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Suicides, Poor Conditions at D.C. Jail Remain Critical Issues Despite Progress

The February 8, 2015 suicide of a woman held at the Washington, D.C. Jail and a recent report that blasted the facility for “non-compliance with basic standards established by national corrections authorities” have once again focused a spotlight on conditions at the main jail in the nation’s capital, where more than 2,000 prisoners await trial or are serving misdemeanor sentences.

According to a press release issued by the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC), Tawana Johnson, 46, was booked into the jail the day before she died on a misdemeanor charge of destruction of property, for allegedly breaking a window at her daughter’s apartment.

“I was angry about my window being kicked in,” said Johnson’s daughter, Erica. “I really didn’t want to have to call the police, but I had no choice.”

D.C. Corrections Director Thomas Faust stated Johnson had displayed no suicidal tendencies or bizarre behavior, but family members said they believed more could have been done for the woman, who had been treated for intoxication at the jail following a previous arrest.

“Some help. Some kind words. Some apologies, I mean anything – anything,” said Maria Johnson, another daughter.

While Johnson’s suicide was the first at the D.C. Jail in 18 months, it evoked memories of four prisoners who killed themselves from November 2012 through August 2013 – a rate three times the national average. The facility embarked on a suicide prevention program as a result, devoting resources to better anti-suicide training for guards, correcting unsafe conditions in cells, eliminating “tie-off points” where prisoners could attach nooses to hang themselves and reforming procedures for keeping watch on prisoners deemed to be suicide risks. [See: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.40].

The D.C. Jail is also beset with problems associated with an aging facility, according to a report published on June 11, 2015 by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. The report found that the jail, which opened in 1976, was the subject of multiple complaints of “unsanitary conditions and non-compliance with basic standards established by national corrections authorities” for issues that included vermin infestations, unsanitary conditions in the kitchen and bathrooms, water leaking through walls and the roof, and damaged and rusty windows.

The organization recommended in its 53-page report that the only way to correct the problems is through “significant renovations to the facility or replacing the D.C. Jail entirely,” adding, “The status quo is unacceptable.”

The civil rights group also raised concerns about juvenile offenders held at the D.C.’s Correctional Treatment Facility, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, citing a lack of space for schooling or recreation, “excessive” use of isolation and segregation, and the use of video visitation instead of in-person visits.

In its response to the report, the Department of Corrections said many of the concerns were being addressed, including expanding juvenile programs, upgrading the facilities and enhancing suicide prevention training.

“While much progress has been made, the DOC remains committed to improving operations and achieving the status of benchmark correctional agency,” jail officials said.

The four suicides during 2012 and 2013, which sparked the initial flurry of corrective steps, also brought into sharp focus the issue of mental health deficiencies at the jail at a time when the number of prisoners with diagnosed mental illnesses was on the rise.

“Our jails and prisons, including here in the District, have started to become ‘psychiatric hospitals’ staffed with an insufficient number of mental health professionals,” DOC Director Faust said in June 2014. “There is a critical need for alternatives regarding mental illness and the need to shift the responsibility of untreated mental illness out of the criminal justice system.”

An investigative team of broadcast journalists at Washington, D.C.’s WRC-TV examined corrections records that showed 40% of the prisoners in the city’s jail suffered from some form of mental illness.

A greater emphasis on mental health training was one focus of a November 2013 report submitted by Lindsay M. Hayes, project director for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. In conducting a study at the D.C. Jail, Hayes determined that 165 prisoners had attempted suicide since 2011, including 99 attempted hangings and 28 involving pills.

“Other methods included head banging, cutting, swallowing foreign objects, jumping from a height, and hunger strike,” his report stated.

Hayes was on-site, conducting an assessment at the jail in August 2013, when a prisoner attempted to hang himself. “His feet barely touch[ed] the floor, his eyes were bulging, saliva was coming from his mouth, and he urinated on himself,” Hayes reported. “Despite the seriousness of the incident, the inmate was later placed on Behavioral Observation status, not Suicide Watch or Suicide Observation,” he wrote.

Hayes noted such responses were common and cited inadequate guard training in mental health and suicide prevention as a key deficiency. “[T]here were more than nine inmates on observation status each day during this on-site assessment that resulted in several inmates being housed in non-suicide resistant cells on the mental health unit,” he stated. Guards “that are assigned to the mental health unit ... do not receive any specialized mental health and/or suicide prevention training.”

In June 2015, the wife of former U.S. Department of Labor official Paul Mannina, who committed suicide at the D.C. Jail in 2013, filed suit in federal court. She seeks to hold the District responsible, alleging that jail staff failed to adequately treat her husband’s mental illness and provided him with access to a razor blade, which he used to slash his throat. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.56]. Her lawsuit remains pending. See: Mannina v. District of Columbia, U.S.D.C. (D. DC), Case No. 1:15-cv-00931-KBJ.


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Related legal case

Mannina v. District of Columbia