For nearly a year, the D.C. Jail has been on a coronavirus lockdown. Inmates have lived in their cells for 23 hours a day. They are not permitted to see their families or friends. Even interaction with attorneys is sparse. One inmate disclosed that he hadn’t “seen sunlight for literally a year.” Reports of inmate violence have risen, as have mental health problems. And though employees and inmates are now eligible for vaccination, D.C. Jail administrators have not yet outlined a plan to end this pandemic-induced purgatory of isolation and confinement.
The D.C. Jail is not unique in this struggle to balance public health with the humane treatment of inmates. For the past year, congregate living facilities across the nation have been hotspots for coronavirus transmission. As of December, U.S. state and federal prisons reported that one in five inmates had contracted the virus. The lack of response by the Trump administration united inmates and prison staff in their condemnation of the unsafe working and living conditions. D.C. Jail staff, for example, claimed last year that they had “no masks, insufficient gloves, no gowns, no disinfectants” and that “no comprehensive cleaning occurs on a regular basis.”
But though some conditions have improved, many problems remain: Inmates are still isolated, and their welfare has not been prioritized. According to one of several lawsuits filed in response to the D.C. Jail’s handling of the public health crisis, instead of receiving medical care, inmates with the coronavirus have at times been locked in solitary confinement with no emergency buttons and insufficient hygienic products. These practices are inconsistent with science. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and public health experts, vaccination and decarceration are the best ways to stem the spread of the coronavirus in jails and prisons.
There are moral and legal imperatives to end this coronavirus lockdown. A federal court has consistently demanded, most recently in January, that administrators address the still-unacceptable medical care, sanitation and isolation conditions. The moral imperative is just as clear: Continued lockdown promises to exacerbate health problems, rather than alleviate them. Prolonged isolation can cause anxiety, violent outbursts and suicidal thoughts. People who experience solitary confinement could lose the ability to live around other people, and inmates may become less capable of reentering their communities. This treatment is inhumane.
We need a plan to end this lockdown.
First, the D.C. Jail must reduce the inmate population. Consistent with CDC guidelines, states have curbed coronavirus transmission by cutting inmate populations by an average of 30 percent. The D.C. Jail inmate population went down in the early months of the pandemic, but it has gone back up and now consistently averages 1,500 inmates. The D.C. Department of Corrections does not have the authority to release these inmates; only the federal government can implement a plan to reduce the D.C. Jail population, but the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Parole Commission have, so far, failed to do so. In fact, many inmates at D.C. Jail facilities are still awaiting trial because of backlogs in the court system. If convicted, their time languishing in coronavirus lockdown will not necessarily count as time served.
Second, the D.C. Jail must develop a strategy to encourage inmates (and staff) to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Inmates and D.C. Department of Corrections employees are eligible for vaccination, and the Department of Corrections claims vaccination has been offered to all inmates. But D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) reported in mid-February that only 100 inmates had been vaccinated. This is unacceptable when compared with prison vaccination programs in other jurisdictions. Virginia, for example, has vaccinated more than half of inmates in its jails and prisons through effective vaccine education and incentives. To end this lockdown, the D.C. Jail must make similar efforts to increase trust and access to shots.
It is urgent that we end the coronavirus lockdown in the D.C. Jail. Continued lockdown is inhumane and inconsistent with public health guidance. If this lockdown continues, mental health issues, inmate violence and recidivism may spin further out of control.