Lawsuit alleges DC Jail confinement measures are unconstitutional

A federal judge weighing a lawsuit against the District over conditions at the DC Jail has been told by independent inspectors that there are substantial challenges at the jail due to the coronavirus and staff shortages.

The Public Defender Service and the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia are suing the D.C. Department of Corrections, alleging that conditions of confinement at the DC Jail as a consequence of measures to tackle COVID-19 are unconstitutional.

On Wednesday, two court-appointed inspectors told Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly about the ramped-up safeguards that the D.C. Department of Corrections had put in place in recent days. These include distributing masks to all inmates and staff, ample supplies of soap for inmates and a variety of cleaning solutions, including disinfectant and sanitizer.

But the inspectors also said chronic staff shortages of corrections officers at the jail have been worsened by officers being out sick or in quarantine because of the coronavirus or exposure to inmates who tested positive.

Grace Lopes, one of the inspectors, told Kollar-Kotelly that on three unannounced visits to the DC Jail on April 10, April 11 and April 12, she saw inmates not wearing face masks outside of their cells, despite the jail’s policy concerning COVID-19. In addition, others wore masks that were “ill-fitting, soiled or ripped.”

However, Lopes said during the federal hearing held over the telephone that the jail received a 60-day supply of masks last Friday, and they were distributed the following day.

Lopes also reported that shortages of officers and supervisors have produced an inability to properly oversee the well-being of inmates.

She and her fellow inspector, Mark Jordan, said that while units had ordered that only five inmates at a time could be outside of their cells at any one time, they frequently saw inmates of higher numbers, as many as 10-15, congregating outside cells without social distancing.

The judge was told that 82 inmates were tested for coronavirus by April 10 — 52 tested positive, 26 were negative, with the rest of the results still pending.

Inspectors said when an inmate tests positive for the coronavirus, that inmate is placed in isolation. Staff assigned to the area where the coronavirus was detected are released from duty for 14 days.

The other inmates in the housing unit are put in quarantine for 14 days, and their temperatures are checked twice daily.

Kollar-Kotelly asked numerous questions of the inspectors about the health and safety conditions they found at the jail, and she expressed particular concern upon learning that inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 and placed into isolation have no access to a telephone, and therefore no ability to consult with lawyers about their pending cases before the court.

The judge also inquired about parole violators, and she was told that there are 165 among the current jail population.

Kollar-Kotelly requested information about the number of those facing felony versus misdemeanor counts, suggesting that safety at the jail could be improved if the population could be reduced and inmates separated by proper distance.

The inspectors are scheduled to provide the judge a written report on Friday, and the judge is scheduled to hear from lawyers early next week.

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