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said the city hoped that over time more corrections workers would be able to return to the job.
The legal action comes as prisoner advocates nationwide have pressed local, state and federal jails and prisons to release prisoners deemed at low risk of flight or public dangerousness but at higher vulnerability of dying of the coronavirus because of age or underlying medical conditions.
Advocates call prisons “tinderboxes” for viral spread in communities — combining the risks of cruise ships and nursing homes by confining large populations of sicker and older occupants together.