Credit: Illustrations by Greg Houston

At 7 a.m. on a January day, a dozen deputies with the U.S. Marshals Service are watching as the last of 150 or so inmates from D.C. Jail and St. Elizabeths mental institution get off of a white school bus. The inmates noiselessly file into a “mantrap,” a chain-link holding pen in the garage of the D.C. Superior Court. The mantrap gate isn’t working—it’s making a buzzing sound instead of closing—so an extra Marshals deputy stands close by. The roll-up door to the garage also is not working, so, conceivably, somebody could make a run for it. He’d have to get past the grim-looking Marshal with the shotgun, though.

The mantrap and its environs are the only spot in America where federal Marshals baby-sit two-bit street criminals. It’s a quirk of the city’s long-standing disenfranchisement: D.C. courts are run by the federal government. And the Marshals don’t like working at such a local level. “We have an issue where we have to rely on the Superior Court” to get things fixed, a deputy says, referring to the mantrap gate and garage door malfunctions.

So instead of tracking down high-profile federal fugitives and the like, every day the Marshals at Superior Court choreograph the most depressing of criminal-justice shuffles. First the inmates, clad in orange jumpsuits, enter the mantrap. They are crammed 20 at a time into a tiny cage inside an elevator going up to the cellblock.

Another group follows the inmates. Twenty-odd “lockups” disembark from a Metropolitan Police Department van. Lockups are recent arrests—either from the previous day or, if it’s Monday, from the weekend—who have just emerged from a stay at the central cellblock of the D.C. police department, among other spots. They stumble when stepping out of the vehicle; they’re linked to one another at the wrists by plasticuffs.

This morning, they all are wearing normal street clothes except one: a guy in what appears to be a hospital gown. His right eye is swollen shut. A police report explains: “Struck in the head with broom while assaulting father.”

Just like the inmates, the lockups make their way into the mantrap and then the elevator; they pop out in the cellblock’s interior mantrap. They form a line against the bars in an orderly fashion to have leg irons attached. Some of them definitely know the program. “You see a lot of the same people in here day after day,” says Deputy Robert Brandt, spokesman for the U.S. Marshals at Superior Court.

“We did not used to put everyone in leg irons,” Brandt says. That practice began a year and a half ago. Altercations in the cellblock still happen a couple of times a week, Brandt says, but “the number of incidents has dropped fivefold.” A person is less inclined to fight if he knows he can’t splay his legs for balance.

A deputy snaps on a pair of rubber gloves as the dazed lockups are led into the search room a few feet away. They’re made to remove their shoes (which is easy: laces were confiscated at arrest) and remove extra layers of clothing. The smell of incense is overwhelming. Brandt explains that the Marshals burn it to combat the stench; otherwise, it would “smell strongly of decaying flesh.” It’s common that a number of lockups live on the street and might be wearing three pairs of pants—sometimes clothing becomes grafted to the skin. The smell is “vomit-inspiring,” Brandt says.

After the search, Marshals put the lockups together in a large cell, where procedure requires that everybody pee into a cup. The cells afford no privacy; the single amenity is a stainless-steel combined toilet-sink sitting in a corner. Lockups whiz while they wait to meet with someone from the Pretrial Services Agency in the interview room.

A transvestite is placed alone in an adjacent cell so there’s no threat of his being assaulted. This cell is closest to the control room and can be seen easily by the deputies through its large windows.

Other cells are empty this morning, yielding a clear view of the graffiti on the walls. Most of it is brown—and it didn’t come from Magic Markers. Somebody wrote pop on one wall, in poop. In one cell there’s an old pile in the toilet: the artist’s palette.

“There’s no reason this doesn’t get cleaned,” says Brandt. The deputies don’t clean the cells themselves, and the Superior Court’s facilities service apparently can’t eliminate the shit stains all over the walls.

Any cleaning problems are news to court officials, says court spokesperson Leah Gurowitz. Despite “ongoing contact and regular meetings” with the Marshals, “concerns about the cleanliness of the cellblock have not been raised with us in the past year,” she wrote in a statement.

Some of the graffiti is in ink. Occasionally, a prisoner can get his hand on a pen or pencil from a careless lawyer or unguarded desk, Brandt says, and that can be a very bad thing. Nearly two decades ago, a prisoner thrust a pencil into a deputy’s face. A photograph of the injury is circulated to all new Marshals as a warning. The photo depicts a broken pencil jutting out at a 45-degree angle from the calm, bruised face of a young woman with shoulder-length blond hair.

After lockups have peed into a cup and met with Pretrial Services, they await arraignment in holding cells behind Courtroom C-10. Prisoners walk down “The Longest Hall” to a different set of courtroom holding cells before their court appearances. This hallway spans the length of the building and is punctuated with low overhangs. Brandt says a tall deputy once knocked himself out by hitting his head. The prisoners he was escorting went and got help for him.

The courtroom holding cells are about 7-by-7 feet in size. Ten prisoners are crammed in at a time. It’s standing room only. In each of these cells, the walls bear the same dark smudges—human grease. If the deputies got a list from the U.S. Attorney’s office of the order cases will be heard, they could bring prisoners here from the more spacious cellblock shortly before their court appearances. But they don’t, so an unlucky inmate can be left standing for hours. If that person’s case isn’t called until 7 p.m., it will have been 13 hours since he last saw food.

“We’re very sympathetic to the issue,” says Channing Phillips, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “The problem of having detained defendants waiting around for long periods of time is due largely to the reality of having a very busy urban courthouse.”

The Marshals routinely do battle with that reality. “Our job is to provide services in a safe and secure manner,” says U.S. Marshal Steve Conboy, head of the agency’s Superior Court operations. “That cannot be accomplished here.”

In other jurisdictions, U.S. Marshals see to it that facilities are constructed to their own specifications. In addition to working in a building they see as inadequate for the job, the D.C. Superior Court Marshals complain that there is no mechanism in place to remedy infrastructure problems. When a mantrap malfunctions, a roll-up door won’t roll down, or a light bulb goes out, there’s no efficient way for the Marshals to get Superior Court to fix the problem, they say.

Superior Court officials say they fix what the Marshals say needs fixing. “They have identified a list of facilities improvements that we are working through in order of priority,” wrote D.C. Courts Executive Officer Anne Wicks in a statement to the Washington City Paper. As for cleanliness issues, Wicks wrote, “The cleanliness of the cellblock has not been on their list, but will be addressed immediately.”

But Conboy says it’s the court system’s responsibility, not his, to make facility requests, because the Marshals have no authority to use their resources for cleaning or repairs in a nonfederal building.

You can’t blame them for griping about their workplace. Marshals are supposed to be some of the baddest asses in law enforcement, chasing down big-time fugitives across the country and being portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in major motion pictures. Their Web site boasts that in fiscal 2006, U.S. Marshals cleared more federal felony warrants than all other law enforcement agencies combined. While the Marshals assigned to D.C. Superior Court are as buff and tough as any, they don’t get to nab many drug kingpins or Mafiosi. No, what they mainly do here is pat down the same stinking bum every week, and when they need to go to the bathroom, they use the same toilet-sink he does.