For more than three weeks, Saint Elizabeths Hospital, an inpatient mental health facility operated by the District, did not have clean running water. The crisis caused the facility to drastically reduce the availability of therapy sessions and cease providing some medical care altogether.

Patients and staff were not able to regularly flush toilets, resulting in fecal matter, urine, and menstrual blood overflowing onto bathroom floors. Indoor showers were turned off. The outdoor showers that the District obtained were clogged and dirty. Patients had to walk to those showers in groups and wait outside, dripping wet in cold temperatures, for other members of their group to finish showering before they could go indoors. The conditions in St. Elizabeths attracted insects and produced a stench that one patient compared to the smell of dead rats.

In response, the District chose not to transfer patients to new facilities or even cease admitting new residents. Instead, it confined patients in filth and disorder, subjecting them to trauma that could exacerbate their mental health disabilities.

The conditions that festered at St. Elizabeths and the District’s response to them shock the conscience. They also violate patients’ rights under the Fifth Amendment. On October 23, 2019, in collaboration with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Arnold & Porter, the ACLU-DC filed suit to demand that St. Elizabeths provide patients the care they deserve.

The same day we filed our lawsuit, the District restored clean running water at St. Elizabeths. It has not, however, explained how it will address the fallout from this crisis or prevent similar crises from arising the next time an emergency occurs at the facility. We will therefore still be seeking appropriate orders from the court.


Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs

Pro Bono Law Firm(s)

Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP

Date filed

October 23, 2019