Reenergized D.C. Corrections Information Council Targets Jail and Prison Conditions
by Derek Gilna
The number of suicides at the District of Columbia Jail was cited as the top concern of an independent agency whose mission is to monitor conditions for thousands of incarcerated D.C. offenders housed in the District’s jail system and in federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities across the nation.
While the District of Columbia operates its own jails, including the Central Detention Facility and Correctional Treatment Facility, the latter managed by Corrections Corporation of America, D.C. offenders sentenced to prison terms are transferred to BOP facilities.
To address its primary concern, the annual report of the D.C. Corrections Information Council (CIC) for fiscal year 2013 recommended that the District’s Department of Corrections (DOC) develop “new training and protocol” to deal with jail suicides.
The report noted “there have been four suicides at the D.C. Jail since November 2012 and 165 suicide attempts in the past two years,” prompting a “study by a nationally-recognized expert in the subject” and the formation of a special task force to investigate the issue. Task force members testified as to their findings at a City Council hearing.
The annual report stated that “correctional mental health experts and community members familiar with the issue testified at this hearing before the City Council. The CIC recommends the D.C. DOC take their testimony into account when developing new training and protocol in this area.”
The CIC also reported receiving “numerous and ongoing reports of poor conditions of confinement” at the high-security United States Penitentiary McCreary in Pine Knot, Kentucky. The agency said prisoners had cited “slow or non-existent medical care; racist and abusive staff; retaliatory practices by staff including pepper spray, paper sheets, and other punitive measures,” as well as problems computing the proper length of prisoners’ sentences.
The CIC expressed optimism that the new warden assigned to USP McCreary, J.C. Holland, would take steps to correct the problems.
The report further stated that “the CIC met or exceeded” the four primary goals it had established for itself in 2013, including inspecting prison facilities, meeting with more than one-fourth of all D.C. prisoners in BOP custody, holding or attending at least a dozen community outreach meetings and conducting three expert training sessions.
Following a seven-year hiatus, the CIC re-emerged in mid-2012 after D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the City Council responded to requests from prisoners’ rights advocates to appoint new board members to the agency.
The CIC’s mission is “to inspect the prisons, jails, and residential reentry centers where D.C. residents are incarcerated in order to ensure compliance with constitutional, human rights, statutory, and institutional standards that govern the operation of these facilities.”
In its public mission statement, the agency notes that “independent prison monitoring, as opposed to government or industry oversight, ensures accurate, unbiased information about the status of specific prisons, jails and halfway houses as well as the system as a whole. This type of oversight provides staff and inmates with the knowledge that an independent body is observing and reporting on the conditions” of their confinement.
The task is not always an easy one. The CIC’s annual report noted that “during fiscal year 2013, there were 5,697 District of Columbia residents in 113 BOP facilities in 34 states,” many incarcerated “far from their government, homes, and families.”
These offenders, some of whom are housed as far away as California, “face unique obstacles in maintaining community connections and in reentering the community upon completion of their sentences,” the report stated. “The CIC’s oversight role also includes reporting on these unique obstacles and making recommendations to remove barriers to reentry.” Additionally, the agency monitors conditions for around 2,270 prisoners in the D.C. jail system.
The CIC was largely inactive following its creation as part of the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997. Since 2012, board members and staff have been on a steep learning curve, meeting with corrections officials, prisoner advocates and BOP officials to not only establish better communication but also to review policies and procedures. Towards that end the agency has engaged in extensive outreach to learn the community’s concerns about the welfare of D.C. prisoners, among other administrative goals.
During fiscal year 2013, the CIC reported that it “conducted eight facility inspections and inspected video visitation at the D.C. Jail,” in addition to a tour of the high-security United States Penitentiary Beaumont in Texas. “These inspections and tours reached all D.C. DOC inmates, and 1,443 residents in [BOP] custody – more than a quarter of all residents incarcerated outside the District.”
The 2013 inspections came on the heels of the panel’s efforts during the previous year, when the CIC and its staff toured the District of Columbia jails, the United States Penitentiary Hazelton and Secure Female Facility in West Virginia, and the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland.
While visiting the facilities, they listened to the first-hand comments of D.C. men and women confined in those institutions, who voiced concerns about treatment by staff, inadequate or indifferent medical care, little or no contact with loved ones, limited visitation, the high cost of making phone calls home and a lack of nutritious food.
The CIC’s three board members include Rev. Samuel Whittaker, a pastor and member of Mayor Gray’s 2011 Faith Based Transition team, who has experience counseling former offenders; Katherine A. Huffman, who began her legal career as a civil rights litigator in Atlanta, focusing on prison and jail conditions in the Southeast; and Cara M. Compani, an attorney whose “interest in conditions of confinement and reentry began while working with juveniles” in upstate New York.
D.C. prisoners can contact the CIC at this address: D.C. Corrections Information Council, Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW #533, Washington, DC 20004; (202) 478-9211.
Sources: Washington Post; “District of Columbia, Corrections Information Council Annual Report, Fiscal Year 2012” (November 2012); “District of Columbia, Corrections Information Council 2013 Annual Report” (February 28, 2014); http://washington.cbslocal.com; http://cic.dc.gov
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