COVID-19 & Decarceration: Death By Virus is Cruel and Unusual

Conditions inside of DC Correctional Facilities have long been unsafe and unsanitary, and now more than ever, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, they are deadly. On Monday, the DC government reported its first inmate death from the coronavirus, and more are sure to follow. Congregate detention facilities, such as the DC Jail, the Correctional Treatment Facility, and halfway houses, are hotbeds for viral spread. Employees and inmates trapped inside are afraid for their lives, with good reason. The largest cluster outbreak in the country is at Cook County Jail in Chicago, where two positive cases turned into 350 in just over two weeks. On Saturday, the DC Department of Corrections announced 53 positive cases, a seven-fold increase in just one week. The DC government must move immediately to decarcerate detention facilities and implement dramatically improved health and safety standards to prevent widespread loss of life.

To date, DC officials have done little to curb the spread. So far, Mayor Bowser’s limited actions might grant early release to 18 people convicted of misdemeanors and does nothing to address the conditions inside facilities. On March 31st, DC inmates filed a class action lawsuit against DOC’s leadership for its response to COVID-19, citing that no protection other than a single bar of soap and a towel had been provided. DOC correctional officers are supporting the lawsuit. On Tuesday, a judge ordered an unannounced inspection of conditions in the Central Treatment Facility as a result of this lawsuit. Early results of the inspection indicate that inmates were punished for reporting COVID-19 symptoms. Last week, a defense attorney reported nightmarish conditions stemming from her April 4th visit to the DC Jail, stating that she was “terrified” by how little standard procedures had changed. 

Though District officials have been slow to act, activists inside and outside of detention facilities foresaw the danger of COVID-19 and began calls for widespread decarceration more than a month ago. This movement, composed of organizers, activists, formerly incarcerated folks, and advocates, has organized caravan protests outside of the DC Jail and local halfway houses calling for the release of inmates. Following weeks of protest about conditions inside Hope Village Halfway House, officials announced Tuesday that the facility would shut down at the end of April. Residents of Hope Village, along with all other incarcerated people, must be released immediately unless there is clear evidence that an individual’s release would present an unreasonable risk to the safety of the community. Rapid decarceration, comprehensive release plans, and transparent accountability for conditions inside detention centers are necessary public health measures to prevent widespread loss of life. 

The policy demands below are heavily informed by the demands of activists who have been leading this necessary work, adult and youth advocates, The Justice Collaborative in Chicago, and formerly incarcerated individuals. These demands are endorsed by Our City, a DC organization that is leading the national conversation on unjust sentencing practices.

Immediately Reduce Populations in Congregate Detention Facilities

  • Decarcerate the DC Jail – Immediately release all people charged with or convicted of nonviolent offenses, elderly people, and populations that the CDC (Center for Disease Control) has classified as vulnerable, including those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, unless there is clear evidence that an individual’s release would present an unreasonable risk to the safety of the community.
  • Decarcerate Youth Detention Facilities – Following the lead of Maryland’s courts and advocates in Pennsylvania, immediately coordinate with the courts to release DC youth confined in detention facilities who can safely return to their identified caregivers with sufficient support, resources, and, if needed, supervision. The vast majority of children currently being held in detention centers and long-term facilities are there for non-violent crimes, misdemeanors, or technical violations of probation. The Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services can safely return these young people to their homes with community based-supports.
  • Clear Halfway Houses – Immediately release all people incarcerated in Hope Village and Fairview. Under no circumstances should DC residents being transferred from Hope Village Halfway House be sent out of DC. 
  • Guarantee Healthcare & Safe Conditions – Reduce the incarcerated population to ensure that capacity is such that cells are not shared, there are sufficient medical beds, and adequate staffing to ensure safety for staff, those incarcerated, and visitors. Increase internet and phone access and time outdoors and out of cells. Provide soap, CDC-recommended hand sanitizer, medical care, comprehensive sanitation and cleaning of facilities, personal protective equipment for anyone inside the facilities, and other safety measures free of charge as recommended by the CDC for those who remain incarcerated.
  • Enforce Complete Transparency – In accordance with #DecarcerateDC’s demands, immediately authorize an independent public health expert to enter the D.C. Jail unannounced to assess and monitor the conditions of confinement while the jail is being rapidly decarcerated. Grant defense attorneys’ subpoenas for video footage from inside of the jail, and make footage from court-ordered inspectors available to the public.
  • COVID-19 Testing and Treatment – Test all people prior to release from detention for COVID-19. Provide immediate treatment and safe quarantine accomodations for anyone testing positive. If an insufficient number of tests are available, quarantine individuals in single hotel rooms or vacant dorms with food delivery and other essential resources for 14 days prior to release.
  • Create Comprehensive, Individualized Release Plans – Work diligently to create release plans for all freed people that ensure safe housing and access to necessities, such as food, clothing, hygiene products, communication access, and any needed support services. Confirm safe return residences for all individuals being released. Many returning citizens cannot return to their family homes because public housing and affordable housing vouchers do not allow guests, a policy that increases the risk of recidivism. For those without clear release locations, house individuals in single hotel rooms with food delivery and other necessities until the state of emergency is lifted.

A New Path Forward

Any discussion of the American “justice” system must acknowledge that it is rooted in the violent and unjust policy of mass incarceration and the institutionalized abuse of incarcerated people. It should not require a global pandemic for our government to release people who pose no threat to society. Furthermore, the policies of this government deny people coming home from prison a viable way to exist, namely access to housing and living wage work. Currently, Washington DC is one of the most expensive places in the world to live and has one of the highest unemployment rates for Black communities in the country. Our campaign is anchored by the belief that housing must be de-commodified and the District must provide a guaranteed jobs program for those that want to work. We are running on a New Deal platform that is premised on the creation of thousands of units of green social housing and a jobs program for people to build it. Those units, and living wage jobs constructing them, would be accessible to returning citizens. If people are provided reasonable access to those two fundamental needs – housing and employment – recidivism would be greatly reduced.

Secondly, with regards to both recidivism and mass incarceration, I cannot overstate the importance of close collaboration with incarcerated people and returning citizens. The best advocates for criminal justice reform are those who have firsthand experience with the system’s failings. It is our campaign’s position that mass incarceration or recidivism policies made without the direct involvement of formerly incarcerated individuals will not offer legitimate solutions and will not be as effective as they could be, just as housing solutions crafted by any entity that does not directly collaborate with those facing displacement will fall short. The last 20 years of DC policy are evidence of this – those claiming sweeping policy victories in this environment clearly have not included affected communities in their solution building. As a council member, I will ensure that every criminal justice policy formulated by myself or others is vetted with individuals who have system involvement and amended based on their knowledge.