These calls have escalated from fear to horror as they have watched 81 of their fellow inmates become infected and at least one die from the novel coronavirus. Covid-19, the disease that develops from the coronavirus, is racing through D.C. jails at 15 times the rate of the general population, according to the Justice Policy Institute.
These voices haunt us. They are insistent. We can’t sleep. We have no choice but to amplify their pain and suffering outside the walls that conceal them. So, we have decided to take action. On Tuesday night, we have assembled a few good men and women as part of the new organization called “70K Strong.” We are bringing our sleeping bags and tents for a “social distancing” sleep-out outside the D.C. Jail. We hope that you listen to what we and our partners have to say.
We write to you as returned citizens and men of conscience. Our brothers and sisters are rotting in unsanitary conditions in the D.C. Jail, the Hope Village reentry facility and the 102 prisons around the country, many of them for-profit.
Without urgent action, they will face certain death from the coronavirus. Without structural changes in the way we address mass incarceration and the District’s role in it, they will be abandoned to a liminal space between life and death. This is a hell that no human being deserves.
Unfortunately, we know firsthand how horrible jail conditions are. Before one of us, Big G, became leader of Backyard Band and an actor and philanthropist known for his iconic role of Slim Charles in HBO’s “The Wire,” he was sent to juvenile detention in Texas as an 11-year-old. Before the other of us, Moe, became the community activist known for organizing the Unity Clothing association of D.C. designers, Don’t Mute DC and the Go-Go Museum & Cafe, he spent time in D.C. Jail and in Lorton in the early 1990s.
Like Chuck Brown, who learned to play the guitar in Lorton Correctional Facility and later created go-go, the city’s official music, we paid our debts to society and went on to contribute to our city. In the mid-1990s, when we were both working with the peace organization Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters, we laid in the streets to protest budget cuts that took music and trades out of D.C. public schools.
Today, we are facing the biggest moral crisis we have seen in our lives.
Unfortunately, this crisis did not begin with the coronavirus. The federal government controls our criminal justice system. It closed the Lorton correctional facility and sent incarcerated people to prisons across the country. Because of that, most Washingtonians who do a local crime serve time in federal prisons dispersed across the United States.
Right now, D.C. residents are serving time in 102 federal and for-profit prisons across the United States. An epidemiological model recently released by the American Civil Liberties Union and academic researchers predict that an additional 100,000 people will die in prison from covid-19 if we don’t reduce the prison population.
On Feb. 18, 2019, the D.C. auditor released a damning report stating conditions inside the D.C. Jail are hazardous to inmates and staff. The report discussed mold growing on walls, faulty shower stalls and inhumane temperatures.
Today, the District is in a much better financial place than it was in the 1990s, even with the unfortunate revenue reductions because of the coronavirus pandemic. We see cranes reaching the sky in every direction for upscale commercial, retail and housing developments. The city can invest in making conditions for D.C.’s incarcerated more humane. The District can build safe and effective jails and reentry facilities and bring our people home. To do otherwise means potentially adding covid-19 to their sentence.
Our elected officials did not create mass incarceration or the conditions that allowed so much of our human capital to be locked behind bars. But the mayor and D.C. Council can address this calamity. We ask that they:
- Expedite improving D.C. Jail conditions, starting with installing a new heating and cooling system, providing sanitary supplies and building a new jail immediately.
- Work with the Bureau of Prisons to expedite opening new reentry center immediately as Hope Village is slated to close on April 30.
- Release D.C. residents who are federally sentenced and who have good behavior and are serving time in the 102 jails around the country.
- Regain control of parole from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. These life-or-death decisions about who gets parole should not be made by people with no connection to our community.
Taking control of our criminal system is a critical step toward true self-determination and statehood.