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Larry Key is 57 years old. He has kidney failure, heart disease, diabetes, and lung cancer, according to federal court documents. He has been sitting in the DC Jail since September 2019 after being charged with drug distribution and denied bail. Key has been hospitalized three times in the six months he’s been locked up, according to court records, and recently spent two weeks at Howard University Hospital.
On March 13, his attorney asked a judge to release Key from jail due to his heightened vulnerability to the novel coronavirus while incarcerated, and this week federal prosecutors agreed. Joseph Conte, Key’s attorney, says he’s just waiting for a judge’s signature.
Omara Hussein is 27 years old, homeless, and has a lengthy record of minor arrests. She is currently charged with drug possession, disorderly conduct, simple assault, and trespassing for separate incidents at Union Station and on Q Street SE.
On March 18, Hussein’s attorney asked a judge to release her from the DC Jail due to the risk of exposure to the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. A judge agreed to release Hussein this week over an objection from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which argued that she poses a greater risk to the public than the coronavirus poses to her in jail.
Eric Butler is 29 years old and works as an auto mechanic and construction contractor, according to court records. On March 16 he was arrested for illegal possession of a pistol. Like Key and Hussein’s attorneys, Butler’s attorney cited the health risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic in a motion for his client’s release from the DC Jail. On Monday, March 23, a judge agreed to release Butler on house arrest, again over the prosecutor’s objection.
These are only three of the dozens of motions filed in federal and local courts in D.C. asking judges to let people out of jail as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the greater D.C. region and the world. Particular attention has been paid to jails and prisons, where crowded conditions can serve as potential petri dishes for the disease.
While inmates and defense attorneys sound the alarm about what they believe to be insufficient efforts by the D.C. Department of Corrections to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 inside the local lockup, the U.S Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia is taking a different stance. Federal prosecutors are opposing most requests for release, defense attorneys say anecdotally. In multiple court filings, prosecutors argue that the risk certain inmates pose to the public outweighs the potential risk to their health in the jail.
In at least one federal case, the USAO asked a judge to keep a man locked up before he even asked to be released.
“The government anticipates that the defendant will request release because he believes that the D.C. jail is ill-equipped to handle the pandemic,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Walters writes. “While the government appreciates that no one is immune to the growing health crisis, we seek to assure the Court that the D.C. Department of Corrections … is taking this crisis seriously, and that at the time of this filing, no inmate is testing positive nor showing COVID-19 symptoms in the jail.”
DOC has ramped up its cleaning efforts, and for a time last week quarantined at least 67 inmates who may have been exposed to the virus. But many are still concerned that those efforts will fall short.
Last week, as many as 50 or 60 inmates gathered for a religious service, according to an inmate who contacted City Paper. The inmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation, described seeing other inmates praying together “shoulder to shoulder” during the gathering.
“I personally feel there’s guys who shouldn’t be in here,” the inmate says. “At some point they should say ‘we should consider letting these guys go home. Put ’em on some type of home monitoring.’”
The inmate says corrections officers passed out bars of soap about two weeks ago and posted signs reminding them to wash their hands. But, the inmate says, officers walk around the unit without masks or gloves, and during recreational time, inmates are free to go about their typical routines: taking showers, using the phone, and playing cards or dominos without following public health officials’ advice to stay six feet apart.
Laura de las Casas, a local advocate for prisoners’ rights, has had regular conversations with people locked in the DC Jail for the past couple weeks. She says inmates haven’t been given the routine instructions that are drilled into the general public’s consciousness: Wash your hands for 20 seconds, cough into your elbow, stay six feet away from each other. Even if they had, she notes, many of those measures are impossible to practice in jail, where inmates are generally housed two to a cell.
“My main problem is they just don’t share any information,” de las Casas says of the DOC. “They’re unresponsive to everyone.”
But inmates and defense attorneys aren’t the only groups upset with how DOC leadership has reacted to the global pandemic.
The D.C. corrections officers’ union is calling for the dismissal of three top DOC officials after a vote of “no confidence.”
A letter sent last week from the D.C. Department of Corrections Labor Committee and the Fraternal Order of Police to DOC Director Quincy Booth makes several demands including the removal of deputy director Wanda Patten, Warden Lennard Johnson, and deputy warden Kathleenjo Landerkin.
The letter, first reported by the Washington Times, demands that the DOC consult with medical experts for training and supervision, provide protective clothing for officers working in the “quarantine unit,” and establish a “no contact” process for the officers.
