Credit: Darrow Mongomery

A year after the Washington Lawyers’ Committee released a blistering report on the state of D.C.’s largest jail, little has changed at the 40-year-old facility. The findings, which included rat infestations, sewage leaks, and defective temperature controls, inspired local lawyers and prisoner rights advocates to demand immediate intervention by city government.

But the building has continued to decay and the city has taken little to no action. The failing ventilation system has left prisoners baking in humid, 87-degree cells—an environment that potentially contributed to last month’s death of inmate Lester Irby. WLC staff say they are receiving daily calls from inmates reporting difficult conditions.

“What’s changed is that the jail is one year older. That’s about it,” says WLC attorney Deborah Golden

Meanwhile, a jaw-dropping June report from the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative identifies the District as the world’s top jailer, exceeding per-capita rates for all U.S. states and foreign countries. “The capital of the ‘free world’ has a higher incarceration rate than any U.S. state and any nation on the planet,” the report reads.

While the District has approved funding for a new jail, it has yet to produce any concrete plan. The inaction has forced local criminal justice experts to examine the broader context. In a network containing few inmate reentry programs, sparse mental health resources, and outdated drug sentencing rules, the D.C. Jail’s demise seems to represent a more complex tangle within the country’s most unique—and most complex—criminal justice system. 

“D.C. is young, and you can see it’s still figuring itself out—how to govern, how to work with the federal government,” says Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, director of ACLU’s D.C. office. “But that’s not an excuse. These problems need to be addressed, and they need to be addressed quickly.”

The current D.C. Jail was built three years after the 1973 Home Rule Act was passed, giving local lawmakers control over the city’s justice system. But in 1997, the near-bankrupt District was forced to relinquish the majority of its justice program to the federal government. The city maintained control over policing and the correctional facilities, but every other step was turned over. Thus was born a system based on complicated overlapping jurisdictions with constantly crossing wires.

“We have confusing, overlapping authorities—and on top of that, all of our laws are reviewed by Congress,” Golden says. “It’s not just one person or one organization not doing their job. It’s the whole system.”

This abundance of authorities may be contributing to the Council’s stagnant response to the D.C. Jail. Many advocates are upset about just how little has been done since the release of WLC’s report last year. The Council did include a proposal in its 2016 budget to study the jail—but it hasn’t been mentioned since. Inmate Irby’s July death, however, did spark some recent discussion on the jail’s condition. 

Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie didn’t return calls from City Paper, but he told WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi last week, “The jail is outdated, it is inefficient, and it is ill-conceived. It is not built for modern-day corrections. Anything short of … a new jail is a temporary fix.”

And Kevin Donahue, D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice, told Nnamdi that a new jail should come with a new layout. 

“We don’t need a jail as big as the one we have now,” he said. “We do need one that has more job training, more educational programming, and has space for some robust mental health services.”

But while McDuffie moved to allocate $5 million to the city’s 2022 budget to build a new facility, there’s been little talk of what that facility would need. 

This concerns Hopkins-Maxwell. “We are putting the cart before the horse here,” she says. “We have a lot of unanswered questions. Like: What new programs can we create? Is this the size of a jail we need? We need to address the population.”

That’s a critical question. D.C.’s inmate population so far this year—those in D.C.’s smaller, privately run Correctional Treatment Facility and in the D.C. Jail—has already surpassed last year’s total. According to the WLC, the District’s incarceration rate has risen even as its arrest rate has remained steady, which usually means one thing: Something’s up with the sentencing process. 

The District’s notoriety as the epicenter of the 1980s crack epidemic left local courts following strict federal sentencing requirements for drug offenders, which local legal experts now say are both dated and unfair.

“The war on drugs was a dismal failure, and left D.C. with Kafkaesque mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for possession [of drugs],” says Paul Zukerberg, who has worked in D.C. as a criminal defense lawyer for 32 years.

The federal government largely bases drug offense sentences on the amount of drugs with which offenders are caught, rather than on the severity and circumstances surrounding their crimes.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the government offered financial incentives to states that followed their sentencing model, though many states have since reformed and dropped such aggressive sentencing laws. But the District’s court system, which is headed by federal judges, won’t be able to change this rule until the entire country does. 

“The federal government is the impediment here,” Zukerberg says. 

In planning for a new jail, Hopkins-Maxwell says the city needs to consider how sentencing contributes to the jail’s hefty population—and what changes need to be made. But this re-evaluation could lead to a uncomfortable clash between the city and the federal agencies that are content with the status quo.

“There is a lack of political will by councilmembers to shake things up,” she says. “Which I understand, to an extent. But they are giving up their responsibility to D.C.”

While Zukerberg says the words he’d use to describe the D.C. Jail aren’t “fit to print,” he adds that there is progress in other areas of the criminal justice system.

“We lead the nation in pre-trial release and have eliminated cash bonds,” he says. “That’s a success. But the successes don’t even out with all of the problems.”

More successes could be on the horizon. The D.C. Jail’s population is largely made up of inmates waiting for court dates, and few stay longer than a year. Post-trial, inmates enter the federal system and could be sent to any federal prison, even hundreds of miles from home.

This distance makes a smooth reentry process difficult for inmates after their release—and many are sent back to D.C. without a place to live or any job prospects. Some return with untreated mental health issues.

That’s why Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to reclaim D.C.’s privately run Correctional Treatment Facility and make it a space for federal inmates to ride out the end of their sentences. Using local social services to coordinate job hunting, housing, and mental health care could significantly improve an inmate’s chances of a successful release—one that doesn’t end with them back behind bars.

It’s hard to tell how far the Wilson Building can tiptoe justice reform around federal rule. But attention on the jail could prompt the D.C. Council to start addressing longstanding issues within the system. That’s what Hopkins-Maxwell hopes.

“Yes, I do think the jail needs to be fixed, but we can do more,” she says. “It’s a giant missed opportunity if we don’t use this moment to talk about criminal justice reform in the District.”