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

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Mark this one down for the record books: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia is right about the state of the D.C. jail. She’s only half right, of course, but you can count that as progress given her terrible opinions on virtually every other subject.

What’s more, Greene and her fellow House Republicans have somehow stumbled ass-backwards into successfully driving public attention to the deplorable conditions at the jail over the past two years, ensuring far more oversight at the facility than it would have otherwise received. Incredibly, an array of federal and District agencies charged with monitoring the jail have not been nearly so productive.

Fresh off the second tour of the D.C. jail led by Greene and her colleagues, activists and experts in D.C.’s criminal legal system tell Loose Lips that the GOP’s efforts to gin up sympathy for the defendants charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection and held at the facility have generated a truly rare amount of public discussion about conditions there, but that has yet to be matched by actual improvements. People accused of crimes during the Capitol riot are held in relatively humane conditions, contrary to Greene’s assertions, but the same cannot be said for most everyone else incarcerated there, despite promises of action from the U.S. Marshals Service, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, and others.

“You’ve got continued high levels of violence, you’ve got enormous problems with access to health care and mental health services, not to mention it’s physically falling apart,” says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “From our clients’ perspectives, nothing has fundamentally changed over there.”

The marshals service’s failings to force substantial change at the jail are broadly seen as particularly disappointing after the agency became embroiled in an unusually public fight with the District’s Department of Corrections, which manages the jail. USMS has custody of people who are held at the jail as they await trial on federal charges, and its agents swept in for a surprise inspection of the facility back in October 2021 (just days after a federal judge held DOC officials in contempt for not turning over information about a Jan. 6 defendant to USMS). The marshal service then chose to move 400 of the people in its custody to another federal prison, citing an array of problems at the jail, a decision that observers say USMS has made only a handful of other times in its history. USMS and the District ultimately signed an agreement in November 2021 outlining ways the city would improve the jail.

But for all that publicity back then, activists say USMS has pretty much ignored the jail ever since. That inaction has added to the broader impression among jail watchers that the feds only took action because of the prominent complaints of Republicans and their media allies on behalf of insurrectionists.

“I see no signs that they are engaged or following up or that anything’s happened since they pulled people out,” says Deborah Golden, an attorney who has spent the past two decades representing people held in the jail. “Yet there’s nothing easier for them to monitor than the D.C. jail. They’re headquartered in D.C. They could pretty much walk there.”

Acting U.S. Marshal Lamont Ruffin initially agreed to an interview for this story, but his spokespeople were never able to successfully schedule a conversation with LL, despite several weeks of back-and-forth.

But the agency’s efforts at changing the jail are documented, at least, in a report included among the DOC’s responses to the D.C. Council’s recent oversight questions. It details 21 different problems USMS observed in its 2021 inspection, ranging from clogged toilets to the excessive use of pepper spray by guards, and includes steps for DOC to make improvements. For every one of those issues, the report says that “the corrective action was implemented to ensure continued compliance” and that the item is now “closed.” Of course, many of those problems seem to persist. The USMS report detailed rampant drug use among prisoners (and that DOC staff were “unconcerned” by it in many cases), and the jail saw a series of overdoses among inmates last year.

“It made a big splash when they pulled those prisoners out, but they just scratched the surface,” Smith says. “They’re under tremendous political pressure…but the marshal service’s supervision has been, at best, anemic.”

Smith notes that there has been little public communication about the agency’s role at the jail, after the memorandum of understanding between the DOC and USMS, signed in the wake of the prisoner removal, barred both parties from discussing these issues with the press “without prior consent by the other party.” But that agreement expired in February 2022 and “was not extended or renewed,” the DOC wrote in its responses to Council questions.

The marshal’s efforts to sound the alarm with other federal investigators also seem to have gone nowhere. Ruffin wrote in a November 2021 letter to DOC officials that he was referring the results of the USMS inspection to the Department of Justice for a civil rights investigation, but Golden says she hasn’t heard “any whispers” of one thus far. A bipartisan group of senators on the chamber’s judiciary committee even felt forced to press Attorney General Merrick Garland for any confirmation that such a probe had begun in a letter last May. Neither the DOJ nor a committee spokesperson responded to requests for comment.

