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Opinion The mayor must answer questions — and take action — on deplorable D.C. jail conditions

The D.C. jail. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Standing pools of human sewage. Water shut off for days. Cooked meals served cold and congealed. An overpowering stench of urine and feces.

One might expect those kinds of conditions in a third-world country lacking wealth and resources, but hopefully not in the United States, much less in the nation’s capital. Nevertheless, those were the abysmal circumstances discovered by the U.S. Marshals Service in a surprise inspection of the D.C. jail. So alarmed was the Marshals Service that it announced plans to transfer the 400 inmates in its custody from the jail to a federal facility in Pennsylvania.

What, though, about the roughly 1,000 inmates who remain at the troubled facility? What will be done to address the inhumane conditions spotlighted in the surprise inspection? And why did these issues only get attention after a federal judge expressed dissatisfaction with how Jan. 6 insurrection defendants were being treated? The complaints of Black and brown inmates who make up the majority of the jail’s population were ignored over the years while the complaints of White supporters of former president Donald Trump seemed to get immediate attention. Answers — and action — are needed from the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

An eight-member team of deputy U.S. marshals showed up for the inspection of the D.C. jail facilities in Southeast Washington after U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth called on the Justice Department to investigate whether the jail had been violating the civil rights of the dozens of prisoners charged in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. They were there from Oct. 18 to Oct. 22. Investigators found that the Central Treatment Facility, where the Jan. 6 protesters were being held, passed muster but discovered serious deficiencies in the main jail, the Central Detention Facility. In addition to the unsanitary living conditions and substandard physical facilities, inspectors noted evidence of “systemic” mistreatment of detainees, including withholding of food and water as punishment.

Lamont J. Ruffin, acting marshal for U.S. District Court in Washington, wrote in a memo to D.C. officials that he personally visited the facility to verify the preliminary information, which included observations of jail staff members “antagonizing detainees” and “directing detainees to not cooperate” with the review. One prisoner was warned to “stop snitching.” Jail supervisors, Mr. Ruffin wrote, appeared unaware of or uninterested in any of these issues.

Many of the jail’s problems can be blamed on the fact the facility is 45 years old, and that corrections workers have had to deal with the stress of working in unforgiving circumstances during an unprecedented pandemic. But that doesn’t excuse indifference and abuse. It is more than a little troubling that deputy marshals, according to Judge Lamberth, were denied access to the jail after the surprise inspections. Ms. Bowser has called the findings of the U.S. Marshal Service “troubling” and has directed the deputy mayor for public safety to undertake an immediate review — with input from outside experts — to take corrective action. She should also invite investigation by the Justice Department and then muster the political will to make construction of a new jail not a talking point but a reality.

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