As of Monday, April 13, the District of Columbia Department of Corrections (“DOC”) confirmed that more than 40 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and the D.C. jail had its first death from the virus. Diseases like the Coronavirus spread like wildfire in an environment like the jail where there are close living quarters, and visitors and staff enter the facilities every day.
When proper sanitary precautions are not taken, and there is insufficient testing, the real number of inmates that could be infected is unknown and likely much higher than the number of known cases. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC) and the Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia have sued the DOC for its severe negligence in implementing public health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 inside the D.C. jail.
The Lawsuit Allegations Against DOC Leadership
The ACLU-DC and PDS class-action lawsuit alleges that the D.C. government has not taken proper action in fighting the Coronavirus pandemic within the jail facilities. It claims that the government has been purposefully indifferent towards prisoners’ health and, therefore, the public’s health as visitors and staff enter and exit the jail every day without proper screening, equipment, or social distancing.
Furthermore, the DOC has failed to implement and follow the safety measures outlined in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines for correctional facilities. Some of these measures include keeping inmates and employees six feet apart in cells and communal areas, ensuring a sufficient stock of hygiene supplies, implementing disinfecting practices, and more.
Visiting attorneys from PDS report a lack of visitor and staff screening procedures, therefore failing to prevent the virus from entering the DOC facilities in the first place. Inmates and corrections officers of the DOC facilities report a lack of sanitation supplies such as soap and hand sanitizer, as well as a lack of equipment such as gloves and masks. They also report a failure to disinfect common areas in the jail, an inability to test corrections officers, and inadequate testing of inmates.
While the DOC does not follow guidelines, it puts the prisoners’ health at risk, as well as the corrections officers’ health. On March 28, the DOC Labor Committee of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) issued a press release criticizing the DOC’s failure to protect the officers’ health. The FOP claims that the District of Columbia does not have the resources to combat COVID-19 and that the jail’s health and safety are not prioritized.
As the Department of Correction fails to take action regarding proper social distancing and disinfecting practices, while not providing sufficient testing and adequate cleaning and hygiene supplies, the pandemic is spreading quicker and quicker within the facilities.
Immediate Release of Prisoners as a Means of Relief
On Tuesday, April 7, a federal judge said she would order an emergency inspection of the safety and sanitation procedures within the D.C. jail while she weighs whether to release more prisoners.
One major step several states have taken to slow the spread of the Coronavirus is downsizing their jail population. Because the rate of infection is accelerated in a jail facility, states such as California, New York, Michigan, Ohio, and more have granted some type of early or temporary release for prisoners.
D.C. has released 300 prisoners; however, the ACLU and PDS argue that keeping the jail at minimum capacity is the only way to fight the spread of the pandemic within the facilities. This will allow for suitable social distancing measures to take effect and would significantly decrease the number of visitors coming and going from the jail.
Other Repercussions— A Defendant’s Right to Counsel & Right to a Speedy Trial
Because the DOC does not screen visitors and staff entering the jail facilities, attorneys are choosing not to visit their clients during this time as the jail is a hotspot for spreading diseases. Computers and other devices are also not allowed inside the prison, making virtual meetings between attorneys and clients not an option in DC at this time. The jail has not set up an attorney-client secured conference system that is common in the federal facilities. A defendant’s right to counsel is inhibited by the facility’s lack of screening and precautionary measures.
Furthermore, the D.C. courts are currently closed until mid-May and there is a possibility of extension. This delay is causing a backlog of cases, and with the court system already being slow, it could be months before there is a regular schedule of cases, and a defendant’s case is heard. Thus, because the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down in the United States, and the rate of infection is increasing rapidly within the prison system, a defendant’s right to a speedy trial is obstructed.
Evidently, the jail is the lowest priority when it comes to protecting the District of Columbia’s health and safety. As the pandemic rapidly spreads within the prison, it increases the public’s risk due to the visitors, employees, and corrections officers who enter and exit the facilities every day unscreened and unprotected.