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Advocates: Racial Undertones Color Federal Response to Prevailing Conditions in D.C. Jail

Since the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, nearly 40 white defendants have been in D.C. Jail awaiting trial alongside hundreds of mostly Black, District residents.

The gravity of their case, and motions they filed detailing poor medical care, assaults and isolation, have shed a national spotlight on dismal conditions which local activists and criminal justice advocates have protested against for years.

That’s why when a surprise inspection by the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) put into motion the transfer of 400 defendants to a federal facility in Pennsylvania, some, like The Rev. Graylan Hagler, couldn’t help but explore the racial implications of this situation.

“The Jan. 6 rioter [Thomas Sibeck] basically went to court and said it was a toxic environment and the court ruled in his favor. We’ve been arguing this all along,” Hagler said.

In the aftermath of his detainment at Metropolitan Police Department headquarters in 2018, Graylan has organized for better jail conditions, even joining a task force dedicated to that cause.

On Wednesday, Nov. 10, he counted among dozens of public witnesses scheduled to speak before D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety at an oversight hearing about the conditions at D.C. Jail.

Hagler, who recounted speaking with Allen about this issue, said elected officials must direct funding toward revitalizing the jails, not entertain the possibility of public-private partnerships.

“The conditions that Black and brown people are subjected to are not acceptable,” he said. “What happened is people were shocked by the optics that a white rioter from the January 6 insurrection would be released because of toxic conditions in the jail, while Black and brown people were still subjected to the same toxicity.”

Public Officials React to U.S. Marshals Announcement 

A report from the USMS sent to D.C. Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth immediately following its inspection cited smells of marijuana and body odor throughout the facility, cold food, sewage, decisions by prison officials to shut off water to inmates as punishment, and other incidents of mistreatment by staff members.

These findings, and the subsequent decision to transfer 400 defendants to a federal institution, compelled comments from D.C. Councilmember Trayon White (D-Ward 8) about complaints he has heard from his constituents about jail conditions. Arthur Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union – DC, which filed a lawsuit against D.C. Jail, in conjunction with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia during the pandemic, made similar allusions.

On social media, Tony Lewis Jr. and other returning citizens advocates explained how the mass transfer of inmates further splintered families and demonstrated the District’s lack of autonomy in criminal justice matters.

The alleged Jan. 6 insurrectionists didn’t count among the 400 defendants transferred to U.S. Penitentiary Lewisburg.

Had it not been for his attorneys, ANC Commissioner Joel Castón (SMD 7F07) would not have been able to enjoy similar privileges.

Castón, whose constituency includes D.C. Jail, Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter and a new apartment complex, spent days attempting to reverse the order of his transfer to the federal penitentiary.

His efforts proved successful on Tuesday when, in their argument, Castón’s attorneys mentioned his upcoming appearance before the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety and noted that the USMS’ report didn’t speak poorly of D.C. Jail’s Correctional Treatment Facility, where Caston lived.

As he reflected on his close call, Caston also noted the federal government’s infringement on District affairs.

“The fact that an outside force can tell D.C. what to do with its own residents highlights the need for statehood,” Caston said. “People are speaking on the behalf of constituents who don’t want to be transferred. Their ties are severed from families and they can’t fight their cases.”

Last week, on the day following the USMS’ visit, U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA14) and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX1) visited D.C. Jail and subsequently delivered a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) which requested better transparency and oversight of the facility.

At a news conference last Wednesday, Bowser said she instructed Chris Geldart, her deputy mayor for public safety, to delve deeper into the USMS report.

A Clarion Call for Long-Term Solutions 

Meanwhile, calls have increased for more tangible, long-term solutions, particularly those mentioned in a report compiled by the District’s Task Force on Jails and Justice.

The report, released earlier this year, outlined 80 recommendations, including the construction of a new facility for District inmates currently in the federal prison system and alternatives to D.C. Jail for criminal defendants fighting specific charges.

According to the report, fulfilling those goals would ensure the transfer of nearly 4,800 inmates from federal penitentiaries to serve the rest of their sentences in the District within a decade. It would also address issues of racial inequities highlighted during the pandemic.

A D.C. Jail employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity bemoaned what they described as inhumane treatment experienced by inmates since the start of the pandemic. They said despite the gradual shift to normalcy in the outside world, little has changed for inmates who remain mired in an environment not conducive to their development.

“The inmates are not fully back to their regular schedule so they’re being restricted to the time they can come out,” the employee said. “They’re forcing them into vaccinations too to do certain things, like go to religious services. The programming has gotten terrible since COVID-19. They’re not doing anything with the funds [but just] buying more technology and tablets. But there’s no programming.”

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