Inside DC Jail: Conditions Improving, Still Hot for Inmates

Maintenance crews have been working to improve conditions at the D.C. Central Detention Facility after an inmate collapsed and died in July when temperatures inside the facility reached 90 degrees.

Lester Irby, 70, collapsed inside the jail on July 14, Department of Corrections officials said. According to the paramedics who responded, he appeared to be suffering a stroke.

Last week, inmates refused to return to their cells as the heat wave outside continued to make conditions inside the jail scorching.

“Men refused to go back in their cells, because it was so hot, and they were so worried after what happened to Mr. Irby,” said Deborah Golden, director of the DC Prisoners’ Project. “When they refused, officers came in in riot gear and used some kind of pepper spray and rubber bullets to force the men back in their cells. There were a number of men who had to be treated for exposure to the pepper spray.”

A DOC spokeswoman said there was no riot at the jail.

"Last week, there was a security-related incident during the jail's 10:00 p.m. mandatory head count that was managed in an expeditious and safe manner," said spokeswoman Sylvia Lane.

“I'm not going to dispute that a week and a half ago, it was pretty uncomfortable in cell blocks, and we were recognizing that in what our own D.C. residents here were telling us,” said Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for Public Safety and Justice.

News4 got exclusive access inside the jail on Tuesday and discovered temperatures were in the mid- to upper 70s.

“About a week and a half ago, we were getting readings of 85 degrees,” said Donahue about the upper level areas, where temperatures were at their highest. “Those are now down to 80, 81 degrees.”

More than 200 inmates have been relocated from the cell blocks that were the hottest to other cells or other facilities. Medical staff continued to monitor the inmates who are still being held at the jail.

Officials said temperatures have reached as high as 85 recently, which is why they continue to provide large fans, ice, water and more showers for inmates.

“That's pretty scary, because you start to worry when heat index hits 85, with men held in their cells 22 hours a day,” said Golden. “It’s really concerning about what is the temperature in those cells, not the common area.”

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.

Crews have been able to replace more than 30 air vents to improve the air flow. Officials said they don’t know how long it will take to complete the work or when the inmates can return.

The Bowser administration is looking for ways to pay for a new jail, including using a private developer to finance and build the facility.

“A new facility, even a smaller one, and we think we would have a smaller one, is going to be $400 million to $500 million,” said Donahue. “What I do think we are going to look at is a partnership with the private sector, not to run a facility but to finance it.”

There has been no official cause of death for Irby, but officials said they don’t believe the heat contributed to his passing.

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