Inmates and corrections officers at the D.C. jail are complaining of sweltering conditions inside the poorly ventilated facility, even as another heat wave approaches that could push temperatures near triple digits.
Concern mounted last week when Lester Irby, 70, awaiting trial on two assault charges, collapsed of an apparent stroke in the facility on July 14 and died at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
His daughter said he had complained of the heat and the medication he was receiving for high blood pressure, and she believes the adverse conditions contributed to his death. Autopsy results are pending. A spokeswoman for the jail said there has been “no medical report or initial medical assessment indicating a correlation between elevated temperatures and this inmate’s death.”
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the public safety committee, issued a statement calling Irby’s death a tragedy. The lawmaker cited the air-conditioning problems, saying he has visited the jail many times and knows “how extreme the temperatures can be.”
The jail in the 1900 block of D Street SE, near the Stadium-Armory Metro station, was built in 1972 to replace another jail built in the late 1800s. Problems keeping the facility cool during the summer date back years.
The jail houses nearly 1,300 inmates serving sentences for misdemeanor offenses or awaiting trial or transfer to federal prisons. The D.C. Department of Corrections said in a statement that officials are working “on system improvements to address temperatures” and that a contractor “has been on site and completing work to enhance the airflow and circulation systems.”
Problems are being blamed on old or faulty ducts that do not adequately move the cool air from air conditioners. Air conditioners are being cleaned to improve efficiency, officials said.
They said extra ice is being distributed, inmates can wear shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, and industrial fans have been put in common areas. Correctional officers are being given extra breaks and water and can wear light-colored shirts.
Temperatures are expected to hit the high 90s and might even break 100 by this weekend or early next week.
District officials, prisoner advocacy groups and the union representing correctional officers agree the jail is obsolete and a new one is needed. There is not currently money in the budget to build a new facility. McDuffie said on Tuesday that he has started the funding process, calling repairs being made now “a temporary fix, at best.”
Sgt. John Rosser, chairman the Fraternal Order of Police labor committee representing correctional officers, said the union is preparing to file a formal complaint with the District by the end of the week. He said officers are exhausted and hot, and are spread thin escorting inmates overcome by heat to hospitals. He said inmates are taking more showers to get relief, though that adds to the oppressive humidity.
Deborah Golden, director of the Prisoners’ Project for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said her office has received a stream of complaints from inmates.
Golden said her advocacy group is considering a number of options includes a lawsuit. “We know it’s not a situation where they can just fix it, because the jail is 40 years old,” she said. “But in the meantime, we have to constitutionally house the people who are there.”
Irby’s 50-year-old daughter, Felicia Haigler, said her father had complained of conditions in the jail after he was arrested in May. “He kept telling me about the heat,” said Haigler, who lives in Northeast Washington.
Irby was in D.C. Superior Court on July 13. His attorney, Paul Signet, said he noticed “no sign of any physical problem” with Irby that day. “He was in good spirits,” the attorney said, and he had just gotten new glasses and had a dental checkup.
Irby had been in and out of prison more than half his life for armed robberies. While incarcerated in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, he wrote a fictional story for D.C. Noir, a collection of stories published in 2005 and edited by George Pelecanos, one of the writers on HBO’s “The Wire.” Irby’s story, titled “God Don’t Like Ugly,” told a stark tale of crime in Northeast Washington.