An email to Booth from the union’s attorney, Ann-Kathryn So, says corrections officers were ordered to move 50 inmates who may have had contact with a deputy U.S. Marshal who tested positive for coronavirus, but the cellmates of those 50 inmates were allowed to stay put. The officers requested face shields and gear to protect their clothes but were denied, according to So’s email. Instead, they were ordered to move the inmates wearing only masks and gloves, and one inmate allegedly spat in an officer’s face.
“DOC management has created an unconscionable public health crisis, and almost certainly guaranteed and accelerated the rampant spread of COVID-19 within the DOC facilities and the communities in which the staff live,” So writes in her email.
DOC’s spokesperson did not respond to City Paper’s multiple requests for comment.
The 50 inmates cited in So’s email conflicts with the number given last week by Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue. Last Thursday, Donahue said 65 inmates had potentially been exposed to the deputy U.S. Marshal and were quarantined.
In an update this week, Donahue said only a “handful” of inmates were potentially exposed to the deputy marshal, though he did not know on Monday morning if those inmates were still quarantined.
Donahue credited a 40 percent reduction in the number of people filtering through the DC Jail’s central cell block, where new detainees are held before their initial hearings, to steps taken by the Metropolitan Police Department and the USAO. MPD issued a new directive giving officers discretion to issue citations rather than arresting a person for certain minor crimes. The USAO has agreed to make formal charging decisions before an arrestee makes it to the central cell block.
Separately, one DC Jail inmate was tested for the coronavirus due to travel overseas. Donahue says the test came back negative.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Council’s public safety committee, crafted a provision in the Council’s emergency legislation passed last week that allows DOC to issue extra “good time credits” to low-level offenders. Allen says some inmates have been released under the new good-time rules, though he didn’t have an exact number.
Allen shares the concern of lawyers and advocates and believes it’s only a matter of time before someone in the jail tests positive for COVID-19.
“This threat is present in every single community, and the Jail is no different,” Allen says. “It’s simply a matter of time. I think the Jail is taking a lot of precautionary steps, but as I look at other cities and counties, I don’t know why we would be any different.”
De las Casas says the inmates that she speaks with describe frustration and confusion with the constantly changing conditions inside. During some phone calls, she can hear Fox5 News on the TV in the common area (it’s always on Fox5, she says). A recent call with an inmate was cut short when she heard a guard announce that the jail was going on lockdown. Later that day, she was surprised to get another phone call saying the lockdown had been lifted.
“I’ve heard from others that they’ve been locked down for half a day,” she says. “So there’s lots of confusion. Especially in times like this where families are panicking and if you don’t get a call from your loved one for a day, you don’t know if they’re in quarantine or what’s happening.”
In the eyes of the law, Key, Hussein, and Butler are innocent. Each are accused of crimes, but are not yet convicted, and they rely in part on that principle—innocent until proven guilty—in their requests for release.
Hussein and Butler’s motions share some boilerplate language citing Mayor Muriel Bowser’s declaration of a public health emergency, the “20 to 60 detainees” who came into contact with the deputy U.S. Marshal (a figure that’s already outdated), the climbing number of infections and deaths around the world, and examples of how other jurisdictions have addressed their jail populations.
“As a society, we must do everything we can to reduce the transmission of the virus,” Hussein and Butler’s motions say. “Jails and prisons are super high-risk breeding grounds.”
The USAO responds with similarly formulaic language mixed with arguments specific to each case. Hussein, for example, has had 23 warrants issued between 2014 and April of 2019, the USAO says in support of its argument that she is unlikely to return for court if she’s released.
On Sunday, March 22, the D.C. Superior Court issued an order in response to the “overwhelming number of completed and anticipated filings” asking for release in light of COVID-19.
The order indicates which factors will weigh most heavily on judges’ minds and requires all future requests to include information about the defendant’s age and health—specifically whether the defendant has a condition that puts them at risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Requests must also say if the defendant is serving a sentence or is only accused of a crime, whether the alleged crimes involve violence, and if prosecutors support the defendant’s release.
Meanwhile, a day after the D.C. Superior Court’s order, Assistant U.S. Attorney Walters filed her preemptive motion in U.S. District Court in anticipation of one man’s request for release. The defendant, Timothy Taylor, hasn’t yet asked a judge to release him.
“The government appreciates the gravity of this global pandemic and is committed to ensuring the safety and health of inmates like the defendant,” Walters writes. “Should circumstances change at the DOC, to the point that the defendant’s health is actually in jeopardy, the defendant may request reconsideration. But at this stage and at this time, DOC appears dedicated and willing to address this public health crisis.”
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