The D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) has agreed to five unannounced inspections of the D.C. Jail over the next six months as part of a recent class-action lawsuit settlement. These inspections will be measuring the prison’s compliance with COVID-19 protocols after the lawsuit raised unsafe practices at the jail.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been concern for the health of incarcerated people: during the first pandemic wave, about 60 percent of incarcerated people were quarantined and had a per capita infection rate 15 times that of the entire D.C. population. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of D.C. and the Public Defender Service (PDS) filed a class-action lawsuit against the DOC in 2020 to ensure safe conditions for incarcerated people.
“[DOC] disregarded [the risks of COVID-19] by failing to take comprehensive, timely, and proper steps to stem the spread of the virus,” Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said in a preliminary injunction.
The lawsuit included claims that the staff had no masks or gloves, that there was no social distancing, and that people were told to use their own towels to wipe down their cells. There were also accusations that the “sick call slips” incarcerated people use to self-report COVID-19 symptoms had not been distributed and collected properly. According to Steven Marcus, a PDS staff attorney, a court-appointed inspector received the wrong form when touring the jail.
The D.C. Jail initially responded to the allegations of improper hygienic practices and protective equipment by reducing the number of incarcerated people by 500 between March and June 2020.
When the case began, Judge Kollar-Kotelly ordered the D.C. Jail to provide sufficient cleaning products and the ability to make confidential legal calls while the pandemic continued to restrict in-person visits. The jail was also required to provide appropriate medical care to incarcerated people within 24 hours of reporting health issues.
This is not the only time the D.C. Jail has received complaints regarding its practices. An inspection done in October 2021 revealed that the jail was not compliant with the federal standards for prison detention. As a result of these findings, a plan was developed to transfer about 400 of the 1500 incarcerated people to the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA. The new settlement, however, does not fully address the new allegations brought up by the October inspection.
On Feb. 14, nearly two years after the lawsuit was filed, the two parties reached a settlement. The following day, the plan was submitted to receive a federal judge’s preliminary approval.
“This settlement is an important victory for protecting the health and safety of residents at the D.C. Jail, especially as the pandemic continues to evolve,” attorney Zoé Friedland of the PDS special litigation division said.
The agreement includes continued access to hygiene and cleaning supplies and timely medical care, which will be monitored by an independent epidemiologist paid by the D.C. government for a six-month term.
The settlement also mandates five unannounced inspections of the D.C. Jail. The requirement for the other inspections will be eliminated if the jail is in compliance for two consecutive unannounced visits.
Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine, will be conducting the inspections. His inspections will make note of seven aspects of the jail’s compliance, including masking of staff, access to showers and recreation, and quarantine unit conditions.
The D.C. government will also continue to release information regarding jail vaccination and infection rates and DOC COVID-19-related policies and procedures. The D.C. Jail plans to continue contact tracing for incarcerated people and staff who test positive, requiring staff to wear face masks, and promoting social distancing.
Even though the settlement will not resolve all the issues that the D.C. Jail population currently faces, there is still hope that it will lead to better conditions for those incarcerated. “In our experience, unannounced inspections are the most effective way to get the D.C. Jail to improve its behavior,” Friedland said.