In the days after the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation mandating pre-trial detention for those accused of violent crimes, grassroots organizers who frequent District courtrooms said they’re preparing for the onslaught of new D.C. Jail detainees who will experience health and safety issues in the coming weeks and months.
In speaking about her court watching experience, Qiana Johnson, an organizer with Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, said that she often sees judges who aren’t often well versed in whether they can or cannot detain defendants while they await trial. She said their lack of leadership precipitates dysfunction in the courtroom.
Another concern that Johnson, a returning citizen from neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, raised centered on what she described as prosecutors’ eagerness to force defendants into plea deals so they can avoid a trial, and more importantly the perils of pre-trial detention.
Such strategies, Johnson said, don’t only ignore the root causes of crime, but further traumatize Black and brown District residents who are left to fend for themselves in D.C. Jail against other detainees, guards, and overall conditions that threaten quality of life.
“They’re bringing in an influx [of detainees] when they don’t have enough [guards] to manage D.C. Jail,” Johnson said. “There are roaches and rats and [people being served] rotten food. All that speaks to the Department of Corrections not having the capacity to care for people. Prosecutors are using jail as a bargaining chip to get a win.”
The D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) didn’t respond to an Informer inquiry about its guard-detainee ratio and ability to maintain order in its correctional facilities.
On June 13, Johnson counted among dozens of public and government witnesses who testified during a hearing that the D.C. Council Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety conducted about the Food Regulation Ensures Safety and Hospitality Specialty Training Aids Re-entry Transition and Success Act, also known as the FRESH STARTS Act.
D.C. Councilmembers Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), Christina Henderson (I-At large), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Matt Frumin (D-Ward 3), Robert White (D-At large), and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) introduced the FRESH STARTS Act in February.
If passed, the FRESH STARTS Act would require the serving of nutrient-dense raw fruits and vegetables at correctional facilities operated by the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) — including Central Detention Facility, Correctional Treatment Facility, and Central Cell Block. It would also mandate DOC’s adoption of the Good Food Purchasing Program, strengthen oversight of food and nutrition in correctional facilities, and establish a task force to explore and propose long-term improvements to food service.
Days before the hearing, a person representing an alleged member of the Kennedy Street Crew took to social media complaining about the conditions that he and his co-defendants have encountered at D.C. Jail since their arrest on June 27. That complaint prompted Lewis George’s inquiry to DOC Director Dr. Thomas Faust about the well-being of detainees and whether DOC had been providing them with food, water, and shower and recreation time.
During last week’s hearing, Faust testified in opposition to the FRESH STARTS Act, saying that DOC already provides many of the services and support mandated by the legislation. He also said that adhering to the stipulations outlined in the legislation would require significantly more than the $6.5 million that DOC has in its annual food services budget.
Another qualm that Faust brought up concerned a portion of the FRESH STARTS Act that requires DOC detainees involved in food preparation to be paid no less than the living wage. He said the pay disparity between the food preparers and other detainees employed in different DOC sectors could raise tensions in the correctional facility.
“For some there is a belief that operating a jail means housing individuals without recognizing their individual needs,” Faust said. “This is not true. We operate with a commitment to providing services that positively impact the population whether they face a long period of incarceration or are preparing to enter the community. We are already in compliance.”
In a statement to The Informer, Pinto expressed a desire to work with DOC to ensure that FRESH STARTS Act’s is implemented in a manner that addresses concerns about the nutritional and job training needs of D.C. Jail detainees.
“[I]t’s clear to me that much more is needed to improve the quality and nutritional value of the meals at the jail,” Pinto said. “While we must be cognizant of costs, and in fact our research has shown that some states like Maine have been able to improve their food service in a way that actually saves money, adequate nutrition is a fundamental human need that we have an obligation to provide to individuals in our care. In addition, we have a public safety obligation to prepare residents for life post-release and prevent recidivism and I am committed to partnering with DOC to ensure we can establish a robust hospitality training program in an sustainable, effective manner.”
Each year, DOC records 4,300 intakes and 4,400 releases. Nearly 40 people per day are housed before arraignment.
In April, a group of DOC detainees filed a class-action lawsuit against the District government alleging that “systemic deficiencies” in the D.C. Jail healthcare system caused severe health problems.
Examples provided in the lawsuit include a failure to provide medication to a detainee with chronic heart failure, delays in diagnosing a mass on a detainee’s testicle, and inadequate sanitation supplies for a patient with chronic urology problems. According to the lawsuit, another detainee had nearly gone blind during his incarceration because D.C. Jail didn’t provide him with medicinal eye drops and prescription medication.
The lawsuit comes several months after a U.S. Marshals Service inspection, in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 arrests, led to the removal of 400 people from the Central Detention Facility. Earlier this year, detainee Stephen Bragg died of what the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined as natural causes after collapsing during the intake process.
Such circumstances, and a COVID-related court backlog, sparked conversation about how the expansion of pre-trial detention would complicate, or sabotage, crime prevention efforts.
Several hours before the D.C. Council passed the Priority Public Safety Emergency Amendment Act last week, Lewis George introduced an amendment striking the adult pre-trial detention portion of the bill. All of her council colleagues, except Gray, voted against the amendment on July 11. Lewis George later voted against the bill in its entirety, calling it an infringement on civil liberties.
Days after the emergency bill’s passage, Gray explained why he voted in support of Lewis George’s amendment, calling her concerns about pre-trial detention valid and deserving of further scrutiny.
“Though I knew that Councilmember Lewis George’s amendment would not succeed, I wanted to show support for my colleague and her concerns about pre-trial detention,” Gray told the Informeer. “She put forward issues that merit our consideration. Indeed, we may be revisiting this topic later in the year when we consider a permanent version of the emergency bill that was debated on Tuesday.”
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