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If you are a defendant in the District, having your case dismissed or even winning an acquittal in court doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your time at the D.C. Jail. You still have to make the trip back to the jail for processing—and a strip-search. But on Aug. 31, that humbling tradition may be coming to an end.
This past spring, District officials agreed to shell out $12 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of former D.C. Jail inmates who claimed they had been overdetained or subjected to unnecessary strip-searches. In the agreement, filed in federal court on June 16, the Office of the Attorney General also agreed to a more lasting stipulation—a new processing center for inmates whose cases are dismissed or end in acquittal. The settlement says the facility must be ready by the end of this month.
Under the old system, the only place inmates ordered released from Superior Court could be processed—reviewing paperwork, retrieving personal items—was back at the D.C. Jail. That meant an automatic strip-search. With the city’s new facility, newly freed inmates won’t have to be humiliated as a condition of their release.
“It’s a good and fair settlement that will provide lasting systemic relief,” says the inmates’ attorney, William Claiborne. “A strip-search is not the price of an acquittal….You don’t have to be strip-searched after you’re free to go.”
Claiborne, who filed the class-action lawsuit in May 2002 with co-counsel Barry Litt, has worked on illegal-search cases for years (“Cavity Crawl,” 8/8/2003). The suit named nine jail vets who had suffered the indignity of a get-out-of-jail strip-search and several other former inmates who had been overdetained, some for more than 100 days. According to the complaint, plaintiff Leroy Thomas—locked up for a misdemeanor panhandling charge—was held for an extra 113 days before he was set free. Another plaintiff, Gloria Scarborough, was overdetained for 143 days.
Claiborne credits Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III with addressing one of the main causes of overdetention: lost paperwork. Inmates were routinely sent back to the jail from Superior Court without documentation of their status. Without the paperwork, an inmate could be subjected to an extended stay while his situation was being clarified. Two months after Claiborne filed his lawsuit, King issued an administrative order stating that no “in-custody defendant” could be returned to the jail without the proper paperwork. King’s order cited “the occurrence of erroneous and/or late releases from the D.C. Jail.”
The lawsuit’s payout comes on the heels of the city’s recent settlement with Joseph Heard, the deaf, mute, and mentally disabled man who spent nearly two years wrongfully imprisoned at the D.C. Jail. Heard will receive between $1.2 million and $1.5 million.
This latest settlement still has to meet court approval and approval from the plaintiffs. A hearing before a federal judge is set for Aug. 31. The D.C. Attorney General’s Office refuses to comment until the settlement is finalized.
Edward Reiskin, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, says plans for the new processing center are under way. The facility will be located on the D.C. General Hospital campus and will be completed by Aug. 31, he says. “I think the ability to be able to release court-ordered people without having to return them to jail is a good thing.”
The settlement stipulates that if the city doesn’t change its policy by Aug. 31, strip-searched detainees can file new lawsuits. CP