D.C. Jail
D.C. Jail. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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Damaged. Moldy. Crumbling. Infested with vermin. Smelling of sewage. Completely unconcerned with inmate safety.

Lawyers, health inspectors, and criminal justice consultants used these phrases and more to capture the current condition of the 40-year-old D.C. Jail in a recent investigative report.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee released the scathing report, which ultimately called for the closure of the District’s two major correctional facilities—the D.C Jail and the privately-run Correctional Treatment Facility, both located on Reservation 13 near the D.C General family homeless shelter. (The D.C. Jail holds only adult men, while the CTF houses men, women, and youth.) This recommendation comes on the heels of the D.C. Council approving a “sorely-needed” study of the D.C. Jail in the fiscal year 2016 budget.

While building a new jail has been on the table for years, these announcements—paired with the approaching CTF contract renewal—shine a new light on serious issues that have been bubbling under the surface. The city may finally be ready to address them. If it does, the process could potentially redefine the way the District handles incarceration.

“We’re at a tipping point,” said Deborah Golden, director of WLC’s D.C. Prisoners’ Project. “There’s only so much you can do with the current state of the jail.”

The WLC report, released in mid-June, urged the city to construct a new, safer, and more effective corrections facility—managed exclusively by the District.

While the D.C. Jail has always been under District control, the Corrections Corporation of America has run the CTF since 1997. The CCA’s contract with the city expires in 2017, which means if the Council wants to manage CTF, it needs to start planning soon. Golden and WLC found that CCA was charging the city 31 percent more than the national average for corrections management, and urged the city not to renew the upcoming contract.

“It’s time to look at what fiscally makes sense,” said WLC’s Golden. “This doesn’t.”

The report also relayed allegations of CCA staff abusing inmates and accepting bribes from inmates in exchange for outside contraband—sometimes in the form of sex.

The D.C. Jail, built in 1976, is showing its age. The physical degradation of the facility—from crumbling cell walls to leaking pipes—was described by the D.C. Department of Health as “extremely serious” in 2010. It seems to have only grown worse.

One former inmate, who asked to remain unnamed for fear of repercussions, called the showers “death traps.”

“Since the [Department of Corrections] doesn’t have to use our facilities they don’t seem to care,” he said. “All types of things go on in those showers, people use the bathroom in [them], and when we ask for something to clean it, the guards just say, ‘You should have thought about that before you got yourself in trouble.’”

“It’s a disaster. It’s a mess,” said At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who supports the budget provision requesting an in-depth jail study. “We can’t expect any programs to succeed in these conditions.”

Grosso also stressed the need for improved youth services in the District’s corrections facilities, another glaring concern mentioned in the WLC report. The CTF houses both juvenile and adult inmates, but juvenile inmates are legally prohibited from seeing or hearing the adult inmates in their shared facility. This makes it difficult to schedule time in the shared outdoor and indoor recreation spaces, especially since the youth population is considerably smaller than the adult majority  Because of this, and reports of prolonged solitary confinement of juvenile inmates, the WLC deemed the CTF’s layout “segregated and isolated,” lacking sufficient space for physical exercise, therapeutic programs, and general education.

The jail’s disrepair affects more than the physical health and safety of its inmates.  A 2013 survey found the D.C Jail lacked adequate suicide-resistant cells and neglected monitoring its inmates with severe mental illnesses. This followed the news of four inmate suicides within a ten-month period—three times the national average.

The CTF has also been accused of having insufficient mental health services. A former CTF inmate who dealt with PTSD and severe anxiety (and asked not to be identified) said she left the jail mentally worse off than when she arrived, due to the lack of mental health awareness and constant bullying by the guards.

“There’s nothing worse than just getting out of jail and feeling worthless,” she said.

And she said she wasn’t alone.

“Many of the women are on heavy doses of medication and sedatives, but not really being treated,” the former inmate said. “You have to have building blocks for severely mentally ill inmates and you have to train your entire staff about mental diseases. Instead, these women are being ignored and punished for being sick.”

“It’s not a healthy environment,” said Tammy Seltzer, director of the D.C. Jail & Prison Advocacy Project, an assistance program for inmates with mental illness. “Some inmates spend up to 23 hours a day in their cell. Although a new jail isn’t necessary to improve mental health care, I think the layout could be improved to facilitate a more successful experience.”

Seltzer hopes that a thorough study of the D.C. Jail will produce accurate statistics on mentally ill inmates, specifically how their sentences compare to other prisoners convicted of similar crimes. Currently, she said, there is no comprehensive city data on this large and dynamic population.

“It’s frustrating,” Seltzer said. “We should be the showcase. We should be the model for the rest of the country.”

Advocates, including Seltzer, see the chance to rebuild the jail as an opportunity to rebuild how D.C. handles incarceration. A recently passed budget provision that puts $150,000 toward a study analyzing the current issues and future needs of the D.C. Jail was, in part, sparked by testimony from the American Civil Liberties Union in front of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary.

“The District occupies a shameful position as one of the hotbeds of mass incarceration and injustice in the United States,” Seema Sadanandan, policy and advocacy director for ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, testified in April. A study of the jail’s population would produce a “lasting impact to reduce our reliance on the use of mass incarceration to address social issues,” she added.

While D.C’s incarceration rate is slowing, it remains double the national average: One out of every 50 people have been detained in their lifetime. And while the District’s black population is now about the size of its white population, the percentage of black inmates in both correction facilities remains unchanged at 91 percent. Only 3 percent of District prisoners are white.

“We need comprehensive information,” said Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of ACLU of the Nation’s Capital. “We should know why people go in, how long they stay, what sort of programs they’re offered during their stay, and how they are being returned into the community.”

The DOC’s reentry program aims to prepare inmates for a successful post-incarceration life and steer them away from returning. But, DOC documents show that out of the 11,577 individuals released from custody in 2014, the reentry program served only 191—or 1.6 percent—of them. The most recent report on D.C.’s recidivism rate backs these numbers. A 2012 Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice study found that 62 percent of those released from DOC in 2007 were rearrested by 2010.

“There is no reentry process. The DOC hands out reentry packets, but for the most part it just contains basic information about how to get your ID and where to find [support] groups,” said the former inmate of the D.C. Jail who asked not to be identified. “I was already confident in my reentry because I’ve been through the process before and had supports in place, but people who don’t have those connections have it ten times as rough as me.”

Understanding these factors—both for incarcerated adults and youth—could influence the size of a future jail. Hopkins-Maxwell cited a past prison population study in Ohio that led the state to reduce mandatory sentencing minimums, thus significantly decreasing the inmate population.

“It’s not a small issue. These are people’s lives we’re dealing with. In three days [the length of some misdemeanor sentences], you can lose your job,” she said. Hopkins-Maxwell recommends the District follow Ohio in reforming sentencing minimums.

And a study shouldn’t stop with just the D.C. Jail, Hopkins-Maxwell said. “We need to take back entire control of our corrections department.”

The city remains tight-lipped on its next move. Both Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, chair of Council’s Committee of the Judiciary, and Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sylvia Lane said it’s too early to comment on the provision that provides for a study.

But Grosso said an all-encompassing review of the corrections systems is vital to a study’s success.

“If the study doesn’t take a really comprehensive look at the jail, it will come up short,” he said. “It’s time we put everything on the table.”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery