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District of Columbia Jail Pays $14 Million For Over-Detentions and Strip Searches

While denying a pattern and practice of over-detentions and strip searches, the District of Columbia (the District) has agreed to pay $12 million to settle a class-action lawsuit plus an additional $2 million in additional construction funds. The $14 million includes over $4 million in attorney fees, $5 million to build a new Inmate Processing Center (IPC), $200,000 each to six named plaintiffs, and the balance to nearly 4,000 class members and administration fees.

Marcus Bynum, Kim Nabinette, Leroy Thomas, Dianne Johnson, Gloria Scarborough, and Julian Ford were at various times either detained in the D.C. Jail beyond their release date, or illegally strip searched and re-booked into the jail after court-ordered release, or both. On behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated they filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 class action suit against the District claiming the District violated their Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendment rights in detaining them beyond their release dates and violated their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights for the blanket strip searches. The class members were found to be held from one day to 21 months beyond their release dates.

For many years prior to 2001, the District practiced routinely strip searching and rebooking prisoners returning from court, even when charges were dismissed or they were otherwise ordered released. The prisoners would then remain locked up for hours, even days or weeks until finally released. Between 2000 and 2001 the District developed this practice into a formal policy. The claim is that this practice/policy was necessary to ensure no one was freed by mistake. Conversely, it must not be a mistake to rob someone of their freedom for days, weeks, even months.

After a judge ordered his immediate release, Joseph Heard, a deaf-mute man, was held for 669 days or nearly 21 months. The Department of Corrections (DOC) director, Odie Washington, said responsibility for this mishap rested solely on the Department of Corrections yet nothing was done to correct the problem. Dwight Blue was held nearly seven months beyond his release date and Leroy Thomas nearly four months. Franklin Tyree was arrested on two misdemeanor warrants. Two days later the warrants were quashed and he was ordered released. Five months later the jail finally released Tyree. The examples number in the many thousands and can reach as high as high as 20,000 according to the Washington Post.

The blame has been placed on the IPC, its outdated and mix-matched equipment, including incompatible Macintosh and non-Macintosh computers, and its incompetent staff, usually inept workers transferred to the IPC as a last resort before terminationthe dregs of the system. This is no surprise, however, as the deficient conditions and recommendations for improvements were detailed in a 1976 study. And again in 1985. And again in 1986, 1989, and 1997. All recommendations were ignored.

A 1999 report by Corrections Trustee John Clark was prepared for the United States Attorney General which documented a long pattern of systemic problems dealing with case management, classification and records office management resulting in a system that was overwhelmed and in distress and suffering from years of prolonged inattention from top management. The report noted the many previous studies and that the recommendations were not seriously implemented.

Independent consultant John Shaw prepared a Report and Recommendation in 2000 for federal judge Royce Lamberth (also the judge in this action). It reiterated all the previous findings and concluded the IPC records office is in a shambles. Records are strewn everywhere. There seems to be no accountability for record or file management. The report also noted the office is staffed with unperforming employees dumped there because of problems elsewhere. Despite these studies and reports, DOC director Odie Washington and former Warden Patricia Britton continued with business as usual.

In reaching a settlement, the District has agreed to pay $3 million from the $12 million court settlement to a reversion fund plus an additional $2 million to build a modern state of the art IPC. This reversion fund will also be spent on new protocols and systems to prevent over detention and strip searches of releasees without cause. While sounding optimistic, the settlement also calls for the existing staff and computer equipment to be re-located to the IPC.

Each of the six named plaintiffs will receive $200,000 while a point system will be applied to the nearly 4,000 class members. A $50 minimum is guaranteed each member with a cap based on each members portion of the remaining fund after administrative expenses. These expenses will be between $200,000 and $400,000 leaving $3.3 to $3.5 million for class disbursement with an average of approximately $2,700 per class member.
Class Administrator Rosenthal and Company will make a second round of payments to class members of any funds not received by class members during the first class payment round. Any funds still not disbursed will revert to the reversion fund.

Three class members opted out of the settlement and two objected but then withdrew their objections. This is a very low opt-out and objection ratio. No one may opt-out of the injunctive relief for which the reversion fund was created.

A combined $4,090,552.26 was awarded in attorney's fees to William Claiborne, Washington, D.C.; Lynn Cunningham, Professor of Clinical Law, The George Washington University School of Law, Dubois, Wyoming; and Barrett S. Litt of Litt, Estuar, Harrison, Miller & Kitson, LLP, Los Angeles, California. See: Bynum v. District of Columbia, Case No. 1:02-CV-00956-RCL (2006).

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Related legal case

Bynum v. District of Columbia