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Does the DC Jail Deserve the High Praise Bestowed on its Operation? You Decide

On February 4th we received a press release from the Mayor’s office excitedly announcing that the District’s Central Detention Facility –- a/k/a the DC Jail –- has been awarded full accreditation by the American Correctional Association’s National Commission on Standards and Accreditation.

According to Mayor Gray, this “accreditation is an especially noteworthy milestone given that, across the country, only 7 percent of more than 3,300 local jail facilities have been nationally accredited.” The Mayor further observed, “It takes a strong and consistent commitment to excellence for jurisdictions to operate and maintain facilities in compliance with the ACA’s standards [and] . . . we are dedicated to meeting the diverse needs of offenders in the District’s custody.” Emphasis ours; more on this below.

Adding to the congratulatory mood was corrections department Director Thomas N. Faust who stated, “Accreditation by the ACA not only validates the work we do on a daily basis to ensure the safe confinement of the populations we serve, but also reflects our responsibility as public-safety professionals. . . .”

So far, all this sounds quite marvelous. However, regretful that we must rain on their parade, we are compelled to inject a couple of recent revelations that cause us to wonder if the correctional association was fully aware that the treatment of prisoners might possibly be less than its standards countenance.

First –- and most recently –- Arthur Spitzer, the legal director of our local ACLU chapter, reported on the egregious treatment accorded to an inmate who was serving a 60-day sentence for having beaten up somebody with whom he had apparently gotten into an argument. Why was the ACLU involved? Simple answer is that the jail authorities handled this case in the most unprofessional and inhumane manner.

The prisoner was deaf and could communicate only by sign language or written notes. But instead of making an interpreter available as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the jail authorities violated that federal civil rights requirement even though the jail has such interpreters available. Even when the prisoner attended the mandated anger management classes conducted by an outside contractor no interpreter was provided -– again an ADA violation -– so that he could neither hear nor participate.

But it was even worse: when his lawyer came to meet with him he was handcuffed so that he could not communicate with the lawyer and when the lawyer requested that the handcuffs be removed his request was ignored. Clearly that negatively impacted on his ability to receive effective legal counsel. Now, not surprisingly, DC is being sued for a ton of money which, if awarded, will represent another failure as well as yet another needless cost to the taxpayers

The other matter is one that we discussed at length in our December editorial, which we titled “Inhumane Visitation Policy at DC Jail.” Rather than recounting that awful policy and our strong objections to the policy of not allowing person-to-person visiting but only allowing visiting by video, we commend readers to access our commentary at http://intowner.com/2012/12/15/inhumane-visitation-policy-at-dc-jail.

We concluded our editorial by urging that the DC Council address this matter as a priority upon the start of its new term this year.

And, as if on cue, we were gratified to learn that on February 5th Ward 4 Councilmenber Muriel Bowser introduced, with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans as co-introducers, the “Video Visitation Modification Act” which will require the corrections department to permit face-to-face visits for detainees.

As Councilmember Bowser has so correctly and eloquently observed,  “Prison is about rehabilitation and reintegration. If we’re going to stop the revolving door of returning citizens, it’s important that we create the best possible situation for our men and women in the prison system to re-enter society as productive citizens. That’s why we need to change current measures that are detrimental to rehabilitation, which include preventing in-person visits. We can’t physically separate our citizens who are returning to society with the personal bonds that connect them to it.”

We commend Councilmember Bowser as well as co-sponsors Graham and Evans for their obvious understanding of the corrections department’s poor judgment. We urge all members of the council to support this measure without delay. In the meantime, we wonder how it could have been that the correctional association’s accreditors were so fulsome in their praise with such an inhumane policy in place.