Exterior of the DC Jail
The D.C. Jail. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Sophia Dalke no longer wanted to live. In November 2015, the then 31-year-old wrote an email to friends and headed to her office building on K Street NW, where she planned to end her life. She was arrested on firearms charges following a 10-hour standoff with police and taken to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. She stayed there for about a month, she says.

Then Dalke was taken to the DC Jail, where she was placed in a special cell outfitted to prevent occupants from inflicting harm on themselves, known as a “safe cell,” a cruelly ironic moniker according to those who’ve stayed inside them.

Dalke says she was stripped of her clothes and given only a “safety smock,” which she likened to moving blankets that fasten with Velcro. Inside the cell was a hard plastic box that acted as a bed, but no mattress. There was a toilet and sink, but no running water, which means she couldn’t immediately flush the toilet or wash her hands.

The cell was freezing, she says, and bright fluorescent lights were left on 24 hours a day. A sign outside the cell door said no one was allowed to speak with her, and Dalke says she was initially denied her medications, including antidepressants. There were dark smears on the walls, which she believes were feces from previous occupants.

“Here I am, a mentally ill, suicidal person who is being thrown into what are literally used as interrogation techniques: constant lighting, forced nudity, freezing temperatures,” Dalke says. “It’s like fuckin’ Abu Ghraib in there.”

The use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons has gained wider attention in recent years. Research has linked the practice to self-harm, and several states are passing restrictions on its use. 

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts condemned the isolation of those charged in the Capitol riots. And D.C. councilmembers and U.S. representatives slammed the DC Jail’s 23-hour per day medical lockdown that has lasted for more than a year, as reported by the Washington Post in April. (The reaction from Congress, in this case, came from Republicans, who used the issue as an argument against D.C. statehood.) The D.C. Department of Corrections later reduced the lockdown to 22 hours per day.

Much less attention has been paid to safe cells, another sort of solitary confinement practiced in the DC Jail that lawyers, advocates, and experts have tried to reform for years. Those critics concede that DOC has made some progress since Dalke’s incarceration more than five years ago. The agency updated its policy in 2017, for example, and emphasized specific rights safe cell occupants are allowed. But policy doesn’t always translate to practice. Lawyers with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, University Legal Services, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs say in interviews and letters that several recent and ongoing concerns include restricted access to water, no out-of-cell time, and retaliation from correctional officers.

Their efforts to push for improvements came to a head in February during DOC’s annual oversight hearing in front of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. Asked about the inhumane conditions inside the cells that house people in crisis, DOC Director Quincy Booth told councilmembers, “This is the first time I’m hearing about this as it relates to this matter regarding the safe cells.”

Booth’s brief response was a punch in the gut for those who have repeatedly raised concerns.

“After all of the efforts to bring about real change in the use of safe cells, it was shocking and appalling to hear Director Booth’s sworn testimony before the Council’s judiciary committee,” says Mani Golzari, a D.C. public defender who’s worked to improve the conditions in safe cells.

Booth was not available for an interview before publication, but in a statement DOC spokesperson Keena Blackmon says the department is aware of the discussions regarding safe cells and welcomes meeting with advocates.

“The mental health of DOC residents is one of our focal points in implementing best and promising practices and we continue to meet industry standards on the use and accommodations inside safe cells,” the statement says. “Our goal is always to provide comprehensive mental health care and that safe cells are used in coordination with other care. We will continue working internally to minimize the need for safe cells.”

In 2013, following a rash of suicides inside the DC Jail, DOC hired Lindsay Hayes, a nationally recognized suicide prevention expert in jails and prisons. His report, released in November of that year, said DOC should avoid isolation as well as the removal of clothing and cancellation of privileges such as phone calls, visitation, and recreation except as a last resort. DOC claimed to have implemented Hayes’ recommendations, including removing ligature points in cells and beefing up suicide prevention training, in a 2015 document.

But later that same year, around the time Dalke was housed in a safe cell, conditions got so bad that PDS brought their concerns to a D.C. Superior Court judge. Documents in a case separate from Dalke’s describe conditions similar to those she experienced.

In a 2016 affidavit, public defender Amy Phillips described meeting with a client in a safe cell. The client was wearing a smock, similar to the one Dalke says she was given, that revealed their naked chest and groin as they shifted their body during the meeting. Phillips saw vomit and dark stains in the toilet that hadn’t been flushed and noted the smell of feces in the cell. The client told Phillips that they had to ask correctional officers to flush the toilet and “that on more than one occasion, a request for water or the toilet had been ignored.”

A sign posted on the door outside listed items safe cell occupants were not allowed to have: clothes, socks, blankets, religious material, legal material or paperwork, or personal property. They were not allowed showers, visitation, phone calls, personal conversations with other jail residents or officers, or food other than “finger foods,” and the water was to remain turned off except for brief intervals, according to Phillips’ affidavit.

Martin Horn, a former head of New York City jails hired by PDS to weigh in on the case, wrote in a report that he had never seen “conditions of deprivation so severe and punitive. On first seeing them, they shocked me.

“In my observation, the DC Jail has attempted to create a cell that is physically safe from the point of view that it makes it difficult for an inmate confined therein to engage in self-harm,” he continues. “However, they have added a level of deprivation that is unnecessary, punitive and damaging to the mental health of the persons confined in these conditions.”

In a recent interview, Horn notes that the thinking around solitary confinement in general, and the effects of isolation in jails and prisons, has progressed since 2016. He points to a new law in New York state that limits the use of solitary confinement to no more than 15 days and requires screening for suicide risk.

“We used solitary confinement much more years ago and understood it much differently years ago,” he says. “But it’s these additional restrictions that the DC Jail employed that makes it so horrific.” Horn says he has not evaluated safe cells in the DC Jail since 2016.

