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I Thought I Was Tough Enough to Work Inside the D.C. Prison System. I Was Wrong.

It wasn’t a bad day for a visit to Lorton prison. There was no construction onI-395 South, so it was a smooth drive all the way to the gates of Occoquan, Lorton’s high/medium security prison. The usualforeboding that overcame me before prison visits had subsided today, since I was bringing good news to one of the inmates. His lawyer had just reached a settlement with the District government for a stabbing injury the prisoner suffered at the facility two years earlier. I was here to let him sign for his cut of the $15,000.

But by the time the duty officer finished checking my clearance, patting me down, and removing all the chewing gum (potential prison contraband) from my briefcase, I learned that my client was dead.

Sam Anderson*, 25, had died about 10 hours earlier, after being stabbed to death with a homemade knife by two fellow prisoners in his dorm. “Six” Dorm was an especially unlucky place for Anderson. It was where the 1993 stabbing had occurred—although then, inmates had only been able to seriously wound him.

As a lifelong resident of Washington’s cushier neighborhoods, I never expected to find myself working inside the District’s prison system, mingling with men convicted of rape, murder, theft, and drug dealing. But between jobs, I agreed to work as an investigator for a law firm whose specialty is filing lawsuits on behalf of prisoners who are stabbed, beaten, raped, or killed while in the custody of the D.C. Department of Corrections.

The firm is one of a half-dozen in D.C. that specialize in prisoners’ personal-injury suits. The practice appears to be both unexacting and lucrative. Typically, complaints come in by way of collect calls from inmates. Depriving themselves the pleasure of prison visits, the lawyers dispatch hired underlings to determine whether the inmates’ wounds are severe enough to guarantee a juicy cash settlement. If they win, the lawyers collect 40 percent of the settlement, usually without even stepping inside a courtroom. In fiscal ’94, the District shelled out over $2 million in settlements and judgments related to the Corrections Department, according to Rick Love, chief of the District’s correctional litigation division.

I was told to sign prisoners as clients only if they had sustained substantial injuries, received intensive hospitalization (overnight hospital stays made the case even better), didn’t know their attackers, and appeared competent. When not behind bars, I was also responsible for filing the lawsuits at the courthouse and serving subpoenas.

Although I’m a white 27-year-old female whose only brush with the law had been an overabundance of traffic tickets, I was nonetheless sure I was up to the job. I had visited the county jail several times while working as a reporter in Prince George’s County, and often felt safer inside the lockup than out on the county streets. All the prisoners were in their cells, and the guards exuded an air of confidence. I never once questioned the security measures.

The lawyers had assured me during my interview that I would be equally at ease inside the District’s prisons. Instead, what I found were dispirited and incompetent correctional officers, and inmates allowed to wander around with no apparent restrictions. The prisons were more like guarded high schools than penal institutions.

During the two weeks I held the job, inmates at Lorton managed to hold a riot, escape from their cells, and stab two correctional officers. At another Lorton facility, federal authorities busted a heroin-smuggling ring, indicting 20 inmates and one correctional employee. All this occurred as Virginia representatives and District officials were discussing the possibility of having the federal government take control of the prisons. Based on my firsthand observations, I would say even the U.S. Postal Service could run them more efficiently.

The District’s prisons currently hold about 10,800 inmates—approximately 2 percent of the District’s population, according to information provided by the D.C. Department of Corrections. Over 90 percent of the inmates are black males; 7 percent are black females; 2 percent are white males; white females, Hispanics, and others comprise the remainder of the population. Most of the prisoners are between the ages of 21 and 35. Almost all were convicted on felony charges, typically selling drugs or committing a violent crime; most also have a history of substance abuse.

The D.C. Jail in Southeast was built in 1880, but as the prison population boomed, institutions were created across the river in Lorton, Va. The correctional complex commonly referred to as “Lorton” is actually seven separate facilities—Occoquan, Central, Maximum, Medium, Minimum, Modular, and the Youth Center—spread over 3,000 acres of federal land just outside the quaint town of Occoquan. The District’s newest state-of-the-art Correctional Treatment Facility in Southeast opened in 1992. Correctional officials admit the District’s prisons are both understaffed and overpopulated. Prisoners outnumber guards three to one.

