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Officials Agree To Cap Population at D.C. Jail

After decades of fighting lawsuits, skirting court orders, and defying legislative decrees, the District of Columbia Mayor’s Office has finally agreed to a definitive population cap at the notoriously overcrowded and dangerous D.C. Jail.

Under the terms of the settlement, the jail will hold no more than 2,164 prisoners—a number arrived at more than four years ago by the District’s own correctional consultants.
In two rulings spanning a decade, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia held in 1975 and again 1985 that the jail’s continuous overcrowding regularly violated the Eighth Amendment rights of convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

This chronic overcrowding, the court held in a 1985 contempt hearing, resulted in prisoners being forced to stay in their cells with no water or basic supplies, haphazard laundry service, and substandard medical care. Not surprisingly these base conditions led to regular assaults and stabbings. Noting the unwillingness of officials with the D.C.
Department of Corrections (DCDC) to remedy the constitutional violations, the court imposed a population cap of 1,694 based on testimony of the then-Assistant Director of the DCDC who testified that the jail was designed to hold 1,356 prisoners but could safely hold 25% more, or 1,694 prisoners.

Still, the District continued to violate the court’s orders. In 1993 the court appointed a Special Officer to oversee the Districts efforts to comply with the court order. The Special Officer reported to the court in 1994 that the District remained in “substantial noncompliance” with the court’s order. Consequently, with the Mayor’s Office agreeing to be held in contempt, the court imposed in 1995 a structured remedial plan with a specific timetable to bring the jail into compliance. Still, no definitive action was taken and the jail remained noncompliant.

Then, in 1996, in a triumph to tyrannical prison and jail autocrats everywhere, the U.S. Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA drastically reduced the authority of federal courts to oversee prison and jail reform and subjected ongoing actions--except in rare instances--to immediate vacatur upon a motion by the defendants. Defendants in the DC jail case proffered such a motion 2002, and, in an order dated October 5, 2002, the court nullified the previous court-approved consent decree imposing a population cap at the jail.

Following the dissolution of this decree, overcrowding at the jail skyrocketed while safety and security conditions careened out of control. In December 2002—when the jail population exceeded 2,400 prisoners—two pretrial detainees were stabbed to death. Another prisoner was stabbed but survived.

Responding to the increased violence, members of the D.C. Council introduced a bill—ultimately known as the “Jail Improvement Act”—aimed at rectifying the deteriorating conditions at the jail, which included overcrowding.

After negotiations with the Mayor’s Office, it was agreed that “the population cap would be determined on the basis of findings by an independent corrections consultant to be appointed by mutual consent of the Mayor and the Council.” On April 12, 2004, the consulting firm issued its final report, based on the American Correctional Association’s Adult Local Detention Facility Standards, determining that jail’s optimum “operational range” was between 1,958 and 2,164 prisoners.

During the time of the consulting firm’s study, population at the jail ranged between 2,300 and 2,400 prisoners. When the findings were presented, the DCDC offered no objections and later even endorsed the report’s recommendations.

The Mayor’s Office, however, was a different story. The District’s Deputy Mayor defended the jail’s population of 2,300 by arguing that “the concept of establishing a jail’s capacity is not an exact science” and promised only that the Mayor’s Office would “establish the recommended operational capacity only as a long term goal.”

On June 29, 2005, plaintiffs Garry Anderson, Georgene Greenfield, Melvin Hucks, Darryl Mayo, Terri Meade, Brian Patterson and Donnell Williams filed a Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief. The document filed in Superior Court sought to force compliance with the Jail Improvement Act of 2003, D.C. Law 15-62, D.C. Code. Ann. Sec. 24-201.71.

Dismissing the District’s arguments that the 2003 law was not binding on the Mayor, the Court affirmed that District’s compliance was long overdue. On October 6, 2007, the Washington Post ran a story quoting presiding Judge Melvin R. Wright saying he was ready to hold the District of Columbia Mayor in contempt of court. “There have been numerous judges who have come and gone, who have died, who have been unable to get the District to establish a cap,” the paper reported he said. “I don’t want to bring the mayor in here, but what choice do I have? … Am I supposed to turn my head?”

Rather than proceed to trial, the Mayor’s Office agreed to settle the case by promising to establish a population cap at the jail of 2,164 prisoners—the number recommended by the mayor’s hand-picked consultants in April 2004. This agreement was reflected in an October 12, 2007 court order formally requiring the District to comply with the population cap. Additionally, since there is an exception to the population cap for exigent circumstances, such as, but not limited to, mechanical failures or natural disasters, the Defendants must notify attorneys for the Plaintiffs in writing in the event of such circumstances. The notice must also contain a description of the circumstances necessitating the temporary suspension of the cap and the anticipated time the defendants believe it will be necessary to exceed the cap.

Judge Wright retained jurisdiction over the case to make sure that all the necessary rulemaking procedures were followed and that the District continued to act in accordance with the Order. The city published the official order of a population cap for the D.C. Jail in the January 18, 2008, edition of the D.C. Register, 55 D.C. Reg. 492 (Jan. 18, 2008).
On October 28, 2008, the Judge dismissed the case without prejudice, but also included a provision that the attorneys could file any objection of counsel before January 19, 2009. The average daily population at the Jail for September 2008 (the last month for which statistics are publically available) was 1,933. Anderson and the other plaintiffs were represented by Deborah M. Golden of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project in Washington, D.C. and Theodore A. Howard of the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wiley Rein LLP. See: Anderson v. Fenty, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Civil Division, 2005 CA 005030 B.

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Related legal case

Anderson v. Fenty