Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety Performance Oversight Hearing on the
Department of Corrections
March 2, 2022
Good morning, Councilmember Allen and members of the Committee. My name is Nassim Moshiree, and I am the Policy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC). I present the following testimony on behalf of our more than 15,000 members and supporters across the District.
The ACLU-DC is committed to working to dismantle systemic racism, safeguard fundamental liberties, and advocate for sensible, evidence-based criminal justice polices. The ACLU-DC is also a supporter of the #SafeandFreeDC legislative agenda, we strongly believe the District must center the voices of Black individuals, organizations, and coalitions in decision-making and solutions to public safety and criminal justice policies.
My testimony today will focus on three legislative actions that we urge the D.C. Council to take up immediately to address the egregious and inhumane conditions of the D.C. Jail facilities, the complete lack of transparency and accountability demonstrated by the D.C. Department of Corrections and its leadership, and the systemic injustices perpetuated by the District’s decades-long carceral approach to public safety.
These include 1) empowering strong, independent oversight of DOC facilities and practices, 2) enacting legislation to significantly reduce the jail population, and 3) banning the use of solitary confinement and other harmful isolation practices like the DOC’s abuse of “safe cells.”
In March of 2020, the ACLU-DC and the Public Defender Service filed a class action lawsuit against the D.C. Department of Corrections on behalf of everyone incarcerated at the Jail for DOC’s flagrant disregard of basic public health measures, including prompt medical care, to limit the spread and severity of a COVID-19 outbreak inside the D.C. jail facilities. By May of that year, the infection rate for those held at the jail was 13 times that of the general population.
Throughout the course of our litigation, inhumane and unconstitutional conditions were detailed in affidavits by individuals incarcerated at the jail and corroborated jail staff and independent experts appointed by the court; these included the denial of prompt medical care to residents with COVID symptoms, lack of proper screening of visitors coming into the facility, punitive isolation measures, and lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
Twice in the Spring of 2020, the federal court issued orders holding that the D.C. Jail was violating the constitutional rights of everyone incarcerated, and the court ordered immediate conditions improvements. Yet DOC never came into full compliance with the court’s orders, as the court found in 2021, and after the injunction expired in the summer of 2021, DOC reverted to its original cavalier attitude toward the safety of incarcerated people—including during the Omicron surge.
DOC’s failure to act resulted in an alarmingly high rate of COVID-19 infections in its facilities through January of this year, impacting everyone held at the jail, those who work at the jail, and the broader community.
But while the pandemic certainly exacerbated already dangerous conditions at the jail, it also drew much needed scrutiny to the larger inhumane conditions and practices of DOC that existed long before the pandemic, that are inflicted on primarily Black residents, and that continue largely unchecked until this day despite overwhelming evidence that action is required.
The U.S. Marshal’s inspection of the jail in October of 2021 documented some of these horrific conditions including no access to clean water, standing human sewage, inedible food and punitive and retaliatory behaviors by DOC staff. That it took complaints of white January 6 defendants for officials to finally act in response to the inhumane conditions and treatment inside the Jail highlights the pervasive racism of the District’s carceral system.
It's past time for this Council to act.
I. First, the D.C. Council must empower a permanent, independent oversight body to meaningfully hold the DOC accountable.
This independent oversight body must have unrestricted access to the Jail, including the authority to conduct inspections without advance notice, conduct private interviews with residents and staff, and to issue frequent, public reports to the Council and public on conditions and treatment of those held in the Jail. The ACLU-DC is working with partners on specific recommendations to bring to the Council and we plan to share that with you soon.
While we understand that the Corrections Information Council (CIC) is currently charged with monitoring and reporting conditions of DOC facilities, we believe that the CIC’s statute and operations limit its ability to effectively conduct the level and type of oversight that is needed. As CIC Executive Director Donald Isaac testified at this hearing earlier today, the last time CIC conducted an inspection of the Central Treatment Facility and Central Detention Facility was spring of 2021. CIC does not conduct inspections of facilities often enough, does not have unfettered access to facilities, does not issue reports in a timely manner, and does not conduct the necessary follow up once it has identified critical deficiencies.
DOC urgently requires an oversight entity that is empowered to do all these things. The ACLU-DC therefore recommends that the function of DOC oversight be carved out of the CIC’s statute, and that CIC focus its efforts on the important work of monitoring and reporting on conditions in the Bureau of Prisons.
II. Second, the Council must pass legislation to reduce the population of the Jail.
As has been the case from the beginning of the pandemic, the only way to meaningfully stop the spread of Covid-19 and prevent a future outbreak is to reduce the jail population. During the pandemic, D.C. safely reduced its jail population by 31%, but the DOC population is again rising to pre-pandemic levels. Our COVID-19 responsive measures show that decarceration reforms are attainable, safe, and effective.
In February, 2021, the Jails & Justice Task Force made specific recommendations for D.C. to safely reduce its incarcerated population and we urge the Council to take up their recommendations. While the Task Force’s recommendations specifically focus on people incarcerated for non-violent offenses, the District should also consider how to safely release people convicted of violent offenses. Passing this legislation is also critical to moving the District away from a carceral approach to one that focuses on prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation.
III. Third, the Council should pass legislation banning the use of solitary confinement at the Jail.
As you’ve heard from other witnesses today, during the pandemic, DOC failed to follow proper COVID-19 mitigation protocols and resorted to imposing unnecessary and punitive isolation in the name of health and safety, holding one of the longest lockdowns in the country.
And prior to the pandemic, the Department of Corrections (“DOC”) used solitary confinement three times the national average Similarly, DOC’s use of “safe cells” has inflicted significant trauma and violated the rights of those experiencing mental health crises, placing them in filthy cells with lights kept on 24 hours a day and without access to basic needs like necessary medications and running water.
It’s clear that DOC uses isolation practices both in excess and for illegitimate purposes. For examples, last year, the ACLU-DC brought a lawsuit on behalf of individuals incarcerated at the jail who faced discrimination under a DOC policy that increased the use of “protective custody” – essentially solitary confinement – for individuals for no reason except their transgender status.
While The ACLU-DC support the need for medically necessary isolation in very specific circumstances and for very brief amounts of time, conditions in DOC’s isolation units, including their use of “safe cells” are punitive and inflict significant harm on those held at the jail. As a member of the Unlock the Box DC coalition, we urge the council to introduce and pass legislation that will finally end the use of punitive solitary confinement and so called “safe cells.”
To say that DOC’s management of the jail this past year has been abysmal is an understatement.
In its oversight and legislative role, the Council has the power and responsibility to step in and the urgency to do so now is higher than ever. There has never been so much corroborated and glaring evidence that this agency is in serious need of overhaul and external accountability mechanisms.
The ACLU-DC is ready to work with you and alongside partners to address this emergency and fight for the right of everyone held at the jail to be treated humanely.