Credit: (Illustration by Jack Hornady)

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In January 2006, a federal judge approved a $12 million settlement between the city and former D.C. Jail inmates who had been incarcerated and needlessly strip-searched after their ordered releases—some had been overdetained for more than a year. A year later, a nearly identical case is working its way through the courts, and it looks as though the District should prepare to open its wallet once again.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth certified another class-action lawsuit concerning the D.C. Jail’s alleged inability to release inmates on time. In his ruling, Lamberth reflected on the déjà vu: “This is a case in which history insists on repeating itself. The subject matter is virtually identical to a prior case before this Court, the arguments are the same, even the same procedural defaults have been made. If past is prologue, then the result here must be predictable.”

The District’s lawyers, Lamberth wrote, continue to counter the former inmates’ claims “with the excuse that some delays are inevitable due to administrative needs.” Delays of a day or two, they claim, are “per se reasonable.”

Lamberth slapped down that stance, writing that “the great weight of precedent suggests that release must occur within a matter of hours.”

To call the District’s position willfully stubborn would be an understatement. Overdetentions have been a costly problem for nearly a decade. From 1999 to 2001, Joseph Heard, a deaf, mute, and mentally disabled man, was wrongly held at the jail more than 660 days. In 2003, the Washington Post reported that Timothy Mobley, a schizophrenic man, had been needlessly held for nearly two years. And these cases were nothing new; the issue had long been studied and investigated by the courts as well as city watchdogs.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, William Claiborne, who also represented the inmates in the previous class-action lawsuit, says he’s disappointed that the Department of Corrections can’t seem to solve the overdetention problem. “We just want to make sure there’s a system in place for getting people out on time and just ensuring that they don’t get strip-searched after they’re ordered released,” he says.

In the previous class-action case, Claiborne thought the settlement provided an adequate solution. The Department of Corrections agreed that inmates who have been ordered released in Superior Court would not be bused back to the jail but would instead be taken to a processing center on the adjacent D.C. General Hospital campus (“Free At Last,” 8/19/2005), where they would be released without a strip search.

But within a month of the $12 million settlement, D.C. Jail inmates were still being detained without justification.

Ronald Madley was ordered released on the afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006. From Superior Court, he was bused to D.C. General, as stipulated in the settlement. Once he got there, he had to wait, along with 12 other defendants who were supposed to be released. “It’s a little bullpen,” he said in an interview that February. “We stayed there for about two hours.” Then an officer came around and broke the bad news: No one was going home.

Madley, then 45, tried to argue that he had been ordered released, but an officer told him he had nothing to do with the decision. Madley recalled the guard saying: “You know how slow the process go. You know how the record office is.”

By 9 p.m., Madley was sent back to the jail, and that’s where he spent his weekend. He repeatedly showed his paperwork to jail employees. While some of the officers tried to help, none of them had the power to release him.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I was tossing and turning because of the aggravation….Psychologically, I’m hurt. It’s so easy to slide you in. But when it’s time for you to go home, it seems like the jail don’t want to let you go.”

The word from the records office, which manages the comings and goings of inmates, seemed to only confirm Madley’s fears. It claimed it had no reason to release him. “I felt like I would be trapped in there,” Madley said. On Monday, Madley asked another inmate to call his lawyer, Bruce Cooper, who tried to call the jail’s records office.

“It rang and rang,” Cooper says. “I finally got through on the third or fourth try. When I finally got someone, they were helpful but they couldn’t tell me why he wasn’t released….They have no clue over there. Then I asked a fellow, ‘Was he aware of all those lawsuits?’ He said he was.”

The official’s awareness didn’t mean much for Madley. Later that afternoon, he got through to his attorney again. “He said the jail told him they had lost his file,” Cooper recalls.

Cooper again speed-dialed the jail. He also contacted the magistrate judge’s chambers and Superior Court officials. Eventually, someone answered the phone at the jail. The person on the other end said that they were simply overwhelmed but told him Madley would be released that night.

At 9:45 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 13—four days after his ordered release—Madley was finally let out. That night, his wife made him fried fish, potatoes, onions, and collard greens. “Me and my woman celebrated,” he says. “Held each other all night.”

The ritual of the defendants’ disappearances in the jail’s system and their belated homecomings continued all over the city. During that same month, a judge had to order one inmate’s release multiple times before she was finally let out of the jail. Another inmate, who had a copy of his release order, found that his guards simply accused him of forgery. Still another sat through a five-day trial on a robbery charge and was found not guilty—only to find himself back behind bars. When he was finally released the next night, he was put out in a blue jumpsuit; the jail had destroyed his clothes.

Claiborne says one potential reform is to process released inmates at the courthouse. And according to Department of Corrections spokesperson Beverly Young, agency director Devon Brown favors such a move.

Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus G. King III says the court has already done quite a bit to prevent overdetentions. Court rules require a paper order for each defendant explicitly giving their status, and King says that corrections staff “must ensure that they do not take anyone into their custody without the appropriate paperwork.” King also says that corrections employees have been trained in using court databases and that staff is available to answer questions.

“The Court is open to discussing the possibility of [the jail] having space at the courthouse to process and release those defendants for whom release orders have been issued. However we do not see that as relevant to correcting the problem of over-detentions and early releases,” King said in a written statement.

Young cites a District law that requires the Department of Corrections not to release inmates after 10 p.m. as a cause of overdetentions.

That doesn’t explain how Carl Lynch spent at least two days in jail beyond his ordered release date. According to an affidavit filed in federal court, Lynch says that on Feb. 16—a year after Madley’s plight—he was taken back to jail after his release, where he was strip-searched. “On my return, I was informed by my unit officer that the computers are down and that I am scheduled to be released [four days later].”

At the time Lynch provided his statement, he was still in jail, overdetained.