DC Jail Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The U.S. Parole Commission is taking some steps aimed at releasing inmates currently held in its custody in the DC Jail and narrowing the stream of new people the commission brings into the facility on warrants, according to Parole Commission Chief of Staff Steve Husk.

Specifically, the commission, which has jurisdiction over supervised release and parole in the District, is not issuing warrants for alleged technical violations of parole, such as a dirty drug test or missed check-in appointment, unless the person is in “loss of contact status” or hasn’t followed sex offender related release conditions.

In most cases, the new guidelines also recommend against revoking a person’s parole based on a new arrest in circumstances where the parolee was not charged by prosecutors, where the charge was dismissed, or where the parolee was acquitted. Typically, the parole commission can revoke a person’s release based on an arrest for a new crime regardless of the outcome of that arrest.

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The commission will also wait until pending criminal charges are resolved before initiating a parole revocation. This measure is a significant step, says Colleen McCrystal, an attorney in the parole division of the D.C. Public Defender Service. Oftentimes, if parolees are picked up on a new criminal charge and a judge releases them before trial, the parole commission can issue a separate warrant for their arrest, McCrystal says. That means the person could cycle out of, and then back into, the jail where they would sit until the charge is resolved. With most D.C. Superior Court hearings on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, the person could potentially be stuck in jail indefinitely.

“That one will make a difference because cases are moving incredibly slowly,” McCrystal says. “These cases are really going to linger.”

The final new guideline says that for inmates currently held in jail for technical violations or minor crimes, the commission will “consider releasing the prisoner and suspending or terminating the revocation proceedings,” according to an email from Husk.

The new practices issued in light of the coronavirus pandemic are simply guidelines and are not official policy, Husk says. On Thursday morning, DOC reported the first inmate in its custody to test positive for COVID-19.

Those guidelines come on the heels of demands from the D.C. Public Defender Service, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

McCrystal says the parole commission has been in communication with PDS, which is compiling a list of inmates held for parole violations who may be at higher risk of infection due to existing health conditions. She says people incarcerated for alleged parole violations started getting released last Thursday, March 19. But by Friday, March 20, 17 new cases came in. 13 of those individuals were accused of solely technical violations. Four were accused of minor law violations:theft, a simple assault charge that was already dismissed, uttering (writing a bad check), and simple assault.

“The longer you wait the higher the chances you’re sending someone back to the community who’s been exposed,” McCrystal says. “Other jurisdictions are taking sweeping action as opposed to case by case. We think [the parole commission is] trying, and we commend their efforts, but we would like it to be sped up.”

She says there are 256 inmates currently held on warrants issued by the parole commission, out of the approximately 1700 people incarcerated in the DC Jail and the Correctional Treatment Facility.

One particular group of inmates who McCrystal says should be “low hanging fruit” in terms of those eligible for immediate release are the 30 or so men in the residential substance abuse treatment program.

All of the men in the 120-day treatment program are held on technical parole violations or minor criminal charges, like drug possession or petty theft.

One inmate who is currently in the treatment program recently talked with City Paper by phone. The inmate, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from DOC, says the group of about 30 men continue to meet four or five times per day in group sessions where inmates sit close together in a circle. He says corrections officers constantly try to calm inmates’ concerns about a possible infection in the facility to little effect.

“We watch the news every day,” the inmate says. “Seeing that the number in D.C. is going up, numbers in Maryland and Virginia are going up. It’s not only for old people. Little 5-year-olds are getting it. For people coming off the street into here, they’re making it seem like the media is amping up the stories.”

The inmate says he used to have access to hand sanitizer, but officers moved the dispenser behind a desk where inmates can’t access it.

“They give us soap every three weeks, but when we go to group, they lock the cells, and we have to share one sink,” the inmate says. 

“I think overall folks are going to wait until it’s too late,” McCrystal says. “This isn’t just about out clients. It’s about the corrections officers going in and out of the facility, going back to their families, and the lawyers, and the hearing examiners, and the parole folks. There are lots of people, and there’s a concern that it can seem like no better place to quarantine than a prison, but that’s not true. A whole bunch of people are moving in and out on a daily basis.”

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