Renewed push for inmate release after coronavirus cases in DC jail climb 25-fold

Nearly a month after a federal judge ruled D.C.’s Department of Corrections must do more cleaning and increase safety precautions in the city’s jail complex after five inmates contracted COVID-19, the number of coronavirus infections has ballooned to 180 — a 25-fold increase — according to District data.

In a motion filed May 15 asking Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to immediately appoint an expert to help thin the jail population, the ACLU said the risk of infection for inmates is over 13 times greater than the rate of infection in D.C. as a whole.

In its motion, the ACLU wrote that the Department of Corrections has responded to Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s earlier April 19 order to improve sanitation, access to medical care and increased physical distancing “in the same way they did to this global pandemic: slowly and insufficiently.”

The motion cites an oral report to the judge in a May 11 telephone briefing from two court-appointed observers, who said sanitation at the jail remains “clearly especially deficient at the jail,” and that availability of cleaning supplies varies.

In some cases inmates were given “four or five paper towels,” to clean their cells, but others “continue to rely upon the ripped towels and the ripped T-shirts.”

In the motion, ACLU lawyers also said insufficient jail staffing is hampering the judge’s insistence that physical distancing standards be met.

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Lack of staff is also affecting conditions for inmates who have been isolated from others after testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

Some inmates, according to the motion, “’hadn’t been allowed to shower within the past couple of days.”

Other inmates did not have reliable access to a phone and some “are locked in their cells for days on end,” the motion said.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s April 19 order granted ACLU’s request for improved conditions but denied the organization’s request to appoint an expert to make recommendations regarding how many inmates should be ordered released to ensure prisoners could be housed consistently with CDC guidance.

In its new motion in its class action suit, the ACLU repeats its request for an expert trained in reducing jail populations: “Because COVID-19 presents a severe risk to the health and safety of the proposed class and because Defendants continue to act with deliberate indifference to that risk in a manner that has led to a tragically high rate of infection, the Court should begin that process now.”

The request for Kollar-Kotelly to make an immediate ruling is based on the fact that she had earlier ruled the ACLU was likely to prevail at trial, even when only five inmates were sick.

Lawyers for the Department of Corrections have yet to file a motion objecting to the request for the judge to appoint an expert to help reduce the number of inmates at the city’s jail facilities.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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