Each prisoner costs the government approximately $22,000 a year to house, clothe, feed, and guard (correctional officers make between $24,800 and $35,200 a year). The total annual budget for the Corrections Department is nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

Facts and figures are one thing; the reality of being behind iron gates and razor wire is another. The instant you pass through the guardhouse and into the general population, you realize your own vulnerability. Even though you’re just a visitor, you quickly learn, much like a new inmate, to make friends with prisoners and guards. If you’re caught in a power outage or riot, the last thing you need is an enemy.

My third day on the job, I went in for the first time by myself. Immediately, I felt conspicuous. I had worn drab clothes so as not to attract unnecessary attention, but there were plenty of stares. The inmates mistook me for a lawyer, a cover I assumed by carrying a briefcase. I hoped the pose would protect me from the many prisoners I knew to be armed with shanks (homemade knives). My lawyer bosses had told me that the prisoners stab each other at the slightest provocation in the courtyards, during breaks, and especially in the shower. If they can’t get out of their cells, they tie shanks to the ends of sticks and spear each other, somewhat like Eskimos hunting fish.

I was inside the D.C. Jail, a holding facility that houses a mixed bag of offenders. I had appointments with three men: the first convicted of swindling, the second of armed robbery, and the third of murder. My mind raced as door after door closed behind me until I, too, was locked inside. After the last door slammed, I took one look back through the bars into the vacant waiting room and reassured myself that I would soon return. From there I walked down a narrow hall until I reached the metal elevators that would take me to the third-floor visiting area.

The guard was in a nasty mood. “Show me IDs,” he barked. “Hold them up.” I wasn’t surprised. A week earlier, a correctional officer had managed to sneak her convict/husband out the employee entrance. Another guard suspected something was wrong, but was too afraid to do anything. Needless to say, the barrage of headlines that followed did not cast the best light on correctional officers. This one seemed to take the criticism personally.

My first client was Robert Earl, 32, an openly gay inmate who claimed he was sexually assaulted by other inmates with a broom handle. Earl was already HIV-positive when he was convicted of swindling a businessman out of about $10,000. His mother pleaded with the judge that her son had gone on a destructive binge only after learning he had contracted the disease, but the judge still gave him three to nine years. (His ruling probably had something to do with the fact that Earl already had a lengthy record of fraud, forgery, and theft.)

The lawyers knew Earl was deathly sick with AIDS, so I was instructed to have him sign a power of attorney form. That way, in case he died before the disbursement of potential settlement money, the lawyers would be sure to get their share.

But the guard had news for me: “Robert Earl has expired,” he said flatly.

Nice. I tucked the form back into my briefcase, not realizing how soon this scene would be repeated.

The interview rooms for lawyers on the third floor were separated by Plexiglas from the main visiting room, which was filled with a boisterous crowd of girlfriends, infants, and relatives. The jail’s architect must have been a sadist. In the visiting room, convicts were separated from their loved ones by another wall of Plexiglas. But there was no such partition in the adjacent interview rooms, where lawyers and investigators might welcome the protection. The transparent walls did offer one consolation: If the guard didn’t see me being stabbed, raped, or beaten, maybe one of the visitors would.

Keith White, my first interview, hobbled in on crutches. White said he had been assaulted a few days earlier by a guard because he asked for a drag on the guard’s cigarette. In an effort to thwart the flow of contraband, cigarettes are not allowed to be brought into the jail, but are sold at the jail’s commissary. According to White, the commissary had stopped selling cigarettes several months before, after correctional officers caught inmates stealing. In another fine management decision, corrections officials allowed the guards to continue puffing away in front of thousands of jonesing prisoners, leading to some hostile moments.

Apparently, the guard got fed up with White asking; White said the guard entered his cell and proceeded to “kick the shit out of me.” He had scratch marks to show for the fight, but I told him I wasn’t sure my firm would take the case, although the broken ankle was good. (Later, back in the office, the lawyers asked if I had checked to see whether the ankle was really broken.)

