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Inhumane Visitation Policy at DC Jail

The title we are using in this space this month is not ours. It was provided to us by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs to introduce their condemnation of what seems to us to be a clear violation of basic prisoner rights.

The Lawyers’ Committee, along with the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, and the DC Catholic Conference have teamed up with a diverse coalition of more than 100 prisoner rights, clergy, labor, and civic activists in opposing a newly implemented DC Department of Corrections’ policy that prohibits almost all forms of person-to-person visitation — that is, actual human contact — between prisoners and their loved ones.

Without any doubt, this policy is barbaric!

Here’s what Philip Fornaci, Project Director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s DC Prisoners’ Project had to say about this unconscionable cruelty:

“The Department of Corrections instituted a change in visitation at the DC Jail this summer which barred most in-person visitation and instituted a video visitation only policy. This ill-conceived policy, which was instituted with no public input or discussion, deprives detainees and their families of intimate, meaningful visitation in favor of impersonal ‘virtual visitation,’ a poor substitute for many families and loved ones.”

We think this criticism is spot-on, especially the objection to the failure of any “public input or discussion” –- although that part doesn’t overly surprise us since it is too often the way that DC agencies go about their business, behind the public’s back; and the sad thing is the bureaucrats never seem to face any consequences for their underhanded actions, like getting fired.

Terry Lynch, the Executive Director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, charges that the corrections department “is trying to save a sliver of its annual budget by implementing this damaging policy without regard for the human cost” and further, correctly in our view, states that even during the holiday season prisoners “at the DC Jail -– many of whom have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting court appearances -– will be deprived of substantive interaction with their family members and loved ones because of this policy. It’s a travesty.”

A broad coalition of civic leaders and clergy, including the National Capital chapter of the ACLU, the AFL-CIO’s Metropolitan Washington Council, and the retired DC Jail chaplain, Rev. Michael Bryant, among the more than 100 other organizations and individuals, have endorsed the following statement in opposition to this abhorrent visitation policy:

“We oppose the DC Department of Corrections’ current visitation policy, which has eliminated in-person visitation for detainees. We believe that video visitation is not an effective or humane substitute for in-person visits. We urge the Department of Corrections and the DC Council to work together to amend the policy to allow both video and in-person visitation, which will strengthen familial ties, assist in detainee rehabilitation, and help reduce recidivism rates.”

We sincerely hope that those members of the DC Council who have professed their strong advocacy for rational prisoner (and, hopefully, soon-to-be ex-offenders) rights will urge that this matter be taken up no later than the first session of the new Council term in January.