2nd Inspection of DC Jail Shows More Changes Needed

A second court-ordered inspection of the DC Jail shows that problems remain despite orders for the DC Department of Corrections (DC DOC) to ensure the health and safety of inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who is presiding over a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of four inmates, did not issue any orders, she expressed concerns during a teleconference May 11 about inmate access to confidential legal calls as well as social distancing and other problems in the jail. 

Prisoners had complained they were not able to make legal calls in private. Inspectors found that now inmates who are housed in non-quarantine units have access to legal calls in an office with a case manager present. Inmates in isolation units are provided with a telephone on a cart that travels from cell to cell. 

Judge Kollar-Kotelly said this system is still not sufficient.   

“This is still a problem.“The schedule has gotten slightly better. [There is] no guesswork for calls. Thirty minutes instead of 10 minutes makes a big difference, but if someone is around to hear what [inmates] say, it is still a problem.” 

Judge Kollar-Kotelly said the fact that case managers or anyone else can hear the conversation would affect the inmate’s ability to not only be truthful with their attorney, but also express concerns. 

Eric Glover, counsel for DC DOC said there is a security issue if no one can see the inmate. He said the department is looking at alternatives, such as additional cell phones, to provide inmates with access to legal calls. 

The second inspection, which was conducted by the court-appointed examiners,  Grace M. Lopes and Mark Jordan, also showed a continuing issue with inmates housed in non-quarantine units being able to submit sick call requests and being seen by medical staff.

According to the inspectors, medical staff cannot monitor inmates in non-quarantine housing units and the request forms supplied to inmates were either the wrong forms or had other problems. The inspectors attributed some of the problem to staff shortages.

The inspectors also found social distancing is still a problem even though the DC inmate population has decreased. The number of detainees at the central detention facility (CDF) has decreased from 1020 inmates, which was listed in the inspectors first report in April, to 968 inmates as of May 8. The correctional treatment facility (CTF) saw a reduction from 400 inmates to 368 as of May 8.

The inspectors said it seemed as though staffing limitations undercut the jail’s ability to enforce the safety precaution, adding that they were still waiting on data about personnel staffing. 

To resolve the staffing issue, the DC DOC has sent out return to work notices to staff who took leave that was not COVID-19 related and is reviewing applications for new staff. The jail also contracted with an independent armed security agency to assist with hospital transfers. 

Part of the staff’s inability to enforce social distancing, according to the inspectors,  stems from the chaotic nature of some housing units. 

As part of the jail’s adjusted COVID-19 policy, inmates are required to be in their cells for 23-hours a day. Each inmate is allotted one hour per day out of their cell. To provide more social distancing, fewer inmates are allowed out of their cells, at a time. 

The  new schedule has  inmates receiving their allotted hour at all times of the day, even early morning hours. However, inmates in the CDF complain they are not receiving the hour each day. 

Inspectors say various incidents and disturbances from a stressful mix of factors, such as fights, inmates refusing to go back in cells, and objects, food and other substances being thrown contribute to out of cell time not being afforded to every inmate on a daily basis. 

It’s a tense environment where many inmates feel as if they are being unduly punished because they are locked down for a significant part of the day, an inspector said.  

A final report is slated to be submitted on May 20. 

LaTrina Antoine wrote this story