DC Jail Corrections Officers Used Chemical Agent to End Disturbance During Heat Wave, Records Show

What to Know

  • "Inmates began shouting... stating that they were not going back into their cells because the unit was too hot," wrote one officer.
  • Records show inmates sprayed liquids & threw food, trays & a large industrial fan at corrections officers during the nearly 3-hour standoff.
  • According to Department of Corrections records, the average temperature inside the Northwest 2 cell block July 16 was 86.06 degrees.

Corrections officers at the D.C. Jail used a chemical agent to put down a disturbance inside the facility last month after nearly 60 inmates refused to return to their cells during a heat wave.

Records obtained by News4 through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show the inmates sprayed liquids and threw food, trays, basketballs and a large industrial fan at corrections officers during the standoff, which lasted almost three hours.

The standoff began when inmates in the Northwest 2 cell block refused to return to their cells for the evening head count, according to several incident reports written by corrections officials involved in the disturbance. During an earlier head count, inmates were allowed to remain outside their cell blocks because of the extreme heat.

"Inmates began shouting aggressively, stating that they were not going back into their cells because the unit was too hot," wrote one corrections officer in a report. "Inmates also began making several threatening remarks towards staff, threatening to do bodily harm because of the housing conditions."

News 4’s Mark Segraves got an exclusive look inside the DC jail Tuesday to see, first-hand, if recent repairs to the cooling system have eased excessive heat inside the facility. Lawyers who monitor jail conditions said there was a conflict between inmates and corrections officers last week when inmates refused to return to their cellblocks because it was so hot.

The cooling system inside the aging facility was not working during the first several weeks of July when the District was in the midst of a heat wave.

According to Department of Corrections records, the average temperature inside the Northwest 2 cell block July 16 was 86.06 degrees. Corrections officials would not provide News4 with the highest temperature recorded that day.

Two days earlier, Lester Irby, a 70-year-old inmate, collapsed inside the jail and later died. Department of Corrections officials have said the excessive heat did not contribute to Irby's death.

The D.C. Department of Corrections says it’s working to fix the jail’s failing cooling system after an inmate and published writer died of an apparent stroke. News4’s Mark Segraves spoke with Lester Irby’s daughter.

According to the incident reports, the inmates refused multiple verbal commands to return to their cells. The inmates used food trays to block their cell doors from closing and put up newspapers and shower curtains to cover windows so officers could not see inside the cell block.

Inmates also poured "food, juice, shampoo and water on the floors" and blocked the gates to the cell blocks with mattresses, the reports said. Officers also reported inmates "covering their faces with t shirts and sheets."

Records show the warden of the D.C. Jail requested an Emergency Response Team (ERT) and ordered 16 of his officers to "suit up" with helmets, vests and batons.

Inmates reportedly verbally threatened officers during the standoff, yelling, "We're ready for whatever."

Shortly before midnight, after again ordering the inmates to return to their cells, the warden ordered his officers to force entry to the cell block and put down the disturbance.

Records show at 11:50 p.m., six members of the Emergency Response Team, 16 corrections officers outfitted with helmets, vests and batons, and 10 other officers entered Northwest 2 and deployed "a chemical agent."

"The inmates refused to return into their cells and started throwing hard food trays, fans, liquid substances, basketball and anything at the Officers," wrote one official. "That is when the ERT team used Pepper spray to take control of the unit."

Fifty-seven inmates were eventually handcuffed and taken to the infirmary to be examined and treated for exposure to the chemical agent.

Three inmates were identified as "the ringleaders" and a fourth inmate was identified as the person who threw a "large industrial fan" from an upper tier onto an officer. The officer was not injured.

By 12:45 a.m., officers had regained control of the unit. No injuries were reported.

"After the repeated refusal to lock down for the mandatory security headcount, chemical agent was appropriately used to regain compliance," D.C. Department of Corrections Director (DCDOC) Tom Faust said in a statement. "Please be aware that mandatory security headcounts are a critical component of jail security which the DCDOC will not compromise on." 

District and federal officials eventually transferred more than 200 inmates out of the D.C. Jail because of the failing cooling system. Corrections officials say the cooling system has since been repaired.

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