The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mayor Bowser must reform the D.C. jail

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

Karl A. Racine, a Democrat, is the D.C. attorney general.

Recent reports of squalid conditions in D.C. jail are unfortunately not new. But they should finally serve as a clarion call to D.C. leaders to take bold action. Instead of making modest improvements to our crumbling jail, D.C. must use this moment to take a different approach — one that reduces harm, advances public safety and recognizes the human dignity of the individuals who are detained.

The Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia serves as counsel to the Department of Corrections. But as the elected, independent attorney general, I must speak out.

Concerns about conditions in the jail have been raised since almost the moment it was built. Class-action lawsuits about conditions in the jail resulted in a decades-long consent decree and a federal takeover of the jail’s medical care. In 2019, the D.C. Auditor issued a report documenting poor conditions and highlighting an aging physical plant and a failure to make capital improvements recommended by jail officials. The auditor recommended D.C. commit adequate funds and build a new facility.

Then, just last week, the U.S. Marshals reported indications of systemic failures in the jail. According to its report, water had been shut off in many of the cells, depriving the people detained in them of access to drinking and bathing water. There was standing human sewage in many of the toilets.

Opinion by Colbert I. King: The D.C. jail is the city’s responsibility. You wouldn’t know it from the city’s response.

Lack of money is not the reason these problems persist. There is a lack of will and leadership — and it comes from the top. Budgets are moral documents. Surely a city that can find $60 million to build a gleaming new sports arena that will increase the wealth of the rich can ensure the mostly Black and Brown people we incarcerate in our local jail have access to basic sanitary conditions in confinement.

The most recent allegations will lead to changes at the jail. They will have to. And, as many have noted, concerns about conditions in the jail received little attention until they were raised by the mostly White defendants accused of perpetrating the Jan. 6 insurrection. Still, we should view this as an opportunity to make meaningful changes in how we think about incarceration and public safety.

As attorney general, I have had the opportunity to visit jails around the world and see first-hand that there is another way. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, include that the purposes of incarceration are “primarily to protect society against crime and to reduce recidivism. Those purposes can be achieved only if the period of imprisonment is used to ensure … the reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life.”

Some of our peer nations put this mission into practice by providing vocational and job training, mental health and substance abuse treatment and other services so that when people are released, they are more likely not to reoffend and be successful, which makes our communities safer. The District Task Force for Jails and Justice, of which I was a member, set forth a framework for a new secure facility in this model — one that supports reintegration while protecting public safety.

Tens of millions of D.C. dollars are allocated each year to repair the physical plant of the jail. Much more will need to be spent to address the most recent allegations. And still we will be left with a jail that is an outmoded, anti-innovative method of addressing crime and its root causes. It is in all of our interest to have a jail that addresses these critical issues, especially because the vast majority of people confined there will rejoin their communities. It is time that we take a different course. We must be bold, innovative and committed to achieving a different result than decades of past practice.

I’ve used my time as attorney general to try to advance criminal justice reforms, and we have made important changes. But to make strong, impactful, and necessary reforms to the D.C. jail, the mayor must step up.

[Editor’s note: Mr. Racine endorsed D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) for mayor.]

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