Outbreak at D.C. Jail Sparks Lawsuit from Inmates

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of D.C. and the Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit against the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) on behalf of the inmates and correctional officers after a significant outbreak of coronavirus in the department’s facility.

The class-action lawsuit alleges that the DOC has not adequately tested inmates for the coronavirus and that it has not done enough to prevent the virus from spreading. According to the DOC, as of April 30, 134 inmates at the D.C. jail have tested positive for the virus, and hundreds more are quarantined inside the facility. One out of every six inmates is now under quarantine or isolation, the department has reported.

“The DOC has failed to implement many basic procedures,” says the lawsuit. “Steps as simple as distributing sufficient hygienic products and providing prompt medical attention and testing to those with COVID-19 symptoms—and has waited far too long to implement others.” D.C. PDS Attorney Steven Marcus warned that the disease could “spread like wildfire.”

The lawsuit alleges that testing in the facility began too late. 

According to the lawsuit, despite inmates complaining of early symptoms of the virus, inmates did not start receiving tests for the disease until March 20. The lawsuit is based on the allegation that the DOC’s inaction to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus is “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment. 

“We have men who are coughing up blood, who, despite putting in seven requests for medical visits, have not been able to see a doctor,” Marcus said. “People working in kitchens while displaying coronavirus symptoms, being forced to work in the kitchen where they potentially can infect other residents and jail employees.”

The D.C. Corrections Workers Union has also shown its support for the lawsuit. The union has accused officials of “guaranteeing and accelerating the rampant spread of COVID-19,” by not providing personal protective equipment (PPE) or testing.

The US Attorney’s Office has opposed the release of violent offenders, including those serving sentences for crimes such as armed assault and domestic violence.

“This pandemic should not be used as a basis to release violent criminals onto the streets of Washington,” US Attorney Timothy J. Shea said in a statement. “Now more than ever, as law enforcement authorities are being stretched thin due to the impact of COVID-19, the rule of law must be maintained.”

The numbers of cases reported by the DOC are expected to increase, especially as the number of cases in D.C. is projected to peak in May. The D.C. jail system has more confirmed coronavirus ­cases than all but four of 142 Federal Bureau of Prison facilities nationwide, according to federal authorities. This is not a unique issue. In other jail systems in major urban areas, the virus has spread widely: at Rikers Island in New York City, the rate of infection among inmates is seven times higher than among the public.

US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said after a two-hour video hearing on April 7 that she would order an emergency inspection of the D.C. jail while she weighs whether or not to release prisoners. This hearing came after the first inmate died from the outbreak, and the number of infected inmates increased five times in less than a week. “This is an emergency. This is a pandemic. The numbers are increasing,” Kollar-Kotelly said.

On April 18, after receiving information from the investigators tasked with reviewing the safety measures in the D.C. jail, Kollar-Kotelly ordered the D.C. Jail overhaul health, sanitation and social distancing measures immediately. 

Investigators found that inmates were using “tattered and soiled” rags to attempt to clean their cells and communal areas. In addition, they found that workers and staff members are understaffed and uninformed about PPE and social-distancing.

Kollar-Kotelly said in her opinion on the lawsuit that the “plaintiffs have produced evidence that inadequate precautionary measures at DOC facilities have increased their [inmates] risk of contracting COVID-19 and facing serious health consequences, including death.”

Will Olsen ’21