Pandemic lockdown at DC jail begins to ease, but not by much

A strict lockdown at the D.C. jail has started to ease, but inmates are still being kept in their cells nearly all day as part of an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus throughout the facility.

For more than a year, inmates were confined to their cells for 23 hours a day.

Now, according to the D.C. Department of Corrections, inmates are being allowed out of their cells for two hours per day instead of just one.

“DOC will continue to adjust resident out-of-cell time as COVID restrictions ease and vaccinations increase,” the corrections department said in a document detailing the lockdown policy.

Inmates have been allowed a minimum of one hour of outdoor recreation in small groups, but that is being increased slightly.

“Beginning May 15, 2021, the DOC will expand outdoor recreation to a minimum of 1.5 hours per week for each housing unit,” the department said.

Video visits will start up again. By June 7, limited video visitation is set to resume, but will be dependent on staff availability.

Such visits, where inmates can chat with people via closed-circuit cameras, were suspended at the start of the pandemic “to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by curtailing community movement and to protect DOC staff from potential COVID exposure with community members visiting the facility,” the department said.

But D.C. council member Charles Allen, who chairs the public safety committee, sees the changes as insufficient.

“This is not an exit plan,” Allen told The Washington Post. “I recognize this is a challenging situation, but people who are awaiting their day in court or serving their sentence deserve better.”

Allen said that if corrections officials “can’t create an exit strategy” soon, he will hold a public oversight hearing and get the council involved.

City Administrator Kevin Donahue has defended the lockdown policy amid accusations of human rights violations, saying the policy has been effective in stopping the virus from becoming widespread among the jail’s 1,500 inmates.

According to public data from the D.C. Department of Health, 263 residents at the D.C. jail and 209 corrections staff have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began, with many of the cases stemming from an outbreak at the facility last spring. A 51-year-old inmate died from COVID-19 in April of last year.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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