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Opinion Transferring D.C. jail residents to Pennsylvania is not the answer

The D.C. jail in April 2020. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Anthony Petty is a core team member of Neighbors for Justice, a local organization founded in 2020 to support individuals who are incarcerated at the D.C. jail, and a credible messenger at the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. He was formerly incarcerated at both the D.C. jail and at the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. Shannon Fyfe is a fellow at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University and a founding member of Neighbors for Justice.

The Justice Department announced that about 400 residents of the Central Detention Facility (CDF) at the D.C. jail will be transferred to the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., because of the results of an inspection conducted by the U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. The inspection revealed widespread human rights violations in the facility, including the withholding of food and water for punitive reasons, large amounts of standing human sewage and officers antagonizing residents.

These findings are incredibly concerning and are consistent with other human rights violations that have been reported for years. The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) did the right thing in bringing these unacceptable conditions to light, and it is doing the right thing by attempting to secure better conditions for these individuals awaiting court appearances in federal cases or post-sentencing assignment to federal prisons. But sending these residents to Lewisburg will cause further harm, and the marshals must find a different solution.

Sending CDF residents to Lewisburg would take them from one bad environment to another — one that is perhaps even worse, and definitely farther from their support networks. This decision will limit their access to legal counsel and their families, and conditions at the facility are known to be inadequate, inhumane and violent.

While the USMS claims it is committed to ensuring that the transferred D.C. residents have adequate access to their families, legal teams and medical care, evidence suggests this will not be the case.

The safety issues at the Lewisburg facility are disturbing. NPR and the Marshall Project found that the rate of violence among incarcerated individuals was six times higher at Lewisburg than at all federal prisons, in part because of the lack of mental health care, the frequent use of restraints and double-cell solitary confinement. A lawsuit filed in 2017 alleged that incarcerated people at Lewisburg were denied routine mental health care.

One of us, Anthony Petty, who was previously incarcerated at Lewisburg, hung his food from the ceiling of his cell at night so it would not be eaten by rats. He also recalls how officers would put people in handcuffs and belly chains for days, so tight that they would sometimes leave permanent marks. Officers would retaliate against individuals they deemed “troublemakers” by putting them in double-cell solitary confinement with volatile individuals, or putting them in a cell on the first floor with the windows open in winter or the windows closed in the summer, with no heat or air conditioning.

The officers at Lewisburg have a history of mistreatment of D.C. residents in particular. Anthony knew from the moment he arrived that the staff didn’t like guys from D.C., and they had permission to make sure the “order” of the prison was not disrupted. He remembers several incidents in which officers beat incarcerated men or pushed them down the stairs.

Given that we are still in a pandemic, it will be harder for legal counsel and experts to travel to Lewisburg than to the D.C. jail, and there is no guarantee that they will be given unlimited access to their clients if they can make the trip. Virtual access to counsel or court hearings will be limited by officer availability to facilitate access. Phone calls will likely be limited by individuals’ inability to pay for phone time. If this is the case, these individuals will be denied their due process rights.

These 400 individuals would be better served in several ways. Long-term, the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the D.C. government need to reduce the population at the CDF by implementing strategies to prevent law enforcement contact and expand the populations who are eligible for release, supervised release or home confinement. The jail is chronically understaffed, and significant changes must be made to improve the training and supervision of correctional officers at the entire facility.

But in the short term, the DOC must immediately address the conditions at the CDF, especially the unacceptable staff behavior, to avoid the need to transfer anyone to Lewisburg. It can also consider alternative facilities in Maryland or Virginia that would be closer to home.

Otherwise, as the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia has demanded, the D.C. Superior Court judges must order the release of all people detained at the CDF under these “unconstitutional and inhumane conditions.” If the DOC cannot quickly resolve the issues at the CDF, this is the only humane alternative.