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D.C. Jail Discourse Sheds Light on Woes of Pretrial Defendants

The U.S. Marshals Service’s (USMS) recent findings about D.C. Jail not only sparked the transferral of pretrial defendants to Pennsylvania but fueled ongoing discussion about how to improve conditions at the facility and solicited recommendations from a jails and justice task force.

There have also been calls to broaden the scope of the conversation and shift focus to the prosecutors and judges who dictate whether Black and brown defendants get to fight their case within the confines of D.C. Jail or at home with the support of family and friends.

“People being held pretrial should be able to go home and be in their home until they have their court date,” said Qiana Johnson, co-founder of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, a Black-led abolitionist community defense hub for Blacks in the D.C. metropolitan area at risk of state-sanctioned violence in all its manifestations.

“A lot of people are afraid to have that conversation because we as a community believe in punishment,” she said.

Last weekend, Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, established in March, launched its court watch program through which Johnson and others sit in the back of courtrooms, collect notes and aggregate data about judges’ decisions then use that information to inform their grassroots campaigning.

Johnson implemented a similar strategy in Prince George’s County years before she, Makia Green and Nee Nee Taylor founded Harriet’s Wildest Dreams. She said it has provided her ample opportunity to highlight what pretrial defendants often endure when they’re charged and detained for low-level offenses.

In addition to losing their job or their housing, many pretrial defendants who have been transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg must overcome a greater set of hurdles.

“Taking people who are awaiting trial to another jurisdiction opens them up to due process issues and lessens the likelihood of them getting to and from court on time,” Johnson said.

“We’re prolonging their stay even more. The way they’re being treated is criminal. We are talking about people who can be sent to home confinement until their day in court.”

Immediately following its surprise inspection of D.C. Jail, the USMS sent a letter to D.C. Department of Corrections [DOC] Director Quincy Booth citing smells of marijuana and body odor throughout the correctional detention facility along with cold food, sewage, decisions by prison officials to shut off water to inmates as punishment and other incidents of mistreatment by staff members.

Ensuring a Humane Environment for Pretrial Defendants 

On Nov. 10, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and USMS entered into an agreement to improve conditions at D.C. Jail. The jointly-signed memorandum of understanding outlined a strategy that includes the development of a plan to address concerns and USMS’ consistent updates to the D.C.government about DOC’s progress in implementing those strategies.

In a statement, the Executive Office of the Mayor called this agreement a major step in ensuring that the District provides a humane environment for pretrial defendants and inmates serving out their sentences.

A D.C. Jail employee who requested anonymity questioned whether DOC would ever fulfill its obligation to improve conditions at the correctional detention facility.

The employee of nearly a decade said jail officials often place inmates in solitary confinement for arbitrary reasons and keep them dependent on prescription medications. They also recounted instances when jail officials hid improprieties with paperwork and discouraged investigations into how drugs enter the facility.

“Officials will talk about [the need to do] something and not do it,” the D.C. Jail employee said. “Before the U.S. Marshals came in, the court already held the jail in contempt and they did nothing. There’s no rule of law. Everyone in management is looking at what they can get out of a situation and not what they can give. It all goes back to them being petty, not taking the situation seriously.”

Fear Haunts the Hall of D.C. Jail

In a Nov. 2 statement about its surprise visit, USMS announced that 400 D.C. Jail inmates would be transferred to USP Lewisburg. On a recent WIN-TV broadcast, ANC Commissioner Joel Castón said that has happened for 97 people. A USMS representative declined to comment on the number of those moved so far.

Castón, who avoided the same outcome with the help of attorneys, called on legal organizations to help his constituents still fighting to stay in the District. As he has done on previous occasions, Castón described this situation as a reason why the District needs statehood.

“Fear is haunting the halls and hearts of my constituents. No one wants to be transferred to Lewisburg, which has a record of being inhumane,” said Castón, a D.C. Jail inmate whose constituency includes D.C. Jail, Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter and a new development.

“We have outside forces coming inside of our locale and with a remedy that none of my constituents endorsed. There’s no way to perform your legal duties so far away. It’s also hard to maintain a relationship with your family members,” he said.

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