Federal Judge Orders Sweeping Reforms to D.C. Jail Conditions During COVID-19

U.S. Parole Commission Also Ordered to Provide Plan for Possible Further Reduction of Jail Population

June 18, 2020 12:30 pm

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WASHINGTON – In a preliminary injunction issued today, a federal court judge has ordered the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) to implement a wide range of precautionary measures at the D.C. Jail to protect against the spread of COVID-19. The court found that as of mid-May the infection rate at the Jail was “nearly 14 times higher than the rate of infection for other District of Columbia residents,” which represents a deterioration in conditions since early April.

Today’s order mandates that DOC provide prisoners with medical care within 24 hours, enforce Centers for Disease Control policies on social distancing, provide prisoners with necessary materials to clean their cells and instruction on how to use them, ensure access to confidential legal calls, provide increased testing for prisoners, and improve conditions for prisoners in isolation due to COVID-19 so that they are non-punitive and specifically allow for access to phone calls, daily showers, and clean clothes.

Today’s order also recognizes that reducing the prisoner population is important to slow the spread of COVID-19, and ordered government agencies responsible for incarcerating prisoners at the Jail to “provide the Court with a detailed plan for the review and possible further reduction of DOC inmates under their supervision/care by July 1, 2020.” This is the second set of conditions ordered in the case since it was filed on behalf of four prisoners on March 30. The Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP are co-counsel for the prisoners.

“This is a huge victory for all of the human beings still incarcerated inside the D.C. Jail,” said Steven Marcus, Staff Attorney, Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia. “These long-awaited reforms will vastly improve the conditions inside the jail, and give everyone inside, prisoners and staff alike, a greater chance at surviving this pandemic. We look forward to working with DOC and other government agencies to continue people’s safe transitions out of the dangerous jail environment.”

In a 40-page opinion accompanying its order, the court concluded that “Plaintiffs have provided evidence that Defendants are aware of the risks that COVID-19 poses to Plaintiffs’ health and have disregarded those risks by failing to take comprehensive, timely, and proper steps to stem the spread of the virus.”

“In today’s ruling, the Court rightly focused on actual conditions inside the facility, prioritizing the concrete findings of the court’s experts and the sworn evidence from affected prisoners over the government’s vague generalizations,” said Scott Michelman, legal director, ACLU of the District of Columbia. “The court correctly found that the District’s efforts have been too little, too late, and that judicial intervention is necessary to avert grave risks of serious illness and death.”

The case, Banks v. Booth, was filed as a class action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The order and opinion can be found here.

This press release can be found here.

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