DC Jail
DC Jail Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A single bar of soap and a towel to use after showers are the only things the D.C. Department of Corrections gives DC Jail inmates to help keep themselves and their cells clean in response to the coronavirus, according to a lawsuit filed against DOC’s leadership yesterday.

When the soap runs out, according to the lawsuit, that’s it.

DOC has “not provided additional soap free of charge since the first distribution of the single bar of soap, nor did [DOC] inform residents when they will receive more soap,” the lawsuit says. “Consequently, some residents have already run out of their single allotted bar, while others are not using the single bar because they do not know when the next bar will come.”

The ACLU–DC and the D.C. Public Defender Service filed the claim in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of four inmates—Edward Banks, D’Angelo Phillips, Keon Jackson, and Eric Smith—and are seeking class action status to cover the rest of the approximately 1,600 inmates housed in DOC’s two local facilities. The PDS filed a separate, sweeping motion in D.C. Superior Court last week asking for a judge to release all people serving misdemeanor sentences.

DOC Director Quincy Booth and Warden Lennard Johnson are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

In an emailed statement from a DOC spokesperson, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue says “While we cannot comment on pending litigation, we can say that since the earliest stages of this unprecedented pandemic, we have been planning for the safety and well-being of all vulnerable populations in the District, which includes residents in the custody of the Department of Corrections. As this public health emergency evolves, we will continue working to keep all residents and workers safe and healthy.”

As of today, six inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 80 are quarantined due to the virus.

The lawsuit contains a long list of what inmates consider DOC’s entirely inadequate response to COVID-19, including ineffective quarantining, failures to screen inmates and other people coming into the facilities, disregard for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidance, and lack of access to prompt medical care.

Public defenders and investigators have reported seeing inmates with coughs, chest pain, chills, fevers, and body aches, the lawsuit alleges. Inmates say “it takes days before you get a visit with anyone from the medical unit.”

On March 13, DOC staff began taking visitors’ temperatures with non-contact infrared thermometers, the lawsuit says.

“These thermometers are either broken or mis-used by Defendants’ staff,” according to the complaint. “One visitor was permitted in after a temperature reading was 93-degrees — a temperature that signals severe and near-fatal hypothermia. Another visitor was admitted after the thermometer displayed an error message and never registered a temperature reading.”

The lawsuit asks a judge to appoint an expert to recommend to the court how many and which inmates should be released from the jail. The lawsuit also asks a judge to ensure inmates receive free soap and require DOC staff to wear masks and gloves, frequently clean and disinfect common areas every two hours, alert inmates to the risks of transmission and how to reduce those risks, and test anyone displaying COVID-19 symptoms, among other actions.

“The Supreme Court reiterated about 10 years ago that when the government imprisons people, it deprives them of the ability to care for themselves,” says Scott Michelman, legal co-director for the ACLU of DC. “So people in DOC custody are completely dependent on DOC to provide for their basic needs.”

The ACLU and the public defenders filed a temporary restraining order along with the original complaint in an effort to force a judge to make a ruling quickly. Michelman is hopeful a judge will consider their requests this week.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said during a media briefing today that she had not reviewed the allegations in the lawsuit and declined to comment.

“We have posted in all our government buildings, and we’ll make sure that’s happened at the jail, too, all of the cleaning schedules,” Bowser said. “So anybody who has to go into those buildings understands the regular cleaning is taking place.”

On Monday, when asked during her daily call with D.C. councilmembers about protective equipment for DOC staff and potential legislative responses to address the jail population, Bowser said “nobody wants us to clear out the jail for people who are serving sentences that they earned,” according to a Washington Post reporter’s tweet. “Let’s keep that in mind.”

Michelman takes issue with the mayor’s statement, which he says implicitly suggests that “earning” a sentence should subject you to whatever conditions DOC sees fit to hold a person in.

“It is absolutely wrong, both constitutionally and morally,” he says. “Incarceration should not be a death sentence. Even inmates who ‘earn’ their sentence are entitled to the basic constitutional minimum of basic safety in confinement.”

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