Next on my list was Lamar Peters, 19, who said he shot a 61-year-old grocery clerk during a robbery three years ago. He was so crazy, he said, that he killed the clerk and then hung around afterward looking for money. Needless to say, he’s in for a pretty long time.

Though he was only 16 at the time of his arrest, Peters was tried and convicted as an adult, and must serve out his sentence at the D.C. Jail instead of the Youth Center. A susceptible target, Peters had suffered some pretty nasty stab wounds. He told me he was walking back to his cell when he was stabbed three times from behind with what he believes was a prison-made ice pick (a typical jailhouse weapon). He said he didn’t see his assailants, which is all the better as far as the law firm is concerned. That way, there can be no counterclaim of contributory negligence by the District government. Peters would be partly at fault if he knew someone was after him and did nothing about it, like asking to be placed in protective custody. (Most prisoners don’t like going into “P.C.” because it means getting locked in a small cell for 23 hours a day.)

Anyway, Peters was on some serious drugs; his pupils were as big as quarters. He said he was taking thyroxine to control his “psychotic thoughts and seizures.” He said he didn’t feel safe in prison (no surprise there) and vowed upon his release never to return. He appeared on edge (I wasn’t supposed to take any “problem” cases), but since he had spent three days at D.C. General Hospital, I was pretty sure the firm would want him as a client. So I had him sign a release form allowing the lawyers to obtain his medical records.

Just then, I noticed that all the other lawyers and investigators had gone. I was alone in this holding area with eight inmates and a few straggling visitors. I quickly said my goodbyes to Peters, wished him good luck, grabbed my belongings, and pounded on the door, hoping that the guard was in a good enough mood to open it.

On Monday morning of my second week, the receptionist looked up when I walked in and said she was surprised to see me after what happened over the weekend. I grabbed a paper and read that there had been a power failure at Lorton’s Maximum facility, which I was scheduled to visit that week. Several inmates were able to escape from their cells, stab two guards, and injure four others. The rest of the prisoners joined in by burning their beds and trashing their cells. In a search after the riot, correctional officers confiscated 13 homemade knives.

Nice.

Maximum, or “The Wall,” as many of the prisoners call it, is an intimidating complex that I was already apprehensive about visiting. Unlike the other Lorton facilities, which are surrounded by chain-link fences and razor wire, Maximum is fortified by a 100-foot red-brick wall. Sharpshooters man guardhouses perched on its towering edge. Even on the sunniest day, a gloomy mist seems to shroud the fortress. It’s the District’s only all-single-cell prison, where 80 adult male offenders serving long sentences or needing protective custody are locked in their cells 23 hours a day. My predecessor in the job had warned me that I might find interviews here a little claustrophobic. If someone was already using the guard’s office for an interview, he told me, the guards would lock me in the cell with the prisoner. He said to be sure to remind the guards to restrain the inmates.

I was becoming more and more certain that I was not cut out for this kind of work. I discussed my fears with one of the attorneys, who went to great pains to assure me that the District’s prisons were completely safe.

“Claudia, I’m telling you, nothing’s going to happen,” he said.

“But the guards are never around,” I replied. “I’m alone in these rooms with convicted murderers and rapists, and in a split second, who knows?”

“Look, in the seven years we’ve used investigators, nothing has ever happened,” he assured me. “We’ve even had two women do the job before you.”

“Nothing?”

As it turned out, a female teacher had been raped several years ago at Lorton’s Central facility. The lawyer remembered the incident because she had asked the firm to sue the prison for negligence. My bosses had turned her down after learning that all she was entitled to was workman’s compensation.

Great, I thought. Prisoners could sue for millions, but all I’d be entitled to was a measly workman’s comp settlement. And my bosses wouldn’t even take my case, because it was too small-time.

“They just rioted at Maximum,” I said, extremely agitated. “What if I’m there during something like that?”

“You’d have to be real unlucky,” he said, shuffling some papers, which I took as a signal to leave. “Look,” he said as I stood up. “There’s a greater chance of something happening to you walking around Georgetown than at one of the prisons.”

