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Washington DC Jail’s Suicide Proof “Safe Cell” Use Not Safe for Prisoners

by Kevin Bliss

Washington, D.C.’s jail safe cell use has been under scrutiny since 2013 when a rash of suicides prompted the jail to hire Lindsay Hayes, a nationally renowned jail and prison suicide prevention expert, to evaluate the jail’s operations and offer recommendations to make it more effective with fewer deaths and more humane conditions. Prisoner rights activists are concerned that conditions have still not changed since then, even after a 2015 lawsuit ordered the county to make changes.

The use of isolation in confinement by jails and prisons has been a major focus in the nation recently. Yet, that has not included the use of “safe cells” for those under suicide prevention watch. These cells are similar to other solitary confinement cells in prison with a few additions. Overhead fluorescent lights are left on 24 hours a day. A hard, plastic box with no mattress serves as a bed. Access to water for drinking or flushing the toilet must be specifically requested each usage. And the only clothing issued is a type of smock made out of blankets and Velcro which hangs loosely on the body, not fully covering anything.

Hayes recommended avoiding the use of isolation as well as the removal of privileges such as phone calls and visitation as punishment except as a last resort. He said tie down points in cells should be removed and guards needed to receive appropriate suicide prevention training.

Although the jail stated it would immediately implement all of the recommendations made by Hayes, similar complaints over conditions have persisted to date. Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth said at the Department’s annual oversight hearing, held February 2021, that he was unaware of any situation. “This is the first time I’m hearing about this as it relates to this matter regarding the safe cells,” he stated.

Occupants of safe cells are not allowed to have clothes, blankets, religious material, or any personal property. Safe cell prisoners are not permitted phone calls, visitations, or interaction with others. Showers are limited to every other day and meals consist of only those foods able to be consumed without utensils. Many receive “management loaf” which combines an entire meal into one pressed together mass eaten with the person’s fingers. Amazingly, jail officials claim these draconian conditions and treatment are not punitive and are designed to “protect” suicidal prisoners. If anything, it seems obvious that they can and would induce mentally ill, depressed and unstable prisoners to kill or otherwise harm themselves.

Conditions such as these have been found to increase incidents of self-harm, not decrease them. Some courts have found these conditions to be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Still, jails and prisons continue isolation and safe cell use.

The Public Defender Service has joined with University Legal Services (ULS), the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the Sidley Austin law firm to demand more improvements. Requests are being made to give safe cell residents more access to running water, out-of-cell time, and kiosk and phone privileges. Moreover, occupants should be evaluated at least every two days to ensure they are not considering any type of self-harm.

“In my observation, the DC jail has attempted to create a cell that is physically safe from the point of view that it makes it difficult for an inmate confined therein to engage in self-harm,” said former New York City jail department head Martin Horn. “However, they have added a level of deprivation that is unnecessary, punitive and damaging to the mental health of the person confined in these conditions.” 



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