HomeThe LatestThe DC jail has smelled of urine for a long time, but...

The DC jail has smelled of urine for a long time, but it took white insurrectionists detained for something to be done

On Wednesday, a group of demonstrators gathered outside the Washington, DC, Courthouse, carrying posters that read “Free Them All” and “Care Not Cages” in order to urge the release of inmates at the DC jail, many of whom had been awaiting trial for months. “Our loved ones and our family members have been kept in that jail in feces and in urine. They’re being held in inhumane conditions,” Qiana Johnson of the Black-led jail abolitionist grassroots organization Harriet’s Wildest Dreams told the tiny gathering. “Mayor after mayor, administration after administration—that jail has been the same.”

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“The DC jail is 87 percent Black and the moment that a white person enters into that jail, they want to make change. Shame,” she continued.

Johnson was referring to a new wave of public scrutiny and outrage over the jail’s deplorable conditions, which she and other activists claim was sparked not by long-standing mistreatment of people of color and the efforts of advocates like herself, but rather by complaints from a much smaller and whiter detained population: the January 6 Capitol insurgency defendants and one of their most outspoken supporters, controversial Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

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In mid-October, US District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ordered a Department of Justice investigation into possible violations of the detained rioters’ civil rights and found jail officials in contempt of court for failing to turn over medical records required to approve surgery for Christopher Worrell, a defendant and member of the Proud Boys from Florida who has cancer and is being held on charges of pepper-spraying law enforcement officers, to which he has pleaded not guilty.

Judge Lamberth has recently ordered Worrell, whose many accusations of medical mistreatment have been described as “unsubstantiated” by the DOJ, to be relocated to a different facility or placed on home detention, describing the circumstances at the jail as “deplorable.”

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The US Marshals Service for the District of Columbia soon after performed a “unannounced inspection” of two DC Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities. They discovered that circumstances at the Central Treatment Facility (CTF), where about 40 January 6 defendants are now being kept awaiting trial, did not warrant inmate transfers. However, the US Marshals assigned to the case said that the Central Detention Facility, also known as the DC prison, showed “evidence of systematic failures” and did not fulfill minimal confinement requirements.

The CDF houses around 1,200 people, the bulk of whom are Black and are being detained pretrial or serving time for petty charges. The key findings included a “overpowering” odor of urine and excrement, meals delivered cold and congealed, frequent water shutoffs, and DOC employees “antagonizing detainees.” As a consequence of the inspection, the Marshals stated that 400 detainees will be sent to a facility in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 180 miles away.

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“I am disappointed but not surprised,” Johnson told me after the rally. “It took one white person in a facility that houses 80 percent Black people for them to complain and for their voices to be heard. And now Black people are going to suffer because they’re going to be moved away from their families and from their lawyers. That’s a punishment.”

For decades, jailed inmates, activists, and public defenders have decried the jail’s terrible facilities, overcrowding, and hazardous atmosphere. In the 1970s, a US district court found that the circumstances in the CDF violated a constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment after two complaints were merged into a class action case. In the years after, the prison has made headlines for shocking suicide rates, and the DC Department of Corrections has been regularly condemned for failing to meet industry standards, spurring demands for a new facility to be built instead.

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During the epidemic, things only got worse. People were confined to their cells for 23 hours a day for months, a lockdown technique that DOC director Quincy Booth claimed helped reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Many of the complaints from defendants imprisoned at CDF on January 6 are similar to those made by other prisoners about the quality of meals or encounters with correctional staff. In a Twitter thread shared by the insurrectionists’ lawyer, Brad Geyer, defendant Nathan DeGrave referred to the jail as “DC’s Gitmo,” a reference to the prison on the US military base at Guantánamo Bay that has become synonymous with human rights violations, writing that “some inmates are even begging to be transferred to GUANTANAMO BAY, where even THEY have more acceptable standards.”

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Their complaints, however, have not gone unnoticed. Instead, Republicans like Greene, who want to portray the rioters as “political prisoners,” have welcomed them wholeheartedly. Greene compared walking into a prisoner of war camp and seeing men whose eyes can’t believe someone had made it in to see them to “walking into a prisoner of war camp and seeing men whose eyes can’t believe someone had made it in to see them” after touring both parts of the DC jail complex earlier this month, including an area where the January 6 defendants are housed that has been dubbed “Patriot Wing.”

Greene informed listeners on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast that the defendants were living in worse circumstances than homeless people and terrorists. “You should be outraged and disgusted that our government has turned into some kind of political weapon that tortures people in jail,” she said, “and wants to re-educate them and make them denounce the president that they love and denounce the country that they love.”

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Other concerns cited by individuals jailed for their Capitol violence include being force-fed “CRT propaganda” and “anti-White Racial message,” as well as having haircuts, religious services, and visits restricted to the unvaccinated. “Even in jail, in prison, unvaccinated people are treated like second-class citizens,” Greene remarked on Fox News. She also seems to have taken use of the chance to examine religious reading materials available at the prison, finding “common ground” with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam journal in its resistance to vaccination requirements.

During a meeting of the DC City Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on Wednesday, which DOC officials did not attend, council members and DC Attorney General Karl Racine echoed a question posed by the Washington Post editorial board in an article last month: “Why was no attention paid the problems when it was poor Black and Hispanic people complaining about the conditions?” The next day, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the DOC and the Marshals to “enhance conditions and resolve any issues at our DOC facilities.”

James Hutchings, a father of eight and the founder of the reentry services group Incarcerated Males and Females, spoke at the courtroom demonstration about his five months in the DC prison. He claimed that 10 correctional guards who confused him for someone else attacked him two weeks before he was freed with an ankle monitor on March 26, 2020. “It’s the worst experience I’ve had in my life, and I’ve been to prison and I’ve been to state jail,” he told me. “DC jail trumps it all—I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.” Mani Golzari, a public defense, said that the “system is rotten to its core” and must be abolished. “People are tired of having to deal with the conditions we hear about every time we go inside the DC jail,” he remarked.

“DC jail has always been way too big. DC jail has always been way too Black. DC jail has always been too expensive,” said Patrice Sulton, creator and executive director of the DC Justice Lab. “We’ve been making noise about this for a long time. It’s never been humane, it’s never been acceptable, it’s never been right. And it’s never been problematic for the council until they put a handful of white people in there.”

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