In 2017, following litigation in the case where Horn and Phillips’ observations appear, DOC rolled out new policies around suicide prevention and intervention.

The new policies give safe cell occupants more rights such as 30 minutes out of their cells each day and access to running water, phone calls, legal visits, and personal property. But those rights can be taken away based on “exigent circumstances or legitimate penological reasons,” according to the policy.

Despite the policy updates, lawyers who represent people with mental and intellectual disabilities continued to hear from their clients about inhumane conditions.

In 2018, PDS joined with the WLC, ULS, and the law firm Sidley Austin to continue to push for improvements. The coalition toured the jail with Booth in November 2018. They documented their observations in a letter that describes “positive and productive” discussions and lists changes such as availability of “safety mattresses” and blankets and dimmers installed on all lights for every safe cell, so they can be turned down at night.

Starting in September 2019, Natasha Walls Smith, then a legal fellow with ULS’ DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project, got access through federal law to monitor safe cell conditions in person. She visited the jail on a regular basis until March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began.

The two most glaring and consistent policy violations are restricted access to running water and the lack of out-of-cell time, she tells LL in a recent interview. DOC policy says safe cell occupants “shall have access to running water,” but that can be restricted if they have a history of attempting to flood their cell or inflicting self-harm by drowning. Rather than shutting off water to one cell, correctional officers will shut off water to the entire block of safe cells, which is a policy violation, Walls Smith says. The consequence is that occupants cannot flush their toilets immediately, wash their hands, or have ready access to drinking water.

Walls Smith says she is not aware of any time where safe cell occupants were let out of their cells as the policy requires.

“Every [correctional officer] I’ve talked to about this, including supervisors, are unaware that people in safe cells are supposed to get recreation,” she says, noting that she hasn’t been inside the jail in more than a year.

Walls Smith also says she’s observed officers informally changing safe cell occupants’ treatment plans in response to a rule violation and without a doctor’s approval. She describes a situation where an occupant feels they’ve been mistreated and responds by “jacking their slot,” which involves sticking their arm through the slot in their door to prevent it from closing. The officer then responds by taking away the occupants’ access to showers, phone calls, running water, or reading materials, which is against policy.

“The times I have seen anyone who’s in a safe cell do anything described as acting out or misbehaving or not following the rules only happened because they believed they were being mistreated,” Walls Smith says. “And it was the only thing they could do on their own to address the mistreatment.”

After March 2020, when Walls Smith stopped in-person monitoring and the DC Jail implemented a 23-hour per day medical lockdown to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, attorneys continued to hear reports of the horrific conditions in safe cells.

“It is hard to imagine that the conditions inside safe cells have gotten better since the level of transparency has only become even more limited during the pandemic,” says D.C. public defender Jenna Cobb, who has worked with Golzari to change conditions in safe cells.

Some of those details are captured in an affidavit from “John Doe,” filed in a lawsuit against Booth and DOC over COVID-19 precautions. The affidavit, dated May 8, 2020, says John Doe had been held in a safe cell since March and was not allowed out. He had no access to water, could not flush the toilet, and was not allowed to call his family. The affidavit says the man was not given underwear, socks, or shoes to wear—only a “dirty smock” that he described as “dingy, smelly, with stains on it.” The light was left on 24 hours a day.

The coalition of PDS, ULS, WLC, and Sidley Austin sent Booth another letter shortly after the affidavit was signed in May. It describes inconsistent and falsified security checks and retaliation from officers who deny showers, drinking water, shoes, and socks when they view safe cell occupants as noncompliant, “including when [occupants] ask for items that their treatment plans expressly provide.

“This occurred even when the occupant’s behavior was a symptom of the occupant’s psychological condition or disorder,” the letter says.

Booth and DOC did not respond to the letter, so in October 2020, Golzari and Cobb emailed him directly. They repeated concerns about officers using water access as a form of punishment and control, lights left on for 24 hours, legal phone calls denied, and dirty mattresses, among other issues.

DOC general counsel Eric Glover replied that he hadn’t heard the allegations before and promised to look into them. The three discussed the issues again over the phone in December 2020, but PDS attorneys continue to hear from their clients, including as recently as this month, about horrific conditions.

Ahead of Booth’s testimony in February, PDS lawyers and advocates with the criminal justice policy shop DC Justice Lab testified about the use of safe cells and solitary confinement in general in the DC Jail.

Demands include judicial review of each person held in solitary confinement after two days and an audit of DOC’s use of safe cells. PDS’ special counsel for policy and legislation Katerina Semyonova asked that the Council pass legislation banning the use of solitary in safe cells.

Outside of the oversight hearing, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen says his office has not heard as many complaints about safe cells as he has other issues in the jail. Much of his current focus, he says, is addressing the 22-hour per day medical lockdown.

For Walls Smith, the relative lack of attention to safe cells reflects her larger frustrations with the conversation around solitary confinement.

“I don’t know why solitary is unacceptable for discipline,” she says. “But solitary confinement in the form of safe cells that go beyond the restrictions in solitary is an acceptable treatment.”

Walls Smith says she was able to make some progress in improving safe cell conditions while she was inside the jail more than a year ago. She intends to return to that in-person monitoring later this year. But even if DOC followed its policies, the conditions are still overly harsh, she says. She believes more focus is needed on preventative measures to keep people out of safe cells to begin with.

“We’re not sitting here talking about whether or not the policies are being enforced around solitary confinement,” she says. “We’ve looked at the overall system and said, ‘This is not a good approach for discipline. It actually causes more harm. And yet we’re still talking about whether policies and procedures are being followed for safe cells and not ‘do we want to be treating suicidal ideation by putting people in a room that just physically limits their ability to harm themselves?’”