The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The D.C. jail is the city’s responsibility. You wouldn’t know it from the city’s response.

Inmates from the medium and maximum security blocks at the D.C. jail in March 2014. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

For 10 days, Richard Johnson lay curled up on his D.C. Jail bunk in soiled bedding, his body ravaged with AIDS. He urinated in milk cartons that were left on the floor of his cell because he was too weak to walk to the toilet. He was incontinent.

Before he died, other inmates on work detail refused to clean his urine and feces-filled cell, hoping the odor would force the medical staff to respond. It didn't.

At one point, corrections staff, for reasons that defy comprehension, decided this severely ill man should be sent back to Maximum Security. Johnson had to crawl to the door of his cell before he was placed in a makeshift wheelchair for transfer. His final hours on this earth were his worst.

Richard Johnson died tied to a wheelchair with a urine-stained sheet. He had been left seated there for two hours, unmedicated, leaning to one side, saliva dripping from his mouth, limbs limp and eyes open in a blank stare. It was AIDS that took Johnson down. But it was his government that made him suffer.

I wrote this in a column on July 15, 1995, four days after Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant seized control of medical and mental health services at the D.C. jail because he had concluded that some District corrections officials “don’t give a damn” about inmates.

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Bryant had been presiding for years over two lawsuits filed on behalf of D.C. jail inmates and had lost his patience with District officials’ unmet promises to comply with his order to improve filthy and dangerous conditions there. City officials come to court, “sign a consent order and walk out of the courtroom, and nothing happens,” he said.

So Bryant placed the jail’s medical and mental health services under receivership, and there it stayed until September 2000, when services were returned to city control. Three years later, the court ended a 32-year oversight of the entire jail. Yes, the D.C. jail has been a den of disgust for decades.

The past week was deja vu.

The U.S. Marshals Service conducted an unannounced inspection and found evidence of “systemic” mistreatment of detainees, including unsanitary living conditions and the punitive denial of food and water. Inspectors found “large amounts of standing human sewage” in toilets in multiple cells, and cells that had been lacking water for days. Staff members “were observed antagonizing detainees” and “directing detainees not to cooperate.” One inmate was warned by a staffer to “stop snitching.”

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Conditions were so deplorable that the U.S. Marshals Service decided to transfer 400 inmates facing charges in federal cases or awaiting placement in federal prisons. According to the Marshals Service, the inspection “revealed that conditions do not meet the minimum standards of confinement as prescribed by Federal Performance and Detention Standards.” The marshals had to get federal inmates out of D.C.’s hellhole.

That failure falls on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and the entire D.C. Council. The jail is the city’s responsibility — but you wouldn’t know it from the city’s responses.

Christopher Geldart, Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, proclaimed the federal findings “deeply concerning.” The city, he said, takes “seriously the responsibility of caring for justice-involved D.C. residents” — the politically correct new term for inmates. The corrections department strives “to provide a safe, orderly and humane environment.” Geldart’s statement, untethered from reality, should be a firing offense.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the judiciary committee with oversight of the Corrections Department, issued his own statement, similarly bordering on detachment. “Unequivocally, those held in our care … must be treated humanely and in accordance with correctional standards,” he asserted — and promised to schedule an oversight hearing to learn what Bowser intends to do. Go get ’em, tiger.

How is it possible that city leaders responsible for overseeing the jail, specifically Geldart and Allen, were not aware of inhumane conditions there?

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The marshals who took the time to actually enter the facility discovered: “Detainees had observable injuries with no corresponding medical or incident reports.” “The smell of urine and feces was overpowering.” “Hot meals were observed served cold and congealed.” And so on.

D.C. officials should be ashamed of professing their concern for inmates when it is apparent, as Bryant concluded in 1995, that they “don’t give a damn.”

What I found in the case of Richard Johnson more than 25 years ago is just as true now: When it comes to the D.C. jail, in the mind of officials at city hall, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

Let us hope that with the marshals’ inspection, callous city leaders are on the minds of D.C. voters. Without an aroused citizenry, cruel and unusual punishment will carry the day.

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