Former D.C. Inmate Sues Over Suicide Cleanup Detail

A former inmate of the DC Department of Corrections is suing the city and his jailors for a “grisly” work assignment he alleges he was ordered to perform in summer 2013.

According to court records reviewed by the News4 I-Team, former inmate Keith Johnson was asked to clean up the bloody jail cell of a fellow inmate who’d killed himself just minutes earlier. Johnson’s suit, which claims he was “ordered” to do so by jail staff, alleges the experience was traumatic and should’ve instead been completed by trained staff or an expert crime scene cleanup contractor.

Johnson was serving a one-year jail term in 2013 at the Department of Corrections jail in southeast D.C. for making threats by phone. During his term, a series of suicides committed, including former U.S. Labor Department attorney Paul Mannina, who killed himself inside his cell with a razor blade. After Mannina’s body was removed, jail staff assigned Johnson the task of cleaning up the rest of the human remains in the cell, the lawsuit claims. Johnson said he was not trained in proper cleanup of blood and was not given proper equipment to do so. His civil complaint against the Department of Corrections alleges, “The D.C. Jail failed to provide Mr. Johnson with any eyewear and gave him only a flimsy paper suit that ripped as soon as Mr. Johnson put it on.”

Johnson and his attorney Deb Golden said jail staff looked on from a distance as Johnson and a fellow inmate worked for three hours to complete the cleanup.

Johnson, in an interview with the News4 I-Team, said he suffers a diagnosed mental health condition that was exacerbated by the work assignment.

“When we went into the cell and saw how much blood there was -- and how horrific the scene was -- it was a little difficult for me to deal with,” he said.

The D.C. Department of Corrections declined requests to comment on the lawsuit.

“The matter is under litigation,” a spokeswoman said.

But the agency said inmates are free to refuse a work assignment.

“Work details are voluntary,” an agency spokeswoman said. “Inmates meeting custody, classification and program criteria may request a work detail assignment through case management staff. Volunteer inmates assigned to work detail perform a variety of tasks that assist with maintaining day-to-day operations, the culinary function and facility sanitation. “

Mannina’s suicide occurred amid a series of inmate deaths in D.C. jails 2013. A recent News4 I-Team investigation revealed a series of email exchanges and emergency efforts by the city to make changes inside the facility. 

An I-Team review of several regional jails and prisons reveals inmates commonly are assigned the task of cleaning bodily fluids. Work assignments, which are specifically requested by inmates in exchange for canteen funds or reductions of sentences, often require inmates to clean bodily fluids inside facilities.

“The cleanup job is a detail and official job within the department that inmates volunteer to do and they get extensive training,” a spokesman for Maryland’s state prison agency said.

“(Inmates) earn ten credits toward reducing their sentence and it is a skilled pay grade, which is higher than other jobs,” he said.

“We have blood-borne pathogens training for offender medical workers, laundry workers and maintenance workers that assist staff in cleaning,” a spokeswoman for Virginia’s state prison agency said.

But she said state inmates would never be asked to touch a human body or remains.

Spokespeople for Prince George’s and Montgomery county jails said inmates volunteer for clean-up work assignments. Both county jail agencies said their inmates would not handle human remains.

Johnson and his attorney said they are seeking monetary damages from the city but wouldn’t specify how much.

Unity Health Care, a health contractor employed by the D.C. Department of Corrections, is also named in Johnson’s suit. A spokeswoman declined comment in an email to the I-Team.

Contact Us