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This morning, Councilmember Phil Mendelson, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, will hold an oversight hearing on the Department of Corrections. Hopefully, Mendo will get some answers out of Director Devon Brown about all the stabbings at the D.C. Jail. Brown (pictured) has a decent reputation and there were high hopes for his tenure running the DOC. But the overall lack of transparency from the DOC is troubling.
Phil Fornaci, the director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, has given City Desk an advance copy of his written testimony he plans on presenting to Mendelson today. Fornaci, as informed an advocate as there is in D.C., could not be more clear in his assessment of the DOC (emphasis added):
“There has also been a disturbing regressive trend in the DOC’s compliance with DC law, its ability to maintain safe and sanitary jail conditions, and in its relationships with advocates and DC residents. For example, in 2009-10, we saw the population of the DC Jail briefly exceed the court-mandated limit, and the Jail continued to hover (and still does) near that limit for most of the year. Frequent complaints reaching our office related to violence, uncontrolled contraband, and generally unsafe and unhealthy conditions have soared in the last year. And perhaps most importantly, the DOC is now more closed off from public accountability and scrutiny than it has been since the 1970s, before decades-long litigation forced DOC management into reform.”
What does this mean for you? A lot of inmates are going to start suing the District again. And they are going to win big. But wait there’s so much more after the jump: Broken cell doors, drugs, and street knives, etc.
Fornaci goes on to state that the DOC is possibly violating the Jail Improvement Act on several fronts. Fornaci pinpoints at least two areas of concern:
*”In prior years, our organization has provided detailed testimony about issues affecting prisoners at the Jail and the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), based in part on documents provided at least annually by the DOC and based on our own interactions with DOC staff and with DOC prisoners. Unfortunately, the documents we normally rely upon to report to this Committee (and required under the Jail Improvement Act, discussed below), are unavailable this year. It is our understanding (from Committee staff) that the DOC did not provide such documentation this year, despite its legal requirement to report to the Council on a quarterly basis.”
*”In 2009, the Fenty Administration declared unilaterally that it would not comply with the provisions mandating that all prisoners be released before 10:00 pm. There was no change in law, only an alleged re-interpretation of the law by the Attorney General. In 2009, this Committee offered the “Safe Release of Inmates Amendment Act of 2009” (Bill 18-424) in an attempt to compromise with the Mayor’s blatant refusal to comply with DC law. The bill would require the DOC take responsibility for people it released after 10 pm by providing transportation, securing housing if necessary, and other services. Not only did the Fenty Administration refuse this compromise, the DOC has refused to provide to this Committee even basic information about the number of people (illegally) released after 10 pm and the reasons for their late releases.”
David Zumba, an intern with the Prisoners’ Project, will also testify at today’s hearing. His written testimony, provided to City Desk, includes first-person accounts from D.C. Jail inmates. He quotes a letter dated Jan. 13 from an inmate who was stabbed during a lockdown the day after Christmas:
“On December the 26th around 2a.m. to 4a.m. I was jumped and stabbed 10 times inside of my cell…[W]hen I went to my room I shut my door and he asked me if I need any motrin because I had a toothache. So I said yes so once he gave me the motrin I turned to leave and 5 guys were standing behind me…they all started to hit me and kick me once I hit the ground for a minute I start to feel someone stabbing me so I rolled under the bed so they couldn’t get to me…But on the 26th the jail was suppose to be on lockdown at 2am to 4am but all of the doors were broken that’s how the inmates got out their cells and walked in mine…[i]f I would have never got under the bed I would be dead or injured worser than I am.”
In another letter, Zumba plans to read, the inmate describes suffering from heat exhaustion last April after his cell door wouldn’t open. Corrections officers couldn’t help him. The inmate was trapped inside his cell for 12 hours.
The broken doors are such a problem even the warden has started offering advice to inmates. Zumba quotes one inmate’s account:
“I [name] have not had a full 8hrs of sleep since I’ve been here at the D.C. jail do to the “POPOUT” unsecured cell Doors, it has caused me mental anguish, stress and a high level of anxiety while attempting to sleep at night because of fearing that someone might enter my cell and cause me harm or even just steal my canteen possessions. On January 21st , 2010 the facility Warden himself (Mr. Waynewright [sic]) was making his rounds checking cell doors and when he got to me and my cellmate cell the door was unsecured, then he begin to tell … my cellmate to [move to] another unit and to move me out of the unit, but Sgt. Davis chose to move me to cell 74 which that cell door was also broken…On 1/29/10 right after me and my cellmate seen a inmate running back out of our cell I [name] questions Sgt. Davis and asked him was it anything that me and my cellmate could do to secure our door and he then told the both of us to try a “PLASTIC thing of deodorant” that they give us and place it into the top of our cell door to keep a person from entering from the outside.”
Why are the broken doors such a concern for the inmates? Because, according to another letter Zumba quotes, the jail has become a den of drugs and weapons:
“I am not a violent person, however I am housed with numerous alleged murders and violent offenders…I spend most of my time surrounded with inmates with full access of street knives, cell phones, and any drug you can name. Instead of being correct I am being corrupted. In the unit that I am housed SE-3 none of the cell doors work properly which allows inmates to roam freely all night long and which cause the inmate to [commit] bodily harm and [thefts] of commissary. Since my stay there has been numerous numbers of stabbings even murders.”
In an interview with City Desk earlier this week, Mendelson shared his own concerns about the Department of Corrections’ performance. Mendo says he is particularly worried about Mayor Fenty’s attempts to slash the DOC’s healthcare contract with Unity.
The councilmember also points out that as a result of a $12 million class-action settlement over late releases and unnecessary strip searches, the District was to build a facility that would handle releases. At one point, there was a temporary center at D.C. General. [The problem of over detaining inmates continued as a big problem even after the settlement was reached in 2005].
“It was supposed to be completed in 2009,” Mendelson says. “They are off schedule.”
Mendelson also plans to bring up the issue of late releases and the female inmate that was wrongly released in January.
“What are the accurate numbers regarding inmates released at night,” Mendelson says. “Why is she being released at 11:41 p.m.? And I’ve asked questions that have not been answered.”
Mendelson says he also wants to hear from Brown about the apparent increase in violence at the jail.
*photo courtesy of dc.gov.