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

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh is hoping to achieve an elusive legislative goal just before she heads out the door: banning solitary confinement in D.C.

Cheh introduced a new bill Monday that would effectively end the practice at the DC Jail, which has been notorious for its liberal use of solitary for all manner of incarcerated people there. It’s a continuation of her two previous pushes on the issue, though this legislation goes a bit further than her prior unsuccessful efforts.

This time, the bill—which is also backed by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, and at-large councilmembers Elissa Silverman and Robert White—would fully restrict the use of solitary and sharply limit other isolation measures at all of D.C.’s correctional facilities, instead of trying to limit those methods. It includes a full prohibition on disciplinary solitary confinement and the use of “safe cells,” where people considered a danger to themselves are housed. The bill would also prohibit the use of solitary for protective custody and bans any segregation of transgender inmates (a particularly salient issue after the Department of Corrections settled a lawsuit from a transgender woman who was housed with men for weeks).

DOC spokesperson Keena Blackmon did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Loose Lips will update this article if Blackmon responds.

“I’m proud to introduce a bill that would put the District in the vanguard of reform, setting an example for other jurisdictions to do away with solitary confinement once and for all,” Cheh wrote in a statement.

Cheh’s previous efforts on the matter haven’t gotten much traction. Neither of her bills so much as received a hearing. This time around, she faces a tight deadline, too, because the Council won’t resume meeting until late September, giving lawmakers roughly three months to take up her bill before the legislative calendar resets at the end of the year. Cheh herself won’t even be on the Council next year after her decision to retire (and co-sponsors McDuffie and Silverman might not be either, depending on how the at-large race shakes out).

But Cheh seems to be counting on an unrelenting spate of bad headlines involving solitary at the jail to push her colleagues to come around. In addition to the lawsuit from the transgender woman, which forced DOC to change some of its policies, there was the revelation that many inmates were locked in their cells 23 hours a day for more than year due to pandemic protocols (essentially, a form of mass solitary confinement). Plus, it came out that many of the people charged in connection with the Jan. 6 riot are being held in solitary as a safety measure—the frequent protests of those conditions by far-right members of Congress such as Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene may be cynical attention seeking, but it’s not necessarily wrong or ineffective.

Cheh’s bill would provide limited exceptions for the use of solitary in certain “emergency” situations, but advocates are hopeful that it would lead to a massive reduction in the practice. It seems there’s nowhere for D.C. to go but down—the D.C. Justice Lab, which supports Cheh’s bill, estimates that the District uses solitary at a rate three times the national average. For context, the DOC found that it held 1,781 different people in solitary in fiscal year 2018, and the average stay for those people was 16.6 days long.

“Solitary confinement is a cruel, inhumane, and degrading form of punishment and amounts to torture under international law,” Patrice Sulton, the group’s executive director, wrote in a statement. “Any amount of time in solitary confinement increases the chances of suicide, opioid addiction, death by homicide, and recidivism upon release.”

The bill also requires the DOC and Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services to create plans outlining how they’ll end the use of solitary confinement to send to the Council (and LL suspects lawmakers would need to monitor progress on that work pretty closely to ensure compliance, since these agencies have grown so reliant on the practice).

But first, Cheh’s bill has to actually pass. It’s notable that judiciary committee chair Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen is not a co-sponsor just yet (he did back Cheh’s previous 2015 bill, but not her re-introduction of it in 2017). It’s largely in his hands to determine whether the legislation makes it through his committee in time to beat the Council’s ticking clock.

After this article was published, a spokesman for Allen told LL that the councilmember tries not to sponsor bills likely to come before his committee so as to remain neutral, so his decision not to back the legislation should be read as having any bearing on his support for it.