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The Washington City Paper’s article (“Eating Disorder,” 6/4) on fights and assaults at the Central Detention Facility (CDF) is a gross distortion of fact. The Department of Corrections’ staff recently reviewed more than 200 cases of inmate-on-inmate incidents occurring over the past 28 months and is unable to support the reporter’s allegations. The article is constructed around five negative premises:
•Every incident rises to the level of violence represented in the six incidents detailed in the article, which represent the most egregious 10 percent of the 54 incidents involving a weapon or a hospital visit.
•The level of violence in fiscal year 2003 exceeded that in fiscal year 2002.
•Correctional officers are derelict in their duty, and their incompetence exacerbates incidents.
•Management is deluded and
•Correctional facilities should be held to standards applying to schools, hospitals, or other residential facilities.
Allow me to refute each of these allegations:
The central thesis of the article is that compared with the period October 2001 through September 2002 (fiscal 2002), there were roughly twice as many “violent incidents” reported in the period October 2002 through September 2003 (fiscal 2003). The reporter constructs his own definition of “violent incidents”—the sum total of fights and assaults—and suggests that six of the worst incidents of inmate-on-inmate assault represent the level of violence associated with all 185 incidents. This is untrue. The majority of the incidents involve no more than words that escalated to pushing and shoving or horseplay that escalated to punching before the correctional officers could successfully secure the inmates involved.
Every correctional institution experiences incidents of violence. That is why assaults are reported by each institution annually as a performance metric. The CDF’s combined rate of incidents of assault and fights is less than one incident per 1,000 inmate days; the 2001 statistic reported by the Criminal Justice Institute for jails of comparable size was 13.
The Association of State Correctional Administrators has recently established standards for classifying incidents as assaults. In order for an incident to be categorized as an inmate-on-inmate assault, there must be a weapon involved and injuries sustained that require more extensive treatment than mere first aid, and the incident must be determined to be an assault based on definitions found in the inmate disciplinary review process or the criminal-justice proceedings. There were 21 percent fewer assault incidents in fiscal 2003 compared with fiscal 2002; furthermore, they were less severe, resulting in no loss of life or permanent disability.
Fights are defined as incidents that involve unwelcome physical contact between inmates that result in either no injuries sustained or injuries sustained that require no more medical attention than first aid. In a small number of cases, incidents that initially appear to be assaults are classified as fights or alleged assaults if not substantiated as assaults upon review via the inmate disciplinary process or criminal-justice process. Fights in fiscal 2003 exceeded those in fiscal 2002.
Many factors can contribute to the incidence of violence in a correctional setting. Roughly 90 percent of inmates involved in incidents at the CDF were incarcerated on charges involving drugs or weapons, rape, sexual abuse, homicide, assault, domestic assault, burglary, robbery, theft, stolen property, or carjacking. The legal process remanded these individuals to the Department of Corrections’ custody, substantiating public-safety concerns related to the individuals’ alleged criminal actions. Roughly 90 percent of initiates involved were medium- or maximum-security inmates; 62 percent of incidents involved inmates aged 22 to 40. In more than 60 percent of cases, incidents occurred with a full complement of staff present. The reporter suggests that incidents of violence are negatively correlated to correctional-officer competence and staffing complement at the time of the incident. These inferences are presumptive; however, the correlation between incidence of violence and association with prior acts of violence is irrefutable.
The Pulitzer/Bogard capacity report carefully stated that staffing levels are only one of many factors that may affect an institution’s ability to manage inmate populations effectively. Additional factors spelled out by the report include the physical design and layout of the facility, floor plan, range of vision, idle time, and inmate management strategy. All of these together affect the ability to prevent, control, and rapidly de-escalate incidents. Any relationship between staffing level and violent incidents is at best tenuous and dependent simultaneously on many factors.
The term is “critical staffing complement,” not “minimum staffing complement.” It does not, and was never intended to, imply that every officer assigned to a shift is to be on-site 100 percent of the time. Feeding, cleaning, inspections, and escorts are an expected part of a correctional officer’s duties. There are, in fact, relief officers assigned to every shift, whose sole responsibility is to relieve officers of duty so that they may proceed to take a break. No credible correctional expert or study is cited that points to a critical correlation between staff complement and incidence of violence in correctional settings. The claim is simply ludicrous.
Therefore, to support the claim, the reporter proposes that the CDF staff is incompetent and that the management is negligent and abusive. Correctional officers are disparagingly referred to as “guards.” The article alleges that officers are derelict in duties, allegedly catnapping in the bubble, unprepared and unwilling to manage inmates eight hours a day, five days a week, and stupid enough to allow the same inmate to engage in the same kind of violent incident twice. The reporter distorts facts to support this hypothesis. The incidents involving inmate Marquee Venable occurred more than four months apart, on two different shifts, in two different units, with two different sets of correctional officers; six different officers, out of more than 600, responded to the two incidents. In the meantime, more than 5,000 inmates were processed through the CDF.
To prevent such incidents in the future, the Department of Corrections is implementing robust incident-information capture, storage, and analysis systems that will enable information-based inmate management strategies in the future. An incident-recording and data-capture application system has been developed and tested and is being deployed, and data related to past incidents are being captured and analyzed.
The department has responded to violent incidents with increased surveillance, metal detectors, shakedowns, and contraband seizures. The canine patrol has decreased the incidence of drugs, and the department will maintain a smoke-free environment by Sept. 30, 2004. A closed-circuit television system, once operational, will improve range of vision within the facility.
The hardworking men and women of this agency conduct their mission unflinchingly, with pride. Correctional officers are law-enforcement officers, not “guards.” Unlike police officers or other emergency personnel, they must be constantly vigilant, enforce order, and maintain a safe, secure environment in a challenging setting. The challenges arise from extended interaction in close quarters with individuals charged with crimes or convicted of violence; limited resources; limited range of vision; and poor facility design and construction. The correctional officer’s role is not that of hall monitor, educator, counselor, nurse, or guard. Correctional officers cannot predict when an incident will occur. They rapidly respond to incidents, de-escalate violence, and minimize harm to officers and inmates alike, while enforcing the law in a humane and constitutional manner.
“Eating Disorder” fails to place the responsibility for violence where it clearly lies: upon the perpetrator. The reporter and the City Paper do the citizens of the District of Columbia a disservice by writing this irresponsible article.
Correctional facilities must not be judged by the standards of a school, hospital, or other supervised residential facility, because the population they house has markedly different behavioral characteristics. There are distinct professional standards that apply to correctional facilities, and the CDF must be held to these standards. The assault rate at the CDF is nearly 1,300 percent lower than the most recent national average for facilities of comparable size. The facts clearly show that the D.C. Department of Corrections serves the citizens of the District with distinction in providing a safe, secure, humane, and constitutional facility.
D.C. Department of Corrections