DOC Will Be Subject To Random Inspections By An Independent Expert To Confirm Compliance
WASHINGTON - The D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) late last night notified a federal court that it had agreed to implement comprehensive protections to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the D.C. Jail. These measures are part of a settlement in Banks v. Booth, a federal class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of the District of Columbia, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP in March 2020 on behalf of all residents of the D.C. Jail to compel DOC to meet its constitutional obligations to the 1,385 people in its custody by implementing basic sanitation standards and ensuring prompt medical care for people in custody.
The court filing asked the court to approve a settlement in the case, but DOC agreed to begin implementing precautions immediately while the approval process unfolds.
The settlement follows DOC’s consistent failure to control the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities, leading to a federal court ruling in April 2020 that DOC was “deliberately indifferent” to the rights of the people in its jail facilities and a year-long injunction requiring DOC to take basic precautions it had failed to adopt on its own. The court further found in January 2021 that, more than six months after the injunction was issued, DOC had still not come into full compliance.
Under the terms of the settlement, an infectious disease specialist, selected jointly by lawyers for the incarcerated class members and DOC, will conduct up to five unannounced inspections over six months to confirm compliance with the settlement’s operative provisions. The inspections will assess:
- Sanitation and hygiene, including residents’ access to cleaning supplies
- Promptness of medical care for COVID-19 related symptoms
- Masking for staff
- Contact tracing for jail residents and staff who test positive for the virus
- Social distancing
- Reasonable access to showers and recreation, including outdoor and outside-of-cell time
- Ensuring that residents on medical quarantine and isolation units are not subjected to punitive conditions that would discourage reporting of symptoms
“It should have never come to a lawsuit to force the D.C. Jail to protect the people in their custody. These measures will protect incarcerated people, officers, and the whole community,” said Edward Banks, one of the plaintiffs in Banks v. Booth.
The settlement also requires regular reporting from DOC about vaccination rates, infection rates, and written policies for responding to the pandemic. This information will help the public assess if DOC controls the spread of COVID-19.
“We are glad that the District has finally agreed to implement basic COVID-19 precautions,” said attorney Zoé Friedland of the Special Litigation Division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. “This settlement is an important step in protecting the health and safety of the people incarcerated by the District in the D.C. Jail.”
The DC Jail failed to contain the spread of COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, when residents and staff did not have access to prompt medical care, masks, cleaning supplies, showers, and other necessities to sanitize and limit the spread of COVID-19. These conditions did not improve until the court ordered improvements. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 700 people incarcerated at the Jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Incarcerated people remain at least three times as likely to be infected with COVID-19 and around three times as likely to die of the disease than people in the free population.
While the settlement reached is a significant step forward regarding COVID-19 precautions, advocates including the ACLU-D.C. continue to call on the D.C. Council to enact long-term reforms, starting with empowering an independent oversight body with unrestricted access to the Jail to regularly report to the Council and the public on conditions and treatment at the Jail.
The motion for approval of the class settlement and the complaint are available here.