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'We are afraid' | Inmates, officers not protected against COVID-19 at DC jail, DC correctional officials allege

Correctional officers are alleging that DOC leaders are not accurately reporting the number of COVID-19 cases at D.C. jail.

WASHINGTON — D.C. Department of Corrections officers on April 1 said they "are afraid" since neither they or inmates at the D.C. Central Detention Facility are being protected after several inmates tested positive for COVID-19. Their lawyer is asking a federal court to recognize them as a "friend" in a lawsuit filed against the DOC. 

The allegations include little to no personal protective equipment available to corrections officers, a lack of cleaning supplies, social distancing as non-existent, lack of "true quarantine" in the facility, and that proper notification for individuals who have come into contact with inmates/officers who test positive for coronavirus is not happening.

The Public Defender Service and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against D.C. Department of Corrections for failing to protect officers and inmates at the D.C. Central Detention Facility during the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of the Fraternal Order of Police and the DOC Labor Committee, and their lawyer, J. Michael Hannon, detailed the environment inmates and correctional officers are enduring inside of the D.C. jail as positive COVID-19 cases are reported in the facility. 

Cpl. Benjamin Olubasusi, who has been with DOC for 10 years, said officers at the D.C. jail are being exposed to COVID-19 and precautionary measures that city leaders said have been taking place, are not.

"CDC guidelines have not been followed at all," Olubasusi said. "PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) has not been provided to our staff."

Olubasusi claims his requests to District leaders have been rejected. He said DOC management has refused to participate in their daily conference calls to hear their concerns.

He said he spoke to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on the phone alongside other union leaders and he alleges that she "threatened him" and other officers with criminal prosecution if they leave the jail.

Olubasusi said he made it clear his intentions are not to leave his duties, but that he, union members and officers are calling for D.C. leaders to make efforts to ensure that inmates and officers in the jail are safe and have proper PPE.

"Inmates are not being protected, officers are not being protected. If they are not safe, then we are not safe either. Our families are not safe either," Olubasusi said.

Cpl. Jannease Johnson, a 29-year veteran with DOC, alleges that the true number of reported COVID-19 cases in the D.C. jail is not accurate, and reports of actual positive cases are one to two days behind.

Johnson said that there is "no true quarantine" for inmates exposed or diagnosed with the virus. She said inmates remain in the general population. 

Johnson also alleges that while 47 staff members who were in contact with the first inmate to test positive for COVID-19 were notified, management refuses to tell staff who the other inmates are that tested positive for COVID-19, and who was in contact with those inmates. 

City council member, Trayon White, visited the jail Tuesday wearing full personal protective gear, Johnson said. She said she believes DOC management and District leaders are afraid to enter the jail due to fear of contamination because she alleges PPE has not been provided to officers in the facility.

Inmates are afraid and have asked correctional officers for cleaning supplies to clean their cells, Johnson alleges.

According to Hannon, the DOC labor committee has been investigating jail conditions during the coronavirus outbreak since January. Hannon said they are hoping the lawsuit in conjunction with the ACLU lawsuit can affect some change.

"Objects like TV remote controls are passed around between them," ACLU attorney Scott Michelman said. "In one of the facilities, one of our clients reports that they have a big vat of juice into which inmates commonly dip their cups and staff and prisoners who work in foodservice are not given gloves or enough gloves, so they’re serving with their bare hands. Finally, there’s no social distancing to be practiced because the facility is so crowded and they’re still required to meet in groups to do enrichment activities to get their 'good-time credits.' Even if a person watching this doesn’t think they know a guard or a detained person, these people are human beings and they need to be treated safely."

On March 26, DOC reported two positive cases, a 37-year-old and 38-year-old. Both inmates were also housed in the Correctional Treatment Facility, D Building, before being moved to the quarantine unit on March 26.

DOC reported on March 31 that a 25-year-old male inmate in their custody tested positive for COVID-19. He was moved from the Correctional Treatment Facility, D Building to the quarantine unit on March 26 as a precautionary measure after a person from his original unit tested positive for coronavirus, department officials said. 

The man was placed in isolation in a Special Management Unit and is being monitored in accordance with the CDC guidelines, DOC said. It's unclear if this incident is related to the case reported on March 26.

There are now eight inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus and 88 inmates who are in isolation and quarantined, according to officials at the mayor's office. One DOC staff member has also tested positive while 113 officers are being self-quarantined off the job.

RELATED: Another inmate tests positive for coronavirus at DC Department of Corrections

Earlier in March, 65 inmates were quarantined after coming in contact with a U.S. Marshal who tested positive for the virus. 

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said that MPD has expanded the criteria they are using to determine which arrestees are released on, "citation pending a future court date."

He said that his staff is monitoring the lockup list, in an effort to bring fewer people to the court system. 

DOC’s Medical Department and Unity Health Care have been working alongside D.C. Health to conduct contact tracing and other efforts to protect the health and wellbeing of the inmates and staff in DOC facilities, officials said.

RELATED: Several DC inmates test positive for coronavirus

While declining to speak about the ACLU lawsuit or specific complaints from the jail guards, D.C. Bowser said in a Tuesday news conference, "I will assure you, it is our expectation and what we will confirm with jail staff that we are following every safety and health protocol with the cleaning of the jail."

According to D.C. Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue, 20 inmates sentenced for misdemeanors were released after the D.C. Council doubled the amount of credit inmates receive for "good behavior." An additional 25 were slated for release Tuesday. There are more than 1,500 inmates inside the D.C. jail, according to Donahue.

"We have people in jail who have been sent by a judge and our responsibility is to make sure everybody there is being treated fairly, constitutionally, and we’re following all of our health protocols and that’s exactly what we’re doing," Bowser said.

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