After many attempts at stalling failed, I was finally sent to Occoquan, the institution most feared by the prisoners, since it was the site of the majority of the stabbings. Excluding Maximum, all the Lorton facilities have the same design—red-brick, one-story buildings on a grassy compound surrounded by a chain-link fence, razor wire, and guard towers. Still, the fresh air made the institutions a welcome change from the claustrophobic confines of the D.C. Jail.

After I passed through a security check at the main guardhouse, my hand was stamped with a mark visible only under a black light—a security measure to prevent prisoners from escaping by switching clothes with visitors. It seemed useless at Occoquan, since the guards never checked my hand when I left. I was given a visitor’s pass, and an unarmed guard was called for my escort.

On a good day, I would only have had to walk about 20 feet inside the grassy complex before I was shuffled to an interview room inside one of the jail’s bungalows. But my appointments were being held in the jail’s adjustment unit, located in the far corner of the compound. Here, the dangerous and extremely vulnerable inmates were isolated from the prison’s general population. To add to my uneasiness, my predecessor had warned me not to be surprised to see roaches crawling over the lunch food left in the cells.

I stuck close to my escort’s side as we weaved through crowds of inmates who were milling around outside, talking to each other, and deliberately blocking our path to the unit. I wondered if they were ever confined to their cells. The guard, a small man, made me walk in front of him.

“Are you sure we’re OK?” I asked, trying to slip behind him.

“Yeah,” he said, yelling at the inmates to move out of my way, which they did after a few tense moments.

“I hear some of these guys are armed,” I said to keep the conversation going.

“Yeah, most of them,” he said. “Man, I’m getting out of here and getting a job with UPS where I don’t have to risk my life every day. When I started here, the guys wouldn’t do anything in front of you. But now they don’t care who’s around when they pull a knife.”

“Have you ever heard of them grabbing a female visitor and holding her hostage?”

“Not in the year that I’ve been working here,” he said. “But I couldn’t say it could never happen.”

My expression must have betrayed my fear. “Look, you would see signs of them preparing for a kidnapping,” he said reassuringly. “It would have to be orchestrated. And these guys know if they are involved in something like that, they would cause the whole jail to lose privileges.”

Yeah, I thought. I guess they wouldn’t want to miss out on any rec time for a day of unbridled rape and torture with probably the only female they had seen in months.

Finally the guard unlocked the steel door of the adjustment unit and left me inside, alone. There was a lunch cart, but no roaches. It was very quiet. Even the normal blare of radios and televisions in the cells was missing. I called through the bars until another guard appeared and promised to bring my clients for their interviews. I walked to the interview room and waited with my back to the wall for a few moments (which seemed like hours) until John Hazelton, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and loosely shackled at his hands and feet, came shuffling in and closed the door.

Hazelton, 25, was serving two to 10 years on an armed robbery conviction. Back in 1992, he and a few buddies held up the Rite Aid drugstore on Georgia Avenue. They got about $100 from the cashier and made off in a getaway car. But a cop eating lunch at a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken was able to apprehend them before they had driven six blocks. Hazelton said he was under the influence of crack cocaine during the holdup, and robbed to support his habit.

I had expected Hazelton to be hostile and angry, inasmuch as it had been several days since he called my firm with his complaint. Instead, he was quite pleasant. But I realized that this muscular man could easily overpower me. As he recounted how he was stabbed three times from behind while returning from the prison’s commissary, and went on about how someone had taken his $50 bag of groceries, all I could think about was how long it would take for someone to come looking for me if Hazelton decided to vent his pent-up aggression in this secluded and windowless room.

Our talk concluded without incident. As he left, I gave him a new legal folder to replace the tattered one in which he was carrying his legal papers, appeals, education certificates, and photographs. I told him my firm would contact him soon to let him know whether they would take his case.

As I opened the interview room door, I was pleased to find my next appointment—a middle-aged man named Jack Evers, in for witness intimidation and assault. (I once waited three-and-a-half hours for an inmate at the D.C. Jail and finally left out of frustration, only to have to explain to suspicious attorneys how I had spent my morning.) Unfortunately, there wasn’t a guard in sight. I told Hazelton to wait until one showed and ushered Evers into the room.

