D.C. officials ignore growing pressure to end 23-hour covid lockdown at jail
WASHINGTON - D.C. officials said this week they have no plans to relax the virtually around-the-clock confinement of 1,500 jail inmates to their cells, despite growing pressure from lawmakers to end a coronavirus lockdown that has now lasted for 385 straight days.
The 23-hour-a-day lockdown has been denounced by experts as a human rights abuse and a form of mass solitary confinement.
On a call with D.C. Council members Friday and in a letter Wednesday to Charles Allen, D-Ward 6, chairman of the Council's judiciary and public safety committee, city officials said that lifting what they term a "medical stay-in-place" policy could needlessly expose jail inmates and staff to the risk of covid-19. They also pointed to federal court oversight, instituted after inmates sued the city last spring for inadequate virus containment policies, that they said tied their hands.
"We had a crisis, and covid is still with us," City Administrator Kevin Donahue told Council members Friday. "We can't have and don't want an outbreak of covid in the jail."
Donahue said the court has been "very prescriptive as to social distancing" and noted that only 58 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus in the last 10 months - evidence that the restrictive policy is working after hundreds of cases in the early months of the pandemic, before the lockdown began.
"We want to lift and ease up the medical stay in place, and we will do so as soon as we can," he said.
But those rationales were challenged by council members, including Allen and Christina Henderson, I-At Large. Allen noted that the federal injunction governing the jail's virus controls makes no reference to the 23-hour-per-day cell confinement that has been in place at the jail since last April. At the very least, he said, the city needs to begin planning for how it will end the lockdown safely.
"It doesn't appear there's an exit strategy," Allen said.
This week The Washington Post reported on the details of the ongoing lockdown and the lack of plans for ending it.
For more than a year, inmates have been locked in their cells - alone or sometimes with a cell mate - and released for only one hour each day on a rolling schedule, sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m. Until this month, for reasons that jail officials have not been unable to explain, inmates were not allowed outside, despite the decreased risk of infection in an outdoor setting.
Barber services and library access were halted, as were all in-person visits.
One inmate who spoke to The Post by phone from the jail, and has been there for 11 months, said he had begun to talk to himself and that many of the men around him had grown long hair, beards and fingernails. Jail officials said grooming services for inmates have resumed on a limited basis and will be available to all again in July.
The District's approach contrasts with those of other jails and prisons with more measured containment policies, according to corrections officials outside the city. The "23-and-1" lockdown has sometimes been used as a last resort, but usually as a short-term measure to extinguish an outbreak.
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz who has studied the effects of solitary confinement, said the city's extended lockdown was "very dangerous" and could do lasting harm.
The lockdown even became ammunition this week for Republican members of Congress - rarely among the advocates for incarcerated people in the nation's capital - amid a historic House vote to approve D.C. statehood. One congressman compared the city to "authoritarian governments such as Russia." Another said the District was "essentially torturing its inmates," WAMU reported.
The overwhelming majority of the jail's inmates are Black men. Many have not been found guilty of the charges they face.
Last spring the jail came under heavy criticism for a lack of protective equipment and basic social-distancing regulations, problems that afflicted many other correctional systems across the country. A judge ultimately ordered the city to better protect inmates, correctional officers and other jail workers.
In a letter to Allen this week, D.C. Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth said that until "there is a dismissal of the injunction foisted upon the agency" the jail could not change its policies.
But Steven Marcus, a staff attorney at the D.C. Public Defender Service who is representing inmates in the litigation, said the court had not required the lockdown, which he said would be unnecessary if the jail adopted other protection measures.
"There is absolutely nothing in the court's currently effective order requiring the jail to impose the harmful, continuous lockdown," Marcus said. "Indeed, if the Department of Corrections did comply with the court's order and implement surveillance testing, there would be no need for the department's across-the-board lockdown."
Donahue said Friday that as more of those who work or are incarcerated at the jail receive vaccines - about a third of inmates have received their first shot, according to jail officials - city officials hope to revisit the court's current social-distancing guidance.
Photo: The D.C. jail, where 1,500 inmates have been confined to their cells for 23 hours a day for more than a year to prevent covid-19 outbreaks.
Credit: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton