District of Columbia correctional workers are supporting a lawsuit against the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections over what they say is a failure to protect incarcerated people during the coronavirus outbreak.
The lawsuit, filed March 30 by the Public Defender Service and the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized the Department of Corrections’ treatment of incarcerated people who could die or be seriously injured if infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and argued for more testing, better safety measures and the release of some vulnerable incarcerated people.
But correctional officers are being put at risk, too. So the DOC’s labor union took the unusual step of announcing its support for the lawsuit.
“I can say that without exception, these are the absolute worst conditions I have ever experienced,” said Jannease Johnson, who has worked at the DOC for 29 years, at a press conference outside the Washington, D.C., jail on Wednesday. “Management has left the staff and inmates to become infected, sick and/or die.”
At least four people detained in the facility have tested positive for COVID-19, and Johnson said that by next week, “half of our officers will be home on quarantine.”
I can say that without exception, these are the absolute worst conditions I have ever experienced.
Jannease Johnson, D.C. DOC employee
The DOC has not been following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for the coronavirus pandemic “at all,” said Cpl. Benjamin Olubasusi, the chairman of the DOC’s labor committee. He said both department and city leaders have refused to listen to their concerns, and that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) warned it would be illegal for the corrections officers to go on strike. “The leaders are now leaving us to die,” Olubasusi said.
While those inside prisons and jails nationwide have spoken out about how the cramped and unsanitary conditions inside will cause the coronavirus to spread, this lawsuit is the first example of jail staff participating in legal action against their own employer during the outbreak.
“The situation is desperate,” said J. Michael Hannon, the DOC labor committee’s lawyer. “No person in the United States who is following this pandemic would do any of the things that correctional officers are required to do. Our folks have to have the protection mandated by the CDC.”
Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue told HuffPost that while the Department of Corrections cannot comment on pending litigation, “we have been planning for the safety and well-being of all vulnerable populations in the District, which includes residents in the custody of the Department of Corrections.”
Experts have said the coronavirus will “spread like wildfire” in jails and prison, and hundreds of people inside of correctional facilities have already tested positive for the virus. At the D.C. facility, 65 incarcerated people were quarantined in March after coming into contact with a law enforcement officer who tested positive for the disease.
Despite this danger, the lawsuit contends, people incarcerated at the D.C. jail say they are not being adequately tested for COVID-19 or given sufficient medical care when they have symptoms. They say they are unable to get the soap, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies or protective gear necessary to prevent a coronavirus outbreak. Inmates have to clean their own cells, but are not given masks or gloves to protect themselves and have been instructed to clean their cells with water and their own soap. Some people said they didn’t have access to soap for at least a week, since they couldn’t buy it from the jail’s commissary. Plus, they share cells with multiple people, with toilets a few feet away from their beds, and as of late March, were forced to participate in activities involving groups of 30 people sitting less than one foot apart, according to the filing.
This is concerning for correctional officers as well, who are the ones most likely to get infected and bring COVID-19 into the jail, since they are moving in and out of the facility. Yet they are not being given masks, sufficient gloves, gowns or disinfectants, according to the lawsuit. Employees said their jobs don’t allow them to social distance and that their health concerns aren’t being taken seriously, even though new inmates are not being screened for symptoms of COVID-19 before entering the facility.
The correctional officers who are part of the DOC’s labor committee will support the plaintiffs in the lawsuit by detailing the conditions inside the jail, according to Hannon.
The lawsuit demands that the DOC release some of the 1,620 people detained in the jail and protect them by conducting more thorough testing, giving them access to hygiene supplies, and providing incarcerated people and staff with gloves and masks.
“We’re begging Washington leadership to come to our aid,” said Olubasusi, the chairman of the labor committee. “Our residents need help and our staff needs help.”
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