DC Jail's Cell Doors Don't Work

D.C. Jail’s Cell Doors Don’t Work—Leads To ‘Riot’ Last Month was originally published on City Desk on Apr. 16, 2009, at 1:53 pm

This past week, City Desk reported that the D.C. Jail has shut down its visitation hours for the early part of this month. The Department of Corrections told us that the reason families can’t see their loved ones is simple: Officers are conducting a total sweep of the jail.

The closure’s timing is suspicious but seems unconnected to two issues within the jail—a major incident and an possible on-going problem with cell doors not working (hello, safety hazard!).

The mayor’s office e-mailed me a statement on both issues. First, the major incident:

“There was a confined incident on March 11, during which two inmates set fire to an officers’ station in one cell block. Inmates involved were confined, no one was hurt and the fire was extinguished. Inmates on the unit have been transferred to other facilities while repairs are being made.”

Several sources have a different, more inside story on the torched station.

In an April 8 letter sent to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, an inmate writes that between March 5 and March 25, there was a “riot” in the second floor units. Since then, there have been a series of “brutal” assaults.

A corrections officer tells City Desk that the inmate’s story is accurate: They did consider the incident a riot. “The emergency response team came in to get the unit back. The inmates were in control of the unit,” they say. “I think they started a little fire. It’s hard to burn the jail down because its concrete. The Deputy Director Pat Britton tried to negotiate with them.” Her negotiations failed.

It took the ERT a while to get the unit under control–”it was a couple hours before they went in,” the officer says. The ERT maced down the unit. The inmates then showered, and were ordered into the rec yard where they were split up. “It took them a couple weeks to clean that unit up,” the officer says. “They came out because the cell doors didn’t work. It was a mess in there. The officers had to leave the bubble area. You only had three officers to 140 inmates. Nothing you could do but step back.”

The inmate writes of the aftermath:

“Some inmates were immediately transferred to a Maximum Security in Baltimore due to the Enormous Amount of Interior devastation to one of the 2nd floor units. The families of DC Jail inmates were so concerned that on Tuesday April 07, 09 They about 200 maybe a little more had a protest….

On Wednesday April 8, 09 the 3rd flr of DC Jail was on [lockdown], for shakedown purposes. Correctional Officers took all the sheets, towels…drinking containers, extra blankets.”

As for the broken doors, here’s what the Mayor’s Office had to say in a statement:

“The DOC operates the Central Detention Facility with 1,600 cell door mechanisms in 18 housing units. Due to inmates tampering, minor malfunctions of cell doors have occurred in the past; nevertheless, DOC Facilities Management has addressed these problems as they occurred to maintain a safe and secure facility. Further, under the Capital Program all cell doors are scheduled to be upgraded and or replaced beginning January 1, 2010. Mayor Fenty and the Department of Corrections are committed to ensuring the safe, secure and humane confinement of pretrial detainees and sentenced misdemeanants.”

A corrections officer has a less charitable version of events. The officer says the doors either can’t lock or can’t be unlocked. The problem has been going on for more than a year. They estimate that the problem ballooned to 200 faulty cell doors before officials got concerned. That number has since been cut in half.

“There was approximately a 100 grievances filed by corrections officers in the jail,” the officer says. “They got more serious about it. They are starting to get maintenance to fix it. The D.C. Department decided to contract out maintenance. The ones that they contracted—they didn’t know how to fix the doors.”

The old D.C. crew is starting to get hired back. The door problem still represents a huge safety problem–especially on the midnight shift where, the officer says, staffing drops to two officers per unit.

They say on one recent midnight shift there were 50 inmates out of their cells because the doors couldn’t lock. “It was bad. They were mixed–medium and max inmates,” they say. “We had officers that got feces thrown on them after they attempted to throw them back in their cells. The inmate would have a spray bottle. The inmates go to the bathroom in them….They shake it up. When an officer comes by that they don’t like, they spray them down with it.”

Here’s what the inmate wrote in his April 8 letter:

“There are over 300 jail cells thru out the prison that have defective doors Esp. in unit SE #3 cells 9 thru 39. The doors can’t [lock]. That means an inmate can be Assaulted or killed or Raped in his sleep.”

Don’t trust an inmate or a corrections officer to accurately access these problems in their own facility? How about a student at the University of the District of Columbia’s legal clinic? A law student raised the cell-door issue in a letter to Professor William McLain on March 31.

The student, Chris Viviani, writes:

“The purpose of this memo is to document an issue at the Washington, D.C. Jail. Specifically, in a recent jail visit to interview a clinic client, it was determined that our client’s jail cell was not immediately able to be unlocked. On March 20, 2009 UDC clinic student advocates Ashley Boyland, Bethany Wilcher and Meredith Kinner, and I traveled to the D.C. Jail….

After waiting for a significant period of time for our client, we were informed by an officer that they were having difficulty getting our client out of his cell. We sought clarification as we were not sure if she meant that he was refusing to come out and meet us or if there was some other problem. She clarified that there was no problem, just that they simply could not unlock the cell.

Upon our client’s eventual arrival at the interview room, we asked him about his cell. He remarked to us that he had to wait for a maintenance person to come to his cell and fix the lock so he could be released and escorted to the interview room. He added that many of the other cells holding other inmates had been experiencing the same problems.”

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