Evers walked in, his wrist and ankle shackles clinking. I shook his hand, even though I was advised against any physical contact with the inmates. I marveled at Evers’ long, curvy yellow nails—not all that unusual in prison, where nail clippers are forbidden because they can easily be turned into deadly weapons.

Evers was serving 12 to 36 months for intimidating two government witnesses, both women, who were going to testify against one of his friends. According to court files, he confronted the women in the courthouse and told them, “You know damn well you didn’t see no mothafuckin’ gun, so plead the Fifth.” He then grabbed one of the witnesses and held her up against the wall while yelling, “What the fuck are you doing down here testifying against my people?”

Nothing like some raging acts of violence against a female to make me comfortable before an interview. Well, at least it wasn’t rape. “Now Mr. Evers, why don’t you tell me about your prison assault?” I asked politely.

According to Evers, he had been ushered into a guard’s office the previous week for a customary strip search. When his pants were down, Evers claimed, the guard decided to beat him on the back with a flashlight. When he turned around to protest, the guard allegedly attempted to squeeze his right handcuff shut on his wrist, cutting his flesh.

There was indeed a sizable scar on his wrist, but I had to tell Evers that the lawyers at my firm probably would not take his case. They were wary of guard-attack incidents, which are hard to prove. They would only take such cases if the prisoner “sustained substantial injuries like a broken bone, or spent considerable time in the hospital.” Evers told me other prisoners had similar problems with this guard, but despite their complaints, no disciplinary action was ever taken.

To soften the blow, I gave Evers the rest of the gum I had smuggled in to make friends. He hid it in his boot, along with what was left of my newspaper. As we waited for a guard to appear, Evers saw my nervousness and consoled me by saying that the other prisoners were too busy stabbing and hurting each other to notice or bother with an “attractive” legal investigator. He said I was safe because I was trying to help them. I wished him good luck and was thankful when my escort, though small, showed up to walk me back to the gate.

When I handed in my visitor’s pass at the guard house, I noticed a group of women visitors leaving the jail. Their chatter livened up the dreary waiting area. I stopped a blond-haired, middle-aged woman and asked what she and her associates had been doing. For the past 20 years, she said proudly, she had been coming to the prisons teaching the way of the Lord. She had been through riots, blackouts, and fights, and never once feared for her safety. “Once you let Jesus in, fear disappears,” she declared. At that point, I was desperate enough to consider my own jailhouse conversion.

Around the corner from Occoquan was my next stop—the District’s Medium facility, built in 1989 to house adult male felons. Same security routine here: get bag searched and hand stamped, obtain pass, and wait for escort. Because there were only a few prisoners walking around in the grassy compound, I felt much safer.

This time, the interview room was across from a guard’s office, in one of the one-story bungalows. Since the previous investigator had said he was more afraid of the guards than the inmates, I was still on edge. Even if they were good guards, they had security monitors to watch, phones to answer, and doors to buzz open. They seemed too busy to take an occasional look through the bars into my windowless office.

When my client, Andy Baker, appeared, I asked him to leave the door open, since he came in unrestrained. Baker had been sentenced to five to 15 years for shooting at two uniformed cops who wanted to question him about an earlier police assault. Baker had only a hazy recollection of the incident because he was “tripping out on PCP” on the day of his arrest, he told a court psychiatrist. Though shooting at a cop is a conviction respected by other inmates (second only to killing one), prison life had not been kind to Baker. He said he was stabbed three times in the back of the head in a bathroom at Occoquan. By his account, he was playfully wrestling with another inmate when he felt something like an ice pick pierce the skin on his head. Baker said when he turned to see who was there, the bathroom was empty. He said he knew it couldn’t have been his wrestling partner, because his buddy was weaponless.

He showed me his scalp and I was pretty sure I saw prick marks. I marked their approximate location on a body drawing the lawyers had given me and told Baker this sounded like a case the firm would take, even though he had spent only a few hours in the hospital. I packed up my things and told him an attorney would be in touch.

