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Incarcerated persons in D.C. jail transferred due to mistreatment

November 23, 2021


Illustration by Deborah Han

An unannounced inspection of the D.C. jail, formally known as the Central Detention Facility (CDF), resulted in the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) determining that the conditions of the jail do not meet the standards for federal prison detention. Due to the findings from the inspection conducted between Oct. 18 and Oct. 23, 400 out of roughly 1500 incarcerated individuals will be transferred from the CDF to the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA, nearly 200 miles away. 

The inspection follows multiple complaints that were filed from the lawyers of those who were incarcerated due to crimes relating to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. This past year, incarcerated persons faced prolonged periods of confinement, such as 23-hour-a-day lockdowns to reduce the spread of COVID-19, which increased the number of complaints. 

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Washington called for an investigation of the CDF after being involved in a court case in which jail officials did not turn over the medical paperwork necessary to get the defendant, an accused Florida Proud Boys member, surgery for his broken wrist. Lamberth demanded that the D.C. Department of Corrections be investigated for “violating the civil rights” of those held due to involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Despite about 93 percent of the CDF being nonwhite, these health and safety concerns gained the most attention only once the white Jan. 6 insurgents that are currently incarcerated started complaining. Black adults between the ages of 18 to 25 represent only 5.5 percent of D.C.’s population, but make up a large majority of the incarcerated population; one in five arrests are young Black adults. These statistics reflect D.C. police’s tendency to disproportionately arrest Black individuals.  

The actual inspection, which was ordered by the acting marshal for U.S. District Court in Washington Lamont J. Ruffin, uncovered the mistreatment of incarcerated persons, including abuses by guards, denial of food and water, and unsanitary plumbing. One incarcerated person reported being sprayed with pepper spray and not being allowed to shower, causing an infection. 

On Nov. 2, the USMS announced a plan to transfer between 100 and 120 people per day starting on Nov. 8. The plan stated that those with court dates within the next month will remain in D.C. until after their hearing. People newly arrested on federal charges will be incarcerated at the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia. 

Those incarcerated in the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), which includes those who had been involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection, will not be transferred as the facility passed inspection.

The plan has not been carried out to its full extent. During an oversight hearing on Nov. 10, Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart announced that 90 people were transferred on Nov. 9, and 47 more were scheduled for Nov. 10, but no other transfers have been planned for the week following the oversight hearing. It is unclear if more transfers will occur in the future due to the conflicting opinions of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the USMS.

Bowser and her administration are firmly against the federal incarceration transfer as it moves incarcerated individuals, most from the D.C. area, farther from their families. “The executive is strongly against the move of residents in the custody of the USMS,” Geldart, who oversees public safety agencies in D.C, said

The transfer would also put a large distance between incarcerated persons and their defense lawyers and federal courthouses, forcing them to switch to online communications. Some feel that using online platforms cannot allow for proper, in-depth discussion of materials and plea deals between lawyers and their clients. “[Transfer plans] would now interfere with the recent progress the defense has been able to achieve through these in-person legal visits,” attorney Stephen Brennwald said.

At the Nov. 10 oversight hearing, the District announced it had formed an agreement with the federal government to improve living conditions in the CDF. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) will provide a “detention liaison” to help Department of Corrections (DOC) staff and consultants assess the problems in need of fixing. Under the MOU, neither the DOC nor the USMS can release public information without receiving consent from the other party. 

“We’re hoping that through this process we can get the folks who have been transferred back,” Geldart said. However, the USMS controls where the people in its custody are incarcerated, and the MOU does not include any information regarding the returning of the incarcerated persons. 

The DOC also denies that water has been shut off or denied to residents as claimed, saying that pipes were inspected and that the food vendor will deliver extra drinks with all meals. “We realize there are some systemic issues that have persisted at DOC,” Geldart admitted. However, he does not see the conditions of the CDF to warrant the relocation.

Those currently incarcerated are worried for their futures within the penitentiary system. Joel Castón, who is currently incarcerated in the CTF complex, has described a sense of fear spreading throughout the jail. People are worried about being transferred and having to endure even worse treatment at other facilities and experience difficulties contacting lawyers and loved ones. 

“You feel like an animal,” Davon Patterson, who is currently incarcerated in the D.C. jail, said. CDF residents are asking for a clear plan to build a new facility to replace the current jail, which Geldart acknowledged but did not release a timeline for such a project. 

Since many of the incarcerated persons are being held pre-trial and without conviction, advocates are asking authorities to release such individuals from the CDF entirely. An amendment to the pretrial release statute would allow judges to consider the conditions of the CDF before recommending incarceration. 

“The courts can stop this, and they can let our people go. We have an immediate call to free them all,” Qiana Johnson said, the executive director of Life After Release and co-conductor of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams.

Organizations and government officials have united to push for the cessation of the transfer. “We all agree: everyone who is in our jail or under our supervised care should be treated humanely and have safe conditions,” Mayor Bowser said.



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