D.C. officials stew after Jan. 6 prisoners’ complaints prompt federal pull-out from jail

A grim federal inspection of Washington, D.C.’s central jail has left hundreds of inmates, including about three dozen detained Jan. 6 defendants, in limbo this week, as city officials confront allegations of filthy conditions and inhumane treatment.

Officials are racing to transfer hundreds of inmates in the central jail to other facilities, including nearly 400 to a Pennsylvania prison, following the U.S. Marshals Service report that described rampant abuses by guards, retaliation against prisoners, substandard food and unsanitary plumbing problems throughout the central jail.

The Jan. 6 inmates detained in Washington do not reside in the central jail, but are being held in a nearby annex called the Correctional Treatment Facility. Federal inspectors found that facility to be adequate. But it was these defendants’ complaints of mistreatment that prompted the U.S. Marshals to investigate conditions, resulting in last week’s report about the central jail.

Members of the D.C. City Council demanded immediate steps on Wednesday to address the failures at the central jail, but they also expressed outrage that long-standing problems raised by Washington’s largely Black prison population had gone ignored, while the complaints of the predominantly white Jan. 6 defendants drew quick action from the feds.

“I am deeply disturbed that we only have attention now that the January 6 insurrectionists drove it,” Councilmember Trayon White said at a meeting of the council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

“As many have noted, concerns about conditions in the jail received little attention until they were raised, of course, by mostly white defendants accused of perpetrating the January 6 insurrection,” said D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, who attended the remote hearing. “That’s not because people weren’t complaining.”

Federal judges presiding over hundreds of Jan. 6 cases have expressed increasing alarm about conditions in the D.C. jail.

U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth last month held the city in contempt for refusing to provide key details about its handling of some defendants. And last week, he released to home confinement Christopher Worrell, a Proud Boy and Capitol Riot defendant who is preparing to begin chemotherapy for cancer treatment, contending that he has no confidence the D.C. Department of Corrections would provide adequate medical care.

Lamberth revealed in court last week that the U.S. Marshals Service had discovered squalid conditions inside the central jail and encountered staff who threatened retaliation against inmates who cooperated with inspectors.

One inmate said he had been sprayed with pepper spray and prevented from showering, which caused an infection, Lamberth said as he read findings of the inspection. Inspectors also described a water shutoff intended as a punitive measure that led to plumbing problems throughout the jail. The marshals also found a burning smell in many parts of the facility, including the distinct smell of marijuana.

Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart, who oversees the city’s public safety agencies, said at Wednesday’s council hearing that he disagreed with some of the U.S. Marshals Service’s findings, and said he believed that problems at the D.C. central jail were “not so pervasive that [the jail] has become uninhabitable.”

Geldart acknowledged some of the issues, but generally downplayed the concerns raised by federal inspectors. He said Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration had been working diligently to improve living conditions at the decaying building, including by retaining a new food service vendor that was ushering in “innovative experiences with food.”

His comments drew sharp rebukes from council members who described receiving nearly daily calls from constituents concerned about conditions at the jail.

Councilmember Charles Allen also expressed concern that when Marshals Service representatives returned to the jail after the initial six-day inspection last month, they were denied entry. Geldart confirmed that and said the warden declined to allow what was deemed a “tour” of the facility on the weekend.

For now, there’s significant confusion among defendants, judges and attorneys about the status of the defendants housed in D.C.’s facilities.

An attorney for David Dempsey, another Jan. 6 defendant, urged Lamberth in a court filing on Tuesday to prevent D.C. officials from moving her client out of the District, after she was informed he was going to be transferred. Hours later the attorney, Sabrina Shroff, said Dempsey had already been moved before the judge could act and prosecutors viewed the matter as moot.

But Shroff checked in with the judge yet again on Wednesday to say that, in fact, Dempsey hadn’t been moved and remained housed in the Central Treatment Facility.

The U.S. Marshals Service said in a statement last week that it planned to transfer 400 pretrial detainees from the central D.C. jail to a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., but that federal detainees housed at the nearby Central Treatment Facility — including the Jan. 6 prisoners — would be kept there.

Officials said on Wednesday they were not aware of any plans to move the small fraction of the Capitol Riot defendants who are detained. Most of the more than 700 charged in connection with Jan. 6 are on pretrial release.

Geldart said that 90 federal prisoners were moved out of the main jail on Tuesday and that almost 50 were scheduled to be moved on Wednesday.

D.C. council members said that simply moving prisoners to new jails or prisons would do little to solve the decades-old issues in D.C.’s central jail.

“Moving people out is a Band-Aid,” White said.

Geldart also made clear that Bowser opposes the federal detainee transfer because it puts D.C. residents farther from their families. “The executive is strongly against the move of residents in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service,” he said.

Federal and D.C. officials have signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at resolving deficiencies at the jail and restoring its use for federal detainees, Geldart said. One unusual provision in the four-page agreement released on Wednesday by Bowser’s office prohibits the Marshals Service and D.C. officials from conducting any media interviews or issuing any news release about the issue without prior consent from both sides.

One council member at the virtual hearing, Robert White Jr., said he’d heard from “close partners who work in the D.C. jail” that the Marshals Service report was off-base.

Allen, the council committee’s chair, said he was frustrated by the D.C. jail’s handling of the matter, noting that officials who guided city councilors on a tour of the jail last week also permitted “right-wing conspiracy theorists” to join them. Allen appeared to be referring to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who toured D.C. jails last week and said, “I’ve never seen human suffering like I witnessed last night.”

Greene is promising to issue a report on her visit, which she says will provide findings on the treatment of all D.C. jail prisoners , not just the Jan. 6 defendants.

“I’ll never forget hearing their screams,” she wrote “Our detailed report will outline everything we saw in every area of the jail we were allowed to see, on behalf of all inmates.”

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