DC’s Criminal Justice System’s Response to COVID-19

The DC Department of Correction’s (DC DOC) response to the coronavirus has sparked numerous questions about what the department is doing to keep workers and inmates healthy.

As of April 8, COVID-19 cases continued to grow in Washington, DC, reaching 1440 confirmed positive cases, according to a website on the virus by the government of the District of Columbia.

On April 7, the Washington Post reported that a DC Federal judge ordered an inspection of DC Jail facilities by an independent evaluator. The order came after the ACLU and the Public Defender’s Service filed a class action lawsuit March 30 against the department for the facility’s failure to protect incarcerated individuals from the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the lawsuit, the DC DOC fragrantly disregarded “basic public health measures to limit the spread and severity of a COVID-19 outbreak inside the D.C. Jail.” The lawsuit alleges the DC DOC is:

  • delaying medical attention for inmates showing symptoms;
  • failing to screen new detainees, staff, lawyers and others entering the jail;
  • failing to provide soap pr hand sanitizer for inmates to clean their hands;
  • withholding adequate cleaning supplies, including gloves, masks, and other necessary equipment to facilitate thorough cleaning of the facilities;
  • failing to quarantine 65 individuals who had contact with a deputy U.S. Marshal who tested positive;
  • failing to equip staff and jail inmates with sufficient gloves and masks to use when preparing and serving food;
  • continuing to hold group therapy meetings that did not allow inmates to practice Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for social distancing

The federal judge said she is still deciding on whether to release prisoners after the number of positive cases increased from five to 28, the Post reported.

According to DC DOC’s site, the department has put in place a plan to limit the spread of the virus throughout its facilities.

The plan includes following a guidance released by the DC Department of Health and the CDC. DC DOC says it has taken steps, including providing inmates with up to two bars of soap each week and weekly clothing exchanges for inmates.

All new inmates to the facilities are screened for the virus and quarantined for 14 days. According to the site, if a resident tests positive they are given a mask and sent to a medical professional for evaluation.

Inmates, especially those with medical conditions, are closely monitored and receive prioritized medical visits, according to the site.

DC DOC also states that staff members have access to hand sanitizers because they do not have the same “immediate” access to soap and water like the inmates.

Staff who are working in the isolation and quarantine units, transportation unit, along with staff who perform medical or escort details and medical staff responding to positive COVID-19 screens are supplied with personal protective equipment that include N-95 respirators, according to the DC DOC site.

A medical stay in place was implemented on April 4 at the facilities.

Under the stay in place, inmates are largely restricted to their cells. There is still a recreation schedule, but inmates are limited to being out in groups of five to allow for social distancing.

Inmates are granted 30 minutes per day out of their cell to shower, use the phone and get their cells wiped down, according to the site. All visits with attorneys were stopped unless the inmate is in trial.

The full list of DC DOC’s response to the pandemic can be found here.

DC Superior Court

As of April 8, DC Superior Court is operating through four courtrooms for adult arraignments and presentments, family court emergencies, neglect and juvenile hearings, criminal and domestic violence emergencies and civil, probate and tax emergencies, according to the DC Courts site. Most of the hearings are being conducted remotely.

In the wake of COVID-19, several inmates have filed motions for release.

On April 8, 26 cases were heard by judges at DC Superior Court. Some cases were heard via telecommunications while others were held in person.

Six inmates were released.

Michael Taylor, who was booked as a fugitive from justice, was not held specifically because of COVID-19 per the DC Courts docket. All of those who were released were given conditions they are expected to follow. Those conditions were placed under seal.

Four inmates, who were charged with felony crimes, were denied release. According to DC Courts, one inmate is charged with assault with a deadly weapon and another inmate is charged with carrying a pistol outside of a home or business. The other two inmates are being held on drug-related charges.

A ruling on Vincente Tillman’s motion for release was delayed until April 10 when DC Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz said he would make a determination. On March 10, Tillman pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm and unauthorized use of a vehicle. He is currently awaiting sentencing, which is scheduled to occur on May 24.

Charges were dropped for seven defendants who were classified as fugitives from justice.

Four defendants did not show up nor did they call in to their hearings. Bench warrants were issued for their arrests.

In a press release, the U.S. Attorneys Office of the District of Columbia opposed the release of violent offenders. “This pandemic should not be used as a basis to release violent criminals onto the streets of Washington,” U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Shea said in the April 4 release. “Now more than ever, as law enforcement authorities are being stretched thin due to the impact of COVID-19, the rule of law must be maintained.”

There are no oral arguments through May 31 for the DC Court of Appeals (CoA). However the CoA will handle emergency matters, according to the DC Courts site.

Follow D.C. Witness for updates to the criminal justice system’s reponse to the COVID-19 pandemic.