DC Jail
DC Jail Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

An inmate at DC Jail was placed in quarantine Tuesday, March 17, due to possible exposure to coronavirus, according to a footnote in a D.C. Superior Court motion filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The motion was in response to the request of another inmate, Jamonte Jeter, for immediate release from the jail due to the threat of contracting coronavirus while incarcerated.

The quarantined inmate has been tested, but those results are pending, according to Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue. The cellmate of the inmate who was tested is also in quarantine.

Sixty-five more DC Jail inmates have been quarantined due to possible exposure to a U.S. Marshal, who works in the D.C. Superior Courthouse and tested positive for the virus.

An email sent to a D.C. courts listserv says the marshal worked in two different court rooms where new defendants are brought for their initial hearings. The email says the courtrooms and their holding cells were disinfected and court staff who work in those rooms were notified. The cellblock will be power washed and disinfected, the email says.

In a separate email, reported by the Washington Post, Judge Juliet McKenna announced that the courthouse will close starting Thursday, March 19, except for arraignments on new charges in adult and juvenile court. The Metropolitan Police Department ordered its officers to issue citations for misdemeanor and non-violent felonies, rather than bring people into the jail. The order doesn’t apply to those accused of violent offenses or offenses that involve a firearm or drug distribution.

Mayor Muriel Bowser says she is not considering any actions that would facilitate the release of certain populations of jail inmates, as local attorneys and advocates have called for and as other jurisdictions have done.

Jeter, who is not in quarantine, has been held without bond since Feb. 4, and is charged with assault with a dangerous weapon for allegedly shooting another person during a confrontation, according to court records. Ed Joseph, Jeter’s attorney, says a judge denied Jeter’s release. Joseph says he has one other client in the jail and filed a similar request, but a judge has not ruled on that motion.

“Isolation, segregation or attempted lockdown … are largely futile in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Joseph writes in his motion for Jeter’s release. “COVID-19 can survive in the air, so separation in a facility where there is still other movement of people, and occasional interaction, will not contain it. The number of people moving in and out every day alone creates a risk for someone who is trapped inside and cannot self-protect elsewhere. Further, the reality is that some contact with others—in close proximity and actual contact—is inevitable. Kitchen staff, intake staff, officers and medical staff all interact with incarcerated people as a matter of course.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Wojcik argues in court records that Jeter’s request asks the judge to place “a potential risk to his health above the proven risk he poses to the community.” Wojick cites the precautions that DC Jail has taken including more frequent cleaning and suspending all in-person visits, which the jail announced March 14. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Jails and prisons have drawn particular attention during the global coronavirus pandemic as likely incubators for the disease the virus causes, COVID-19. While public health officials recommend vigorous and frequent hand washing and staying at least six feet away from other people to reduce the spread of the virus, those are two things inmates generally cannot do.

Defendants, guards, employees, attorneys, and visitors constantly cycle in and out of these institutions. Inmates are often housed in close quarters and sometimes in unsanitary conditions; they may not have regular access to soap or sanitizer. Some have chronic medical conditions, making them more susceptible to the virus, and the medical facilities are generally not equipped to handle a mass infection.

On Tuesday, March 17, the D.C. Council passed sweeping emergency legislation that, among other measures, allows DOC to release inmates serving misdemeanor sentences by issuing “good time” credits, as long as the person doesn’t pose a threat to public safety.

A trio of medical and prison healthcare experts recently published an op-ed in the Post calling for detention facilities to release as many inmates as possible, including those held on bail, those held on minor infractions or violations, and elderly prisoners who are not a safety risk.

“Unless government officials act now, the novel coronavirus will spread rapidly in our jails and prisons, endangering not only prisoners and corrections workers but the general public as well,” the experts write in their op-ed.

The D.C. Public Defenders Service (PDS) and the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (WLC) made similar requests of the U.S. Parole Commission, which has jurisdiction over the parole system in D.C. In its letter, PDS asks the parole commission to stop issuing new warrants and to direct the U.S. Marshals Service to stop arresting people for warrants already issued, except for those people who pose safety risks. The letter asks for the release of people held on parole violations who are 60 or older and who have certain medical conditions; it also asks the commission to release people held for a criminal arrest while out on parole if that charge was dismissed or the person was acquitted by a jury. (In D.C., a parolee can be cleared of new criminal charges in local court and still serve time in prison due to federal control of the parole system.) 

Parole commissioners Patricia Cushwa and Charles Massarone did not respond to City Paper’s emails seeking comment on the requests.

“If people in jail get seriously ill, they go to local hospital,” says Rebecca Vogel a criminal defense attorney in D.C. “The jail itself can’t handle a lot of seriously ill people at once, which means if we have this cluster of infections, we might have a lot of people who are getting very ill at the same time, and need to go to the hospital at one time, which will overwhelm our resources.”

Chinese prisons reported more than 500 positive cases as of late February, and this week, Iran has temporarily released 85,000 prisoners. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced yesterday that he will begin to release vulnerable inmates from the city’s jails, the New York Post reports.

Nonprofit news organization The Marshall Project is tracking responses to the pandemic in prisons throughout the country.

Joseph, Jeter’s attorney, says he visited the jail twice last week. On Wednesday, March 11, he says he didn’t see any screening in place, and it was “business as usual.” When he returned on Thursday, Joseph had to answer three questions: whether he had any symptoms, whether he’d traveled internationally, and whether he’d been exposed to an infected person. He says he answered no to all three.

He noticed signs throughout the jail about the virus and reminding staff to wash their hands.

“And I did notice staff coming around to clean during my visit,” he says. “A correctional officer came and disinfected the door knob to the interview room, and an hour or two later, I noted another CO pushing a cart of cleaning material.”

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