Dear Director Booth:
I hope you are doing well during this time.
While we are confident you are working hard to develop evidence-based and proactive plans for the prevention and management of COVID-19 in the D.C. Jail and Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), I’m writing to share with you a list of critical issues that the ACLU-DC believes must be addressed to not only protect the health of the vulnerable populations you serve but also to safeguard their civil rights and civil liberties.
As you well know, people in these facilities are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. They are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health. Without the active engagement of the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC), they have little ability to inform themselves about preventive measures, or to take such measures if they do manage to learn of them.
As you work with the D.C. Department of Health (DOH) to develop plans that will prevent an outbreak or minimize its impact if one does occur, we encourage you to address the following issues:
- Education of the people in your custody: People detained in the DOC system need to be informed about the virus and the measures they can take to minimize their risk of contracting or spreading the virus. They must be educated on the importance of proper handwashing, coughing into their elbows, and social distancing to the extent they can. Information about the spread of the virus, the risks associated with it, and prevention and treatment measures must be based on the best available science.
- Education of the staff: Correctional, administrative, and medical staff all must be educated about the virus to protect themselves and their families, as well as the people in their custody.
- Staffing plans: DOC and its contractors must review sick-leave policies for shelter staff who should be encouraged to stay home if they exhibit flu-like symptoms like fever and cough, so as not to spread the virus to residents. Regardless of how many staff stay home because they are sick, your facilities will have to continue functioning. There must be a plan for how necessary functions and services will continue if large numbers of staff are out with the virus.
- Provision of hygiene supplies: The most basic aspect of infection control is hygiene. There must be ready access to warm water and adequate hygiene supplies, both for handwashing and for cleaning. These supplies must be made readily available to both staff and those detained in your facilities.
- Screening and testing of the people in your custody: The plan must include guidance, based on the best science available, on how and when to screen and test people in your facilities for the virus.
- Housing of persons exposed to the virus: The plan must describe how and where people in the DOC system will be housed if they are exposed to the virus, are at high risk of serious illness if they become infected, or become sick with it. This should not result in prolonged, widespread lock-downs. Any lock-downs or interruptions in regular activities, such as exercise or visits and phone calls with families or attorneys, should be based solely on the best science available and should be as limited as possible in scope and duration.
- Treatment: Courses of treatment must be evidence-based, available immediately, and in compliance with scientifically based public health protocols.
- Vulnerable Populations: The plan must provide for additional precautions for those who are at high risk of serious illness if they are infected, such as pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses, compromised immune systems, or disabilities, and people whose housing placements restrict their access to medical care and limit the staff’s ability to observe them.
- Data collection: The collection of data regarding COVID-19 will be part of the public health response. As with any contagious disease, data collection is critical to understanding and fighting the virus. DOC must be part of this process. The same information that is tracked in the community must be tracked in the D.C. Jail and CTF. Under no circumstances should data collection or reporting mechanisms lead to further involvement of law enforcement, ICE, or other federal agencies.
Finally, we ask that you share the specifics of your plan with the public as soon as possible to aid in speedier information sharing and give confidence to the public that these measures are in place.
Quincy, I hope you find this input helpful, and please let me know if the ACLU-DC can be a proactive resource during this crisis.
Executive Director, ACLU of the District of Columbia