Each year on April 16 the District recognizes Emancipation Day. On this day in 1862 – eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South – Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act into law, freeing over 3000 slaves that lived within the District’s borders. It was called the “Compensated” Emancipation Act because it did just that: it compensated slave owners for freeing their slaves.
The United States has never reckoned with its gruesome history of slavery. In one article, “Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal justice system,” Bryan Stevenson explains that when slavery was abolished, those in power turned to a different system to control and brutalize black people: “Laws governing slavery were replaced with Black Codes governing free black people — making the criminal-justice system central to new strategies of racial control.” This is still reality today. As of July 2019, just over 46% of District residents are black, but 88.5% of the men and 74.4% of the women in DC’s jail are black.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the racism that is a hallmark of the United States’ prison system is deadlier than ever. The DC Department of Corrections (DOC) announced the first known positive COVID-19 case within its facilities on March 25. Now, just over 20 days later, there are 56 known positive cases among those being held in jail, and 452 prisoners are being held in quarantine.
On March 30, 2020, the ACLU of DC and DC’s Public Defender Service (PDS) filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Corrections on behalf of those being held by the DOC. The complaint alleges that the unsafe, unsanitary, and deadly conditions at the DC jail during the COVID-19 pandemic violate class members’ Fifth Amendment right to be free from punitive conditions of confinement when held pretrial and their Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. The suit asks that, among other things, the Court order the DOC to reduce the population within the jail. Declarations attached to the complaint document the horrific conditions: “I was coughing up blood for two days this week. I have not seen a doctor. I have been telling sick call but they just walk past me.”
After a two hour hearing on April 5, a federal court judge ordered an independent expert to inspect the conditions at the DOC’s facilities because of the vast discrepancies between the DOC’s and the prisoners’ descriptions of the conditions. Yesterday, the inspectors testified before the court. As Councilmember Charles Allen wrote in his letter to the DOC following that testimony, “to say [the inspectors’] findings are disturbing is an understatement.” The inspectors testified about the lack of and misuse of protective equipment within the jail, extremely limited out-of-cell time, limited or no access to confidential legal calls, people spending days in isolation with no showers, failures to socially distance, and the lack of cleaning supplies and basic training about how to use those supplies.
On April 14, the first person in DOC custody died from the coronavirus. Though the DC Council and the Mayor have released some individuals from DOC custody, our local leaders must take swift action to stop the rapid spread of this deadly disease within the jail’s walls so the DOC can provide all the necessary precautions and care for those who remain inside. As I reflect on Emancipation Day, I believe that we must free as many people as possible and save lives during this pandemic.
Dara Canchester provided research assistance for this blog post.