When Joseph Leaks and Ricardo Jones escaped from the D.C. Jail on June 3, they busted through a window in the warden’s office, then boarded a bus—all, according to some reports, while wearing blue prison jumpsuits.
Save for the part about climbing out of a window, their departure wasn’t all that unusual. It was pretty much standard practice—according to inmate advocates, a large percentage of inmates who leave the D.C. Jail do so wearing jumpsuits similar to the ones that Leaks and Jones are alleged to have worn.
In fact, hours after the jailbreak, police detained a legitimately released inmate wearing a blue jumpsuit at the Minnesota Avenue Metro station.
The escapes add a public-safety angle to what’s long been a human-rights issue. For obvious reasons, no one wants to be released from the D.C. Jail wearing the humiliating cotton-polyester-blend jumpsuit. But inmates have no choice: Unless an inmate can mail off his civilian clothes or give them to someone to take away, the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) will discard them after 15 days. “The Department does not have the on-site capacity to maintain inmate personal property for excessive periods,” says jail spokesperson Beverly Young in an e-mail.
Inmate advocates have long lobbied the D.C. Council and the DOC to issue more humane release attire. For years, these jail fashionistas have gotten nowhere with their complaints.
For former inmates, the jumpsuits represent the last insult on their way out. Lewis Washington, who was released from the D.C. Jail this past spring, says he was put out of the jail in correction blues. “I felt as though they treated me as I was still locked up,” Washington, 44, says. “I should have been allowed to keep my clothes.…You are already sending me out the door with a strike against me. Come on, man. People look at you like you just break out. It felt like shit. That’s what it felt like to me.”
On March 7, 2005, inmate advocates waged a “Justice NOT Jumpsuits” rally outside the Wilson Building, some dressed in the offending blue jumpsuits, to protest the exit-garb policy. Susan Galbraith, founder and president of Our Place, DC, a nonprofit that helps women who have been caught up in the criminal-justice system, led the campaign and testified at that day’s judiciary-committee oversight hearing.
Galbraith brought up the issue before committee Chair Phil Mendelson. “I’m in here in a jumpsuit today because I’ve been before this committee four years in a row before today, asking for release of people in civilian clothing,” she said. “We’ve even offered to provide the civilian clothing for women at the D.C. Jail. And I’m here because we’re just so frustrated with the situation, we don’t know what it’s going to take to turn it around.”
Galbraith referenced a survey she had conducted with the women who came from the jail to her nonprofit. She stated that she had found that not only had women been forced to leave the jail in a jumpsuit, but many also had left without getting their IDs back.
When asked to respond to her allegations, then-interim DOC Director S. Elwood York Jr. complained that there was nothing he could do. “The jumpsuit issue is because the individuals don’t have clothing available,” York told Mendelson. “We’re working in a detention environment.”
Mendelson did not like York’s answer, telling the director, “We’ve got to do better.…I’m hopeful that you will redouble your thinking on this.”
“I plan to more than redouble my efforts,” York then promised. “I want to make this a line in the sand in how people are released.”
York’s promises never materialized. Galbraith reports that from February 2005 to May 2006, 63 percent of women arriving at Our Place from the jail were wearing jumpsuits.
At a hearing on the inmate escapes, Mendelson questioned corrections officials on the jail’s release togs. The officials admitted that there is no set policy on what the inmates wear inside, that they can wear standard orange jumpsuits or blue jumpsuits. They said they were investigating the issue of whether the escapees were wearing the release jumpsuits; a Washington Post report last month raised the possibility that Leaks and Jones were actually wearing corrections officers’ uniforms, which are also blue. (Mendelson says he doesn’t think that was the case.)
“I do want to know what they were wearing and how they got it,” Mendelson told the officials at the hearing, including new DOC Director Devon Brown.
Brown and his staff went on to complain that the jumpsuit problem may have to do with city funding. Brown argued that standardizing dress inside the jail could be fixed with more government dollars. “It’s contingent upon funding,” he explained.
“I think that’s grasping for excuses,” Mendelson says. Prison officials never brought up funding for jumpsuits at previous budget hearings, he points out.
In the future, inmates who are planning to escape may not get to rely on the blue jumpsuit for cover. “We want to change to a more community friendly attire for inmates being released from jail,” said Young in an e-mail, “but specific details have not been finalized yet.”
Galbraith reports that the “community friendly attire” will likely be sweat suits. She says the release makeover may begin this fall.CP