Next it was on to the Youth Center, less than a mile away, just past the garbage-treatment dump off Furnace Road. The center is a medium security prison that houses males between the ages of 17 and 22. It was created in 1989 after the Youth Rehabilitation Act required that adult offenders be kept separate from juvenile offenders. Here, I was allowed to bring in nothing but pen and paper. All my other belongings went into a locker. Despite the formalities, the guard forgot to pat me down after I went through the metal detector bundled in layers of winter clothes.

No escorts are provided at the Youth Center. I was told that the tower guards, 100 feet above in watch houses (who, for all I knew, were reading magazines or watching television) would keep an eye on me as I walked down the hill through the prison compound and past the various bungalows. No way, I thought. I demanded an escort and after a few heated phone calls to supervisors, got one.

I was taken to a dormitory to meet with one of the firm’s breadwinning clients—Jeff Leland, 22, in for possession of a handgun and robbery after using the gun to commandeer a car. Since there was no interview room, they brought Leland to the guard’s office. We spent three hours preparing a detailed account of his personal injury at the Youth Center, since the lawyers were preparing to go to trial.

Nine months earlier, when Leland had gone to his dorm’s crowded bathroom, an inmate, whom he said he had never met, smashed his jaw with a lead pipe. Leland said he lay bleeding on the floor for over 30 minutes as other inmates looked on. At one point, he saw a guard walk by, but was in so much pain he was unable to cry for help. Finally, another guard noticed all the blood and Leland was taken to D.C. General for treatment.

He spent several months in the hospital with his jaw wired shut. He had lost almost all his teeth on the right side of his mouth and one of his front teeth. Then he was moved to the Correctional Treatment Facility, adjacent to the hospital, to recuperate. There, he said, he was denied his antibiotics medication and, as a direct result, developed an infection in his jaw and throat.

As he talked, I calculated how to defend myself; one punch to his wired and puffy jaw would send him into excruciating pain. But fortunately, Leland turned out to be a soft-spoken, likable young man. He told me about his other legal battle—trying to get the prison to recognize his real first name, Thomas. Like many other prisoners, he had found that the name you tell the cops when you get arrested is the name you keep throughout your sentence.

After the interview, Leland walked back to his room and I went in search of a guard to escort me back to the gate. As I waited, I talked with four guards who were lingering in the halls. Unarmed and vastly outnumbered by the inmates, the guards said they relied on instinct to know when and where to go in the prison. There were some places that they pointedly avoided. One guard said that even though several inmates had recently placed a sheet over his head and beat him with a pipe in an effort to steal his keys, he still felt reasonably safe.

As I was leaving, I thought about how I might be the last hope for some of the prisoners. Even though I had to make them sign a piece of paper giving the firm 40 percent of any settlement (my predecessor said it was more like 50 percent after expenses), at least they might receive $4,000 to $5,000 for their injuries. If there were enough lawsuits, the District government might even tire of doling out settlements for personal injuries and work to improve safety in the prisons.

Shortly thereafter, I took my final drive down 395 toward the Lorton Road exit. This time the highway was clogged with traffic, but as usual, no one was getting off at my exit. I made my way up the curvy country road until I reached the Occoquan facility. I was hoping to catch Geraldo Symmes, a correctional officer working the 4-to-11-p.m. shift, whom the firm wanted to subpoena.

I told the guard at the gate I had some “legal papers” for Symmes, so they paged him at the guard tower. As I waited in the guardhouse, I overheard the correctional officers talking about some proposed new security regulations. Things were pretty tense after the FBI’s heroin bust the previous day; for the past four years, drugs had been brought in by visitors, employees, and through the jail’s mail room. One report mentioned heroin hidden in a bag of microwave popcorn.

So now authorities were suggesting mandatory strip searches for the guards and visitors alike. After I hassled the correctional officer about accepting the subpoena (“Well, then you explain to the judge why you couldn’t make it, because you were served”), I said farewell to the barbed wire, the guard towers, the strip searches, the shanks, and the lead pipes. I decided I’d rather take my chances walking around Georgetown.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.