Tiffany Yang is a lawyer and Skadden legal fellow at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Urban Affairs.
After identifying various abuses endemic to the D.C. Jail, a report issued late last month by the Office of the D.C. Auditor concluded that the “persistence and seriousness” of the facility’s hazardous conditions “clearly point to the need for a new jail.”
The auditor is not alone in recommending the construction of a new jail to remedy these concerns, and others note that a new, larger facility could potentially house D.C. residents convicted of felony offenses who, as a result of the 1997 D.C. Revitalization Act, are forced into the Federal Bureau of Prisons and sent to prisons as far as California to serve their lengthy sentences.
The recommendation to build a new jail, however, is a shortsighted proposal that fails to address a more enduring problem: D.C.’s legacy of over-policing, over-incarcerating and dehumanizing its most vulnerable community members.
Calls for the construction of a new facility, even if the aspiration is to create humane living conditions or to reconnect families, must account for the grim realities of racial profiling and mass incarceration that continue to plague the District. Studies demonstrate that if the District were a state, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the country. The auditor’s report notes that black D.C. residents were “overrepresented” in the jail, and other reports by the Department of Corrections and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, among others, have illustrated that the District disproportionately stops and incarcerates black residents from its poorest wards. Without accompanying changes in policy and practice that address the District’s history of disparate policing and incarceration, the construction of a new facility will achieve only empty, duplicitous reform: It will build hundreds of pristine cages that can support continued efforts to police and prosecute the District’s most marginalized residents.
Disappointingly, the District has repeatedly renewed its support of incarceration-first policies. In contrast with certain members of the D.C. Council (who have helped support the dismantling of mass incarceration mechanisms through the Near Act, the decriminalization of fare evasion and the partial decriminalization of marijuana possession), the Bowser administration and the D.C. police have demonstrated they will actively sustain or even expand existing mechanisms. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) hopes to increase the size of the police department, and D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham openly reaffirmed his faith in “stop and frisk” campaigns. The mayor vetoed the community-supported and council-approved Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act, and she also supported a strategy wherein local gun-possession cases will be prosecuted in federal court, a forum change that will all but guarantee longer sentences, less local accountability and fewer supportive services. Their actions suggest that if a new jail is constructed, it will be built to accommodate a growing push for incarceration.
Relying on the construction of a new facility to improve carceral conditions also fails to address a more systemic issue: the neglect and indifference of government entities that resulted in the deteriorating conditions suffered by our incarcerated residents. As the auditor’s report observed, hazardous conditions have persisted at the jail for more than 30 years. Yet from 2014 to 2018, the fiscal years at the focus of the report, the mayor and the council approved only a fraction of the funding requested by the Department of Corrections to make crucial improvements, and the Department of Health repeatedly failed to make its required inspections of the jail. A city’s worth is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members, and the District has repeatedly revealed its willingness to ignore the suffering of its incarcerated residents.
It is myopic and misguided to focus solely on the narrow question of whether a construction project will improve the physical conditions of a carceral facility. Advocates must instead assess whether a new jail would maintain or even exacerbate existing incarceration disparities and maltreatment in the District.
So far, the mayor, the police department and oversight agencies have done little to reassure the public in this regard and have done much to betray it. Ultimately, trusting the construction of a new jail to help overhaul the District’s criminal-legal system is akin to applying a new coat of paint on a crumbling infrastructure — a proposal that, as demonstrated by the District’s decades-long failure to repair the jail, is an imprudent and futile exercise.