Criminal Justice

After Years of Complaints, the D.C. Jail Has Been Deemed Too Wretched for Some Inmates

A 2016 Reason story detailed the D.C. Jail's long history of failure. Now the federal government is finally paying attention.


The U.S. Marshals Service announced Tuesday that it was transferring roughly 400 inmates out of the D.C. Jail due to unacceptable living conditions that reportedly included water and food being withheld as punishment.

In a press release, the Marshals Service said it found conditions at one of the D.C. Jail's two main facilities "do not meet the minimum standards of confinement as prescribed by the Federal Performance-Based Detention Standards." The people incarcerated there will be transferred to a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

The move follows years—more than a century, really—of complaints and reports from civil liberties groups about the wretched state of the D.C. Jail, which holds all pre-trial detainees and misdemeanor offenders in the District of Columbia. But the jail has been under more scrutiny as of late because it's holding defendants being prosecuted for their role in the January 6 Capitol Building riot.

In a letter from acting U.S. Marshal Lamont Ruffin to the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, obtained by The Washington Post, Ruffin said investigators conducting a surprise inspection of the D.C. Jail on the week of October 18 found that it appeared water and food were withheld from inmates as punishment. 

"The water in many of the cells within South 1 and North 1 had been shut off for days, inhibiting detainees from drinking water, washing hands, or flushing toilets," Ruffin wrote.

As a result, many of the toilets were filled with standing sewage. "The smell of urine and feces was overpowering in several areas," Ruffin continued.

Inspectors also observed medical neglect and correctional officers bullying inmates into not cooperating with the inspection. "One DOC staffer was observed telling a detainee to 'stop snitching,'" the letter says.

Notably, the Marshals Service did not find substandard living conditions in the D.C. Jail's Central Treatment Facility, the housing unit that is currently holding all of the Jan. 6 defendants. Rather, the conditions were all observed in the Central Detention Facility.

The Jan. 6 defendants, and their many supporters in conservative media and Republican politics, have claimed that they are political prisoners being held in appalling conditions for mostly nonviolent crimes and low-level charges. For example, Tucker Carlson called the D.C. lockup "one of the foulest detention centers in the country… a truly repulsive, mismanaged place."

A week before the October inspection, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth held the D.C. Department of Corrections in contempt for repeatedly failing to turn over the medical records of one Jan. 6 defendant, Christopher Worrell, who had been waiting for months for a scheduled wrist surgery. Lamberth also referred the matter to the Justice Department to investigate whether inmates' civil rights were being violated.

The truth is that those are the conditions under which D.C. residents have been regularly incarcerated. It's just an issue that didn't bother anyone on the FOX News primetime lineup until recently.

The antiquated jail, opened in the 1970s, has numerous structural problems. The air conditioning system barely works, leaving staff and incarcerated people to swelter during the summer. It broke earlier this year, and in 2016 the department had to move 200 inmates because of excessive heat. That same year, the department had to move inmates again because of roof leaks. A 2015 report found the facility was plagued by mold, vermin, and leaking.

Those problems became even more acute during the COVID-19 lockdowns, when jail inmates were held in their cells for 23 hours at a time.

"For years, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, along with other legal and grass-roots organizations, has called out and challenged the D.C. Department of Corrections for its horrific treatment of nearly exclusively black and brown people detained at the D.C. Jail," The D.C. Public Defender service said in a statement. "The inhumane conditions have included long-term solitary confinement for people with no disciplinary issues, lack of running water, full illumination of cells for 24-hours per day resulting in sleep deprivation, cells soiled with feces and blood, lack of air conditioning during the summer and heat during the winter, lack of proper medical care, failure to provide mental health treatment, and physical and mental abuse by correctional officers of people in their custody."

In 2016, I wrote a cover story for Reason about the long, ignominious history of the D.C. Jail and its repeated failures to meet the low bar of basic human decency. I could cite any number of historical comments from disgusted observers, going all the way back to 1861, but here's the late U.S. District Court Judge William Bryant, who ruled in 1976 that the conditions inside the D.C. Jail violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment:

"For imprisonment under such conditions," Bryant wrote, "where a man may be stuffed into a tiny cell with another, surrounded by the nocturnal moans or screams of mentally disturbed but untreated fellow inmates, plagued by rats and roaches, sweltering by summer and shivering by winter, unable to maintain significant contact with his family in the outside world, sometimes going for long periods without real exercise or recreation, can only have one message for him: Society does not acknowledge your existence as a fellow human being. And when that message is delivered in the D.C. Jail, whatever small chance may have existed that a person might act as though he were a member of a civilized society is obliterated, along with his decency and humanity."