Federal judge seeks quick action in DC jails coronavirus lawsuit

A federal judge said she wants an independent evaluator to inspect conditions within D.C jails, to determine if sufficient steps are being taken to attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

In an emergency hearing, conducted by teleconference, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, heard arguments in the class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, on behalf of four inmates against the D.C. Department of Corrections.

In the past week, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the D.C. Jail have jumped from five to 28.

The suit claims residents are being instructed to use their own bar of soap and towels to clean sanitize their cells, rather than cleaning solutions, disposable hand towels and hand sanitizer. The Department of Corrections maintains steps have been taken to reduce the jail population, to provide more room for social distancing within D.C. Jail, which is made up of two adjoined buildings — the Correctional Treatment Facility and the Central Detention Facility.

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The plaintiffs’ lawyer said the conditions in the jail show deliberate indifference, with some inmates coughing up blood, and not being able to see a doctor.

“This is an emergency, this is a pandemic,” said Kollar-Kotelly, adding she wanted to speed the usual legal process, which can include weeks and months of motions.

During the 90-minute hearing, the judge said she wanted the plaintiffs and the defendant to try to agree on an independent expert or accredited group to inspect the conditions.

“I need someone to go in, unannounced, and see if something needs to be done,” Kollar-Kotelly said.

“There’s a big disconnect between what you say DOC is doing, and what the plaintiffs say is what’s happening.”

In-person meetings between lawyers and residents at the jail have been discontinued during the coronavirus crisis, and daily phone calls have been limited to 10 minutes. The lawsuit claims the conditions violate their rights to due process, and against cruel and unusual punishment.

Kollar-Kotelly suggested the plaintiffs and defendants come up with a plan, which would allow defendants to have more in-depth conversations with their attorney.

“You can’t have a discussion about a plea in 10 minutes. Use a throwaway phone. I’m not suggesting they take it back to their cell,” the judge offered. By late Tuesday, jail officials had agreed to expand daily calls to 30 minutes.

Plaintiff attorney Steven Marcus with the D.C. Public Defender Service, and defense attorney Micah Bluming for the corrections department agreed to provide suggestions to the judge in a follow-up teleconference Wednesday.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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