Of course, the jail is ultimately the city’s responsibility, and its efforts to respond to the USMS’s unease about the facility’s conditions have been similarly muddled.

Activists have complained for years now that the city’s main oversight body for the jail and federal prisons where D.C. residents are held, the Corrections Information Council, is largely toothless. The CIC has only visited the jail’s Central Detention Facility, where most people are held, three times in the year-and-a-half since the USMS raised its concerns about the unit, according to the CIC’s oversight responses to the Council. Additionally, the CIC was cut out of the Bowser administration’s main response to the USMS inspection.

Specifically, then-Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart hired a private consultant, the Arlington-based Center for Naval Analysis, to inspect the jail and prepare a “confidential report” on its conditions for the mayor and DOC Director Thomas Faust, according to the CIC’s oversight responses. The CIC met with Chip Coldren, the head of CNA’s Center for Justice Research and Innovation, to discuss that study of the jail but “it was not a joint operation,” the agency wrote.

Bowser has never discussed this review of the jail publicly nor released its results, as near as LL can tell. Neither the DOC nor CNA responded to requests for comment about it. But emails released to LL via a public records request suggest that Geldart hired CNA to do the work in November 2021 and delivered some sort of report in March 2022.

In one email exchange with Lindsey Appiah, then Geldart’s chief of staff, Coldren wrote that CNA would conduct “a review of inspection and assessment reports regarding DC DOC since 2018, an assessment of jail operations covering a number of important areas, a review of facility maintenance and design issues, and, to the extent it is currently on the table for discussion, a review of the DOC’s management of COVID.” (Bowser would ultimately appoint Appiah to replace Geldart after he resigned following a scuffle with a gym trainer in an Arlington parking lot in October.)

The city chose to redact the report’s contents in its response to LL’s records request, citing exemptions to D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act. But the CIC told the Council that its “key findings aligned with many recommendations discussed in previous CIC reports.”

“What a waste of money,” Golden says. “There have already been studies upon studies of all this.”

It’s unclear how much D.C. paid CNA for this work, though emails released to LL suggest CNA handled it as part of a $900,000 contract it signed with the city for other work, including consulting on D.C.’s efforts to regain local control of parole. (Geldart’s decision to hire the firm for that project alienated several prominent activists working on the issue, and progress on the complex matter has since stalled.)

Melissa Wasser, policy counsel at the ACLU-DC, is skeptical that the city would ever make any substantial changes at the jail on its own, regardless of what that report found. She believes that, historically, “DOC has not and will not make improvements unless there’s a court-appointed monitor and inspector on the ground,” citing a series of instances where groups like the ACLU had to sue to force changes there.

Wasser’s group is among those advocating for a separate, independent agency to monitor the jail, given the CIC’s failings. However, she is at least “cautiously optimistic” for some changes after the Council passed a bill late last year to give the CIC a bit more muscle, including measures to make it more independent from the mayor, add staff, and give it more access to the jail for inspections.

“It’s not everything advocates wanted, but it’s a start,” Wasser says.

That legislation also gives the chair of the Council’s judiciary committee the ability to make unannounced visits to the jail. The latest lawmaker to hold that post, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, says she has yet to use that authority, but expects that she could in the future (particularly if it means she gets a clearer picture of what sort of food the jail is serving, a subject she’s also introduced legislation to address).

“One of my biggest focuses with the jail is around the creation of a new facility that has habitable living conditions,” Pinto says. “That was a major budget priority of mine last year. And so now that the construction of the new facility is planned a couple of years out in our budget, one of my responsibilities this year is to make sure that we have everything in place to plan for that construction and make sure it stays on schedule.”

Bowser has included plans for a new jail in her last two budgets (she wants to close the Central Detention Facility and build a new annex to the adjacent Correctional Treatment Facility) with her latest spending plan allocating $277 million to the project. Smith says he certainly understands the temptation for D.C. officials to focus heavily on that construction project, since so many of the jail’s problems stem from the fact that the CDF, which opened in 1976, is “way past the end of its useful life.”

But he doesn’t want that new jail to be a substitute for robust oversight: no matter who’s doing it.

“You have a culture inside that department that has to be very seriously changed through the imposition of accountability,” Smith says. “As we open up a new facility, we also have to ensure that it opens up right.”