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Federal judge sending inspectors into DC Jail for surprise visits

ACLU lawsuit over inmate COVID-19 exposure happens after infections triple in one week.

WASHINGTON — Federal judge Collenn Kollar-Kotelly chose two monitors, attorneys Grace Lopes and Mark Jordan, to do surprise inspections Thursday of D.C.'s Department of Corrections and report back to her. The DOC was ordered by the judge to allow the two monitors inside with cameras to conduct interviews. 

Lopes and Jordan are mandated to answer 20 medical questions about COVID-19 prevention measures inside the jail buildings.

The DOC was accused of "deliberate indifference" by attorneys of several inmates, as numbers of COVID-19 infections continue to climb in the DOC. 

Federal courts don’t typically allow anyone to record their hearings, but in an unusual move Tuesday, reporters were allowed to listen in as the ACLU and the Public Defender Service teamed up against the DOC.  

Tuesday afternoon, Kollar-Kotelly began by telling all sides how she wants to set up surprise health and safety inspections inside the facility. 

The written testimonials from inmates locked inside facilities with increasing coronavirus infections are getting more dire, according to public defenders and the ACLU. One inmate writes of "coughing up blood for two days" and not being able to see a doctor despite several requests. Another inmate who works in the kitchen writes that other inmates are coughing, while also working and serving food.

The latest COVID-19 numbers from DC’s Department of Corrections:

  • 5 guards infected
  • 196 guards quarantined
  • 20 inmates infected
  • 232 inmates quarantined

Both the number of inmates quarantined and infected are triple what the DOC reported one week ago. No deaths have been reported. 

"The DC jail is a potential Petri dish for infection," ACLU DC attorney Scott Michelman said. 

With more than 1,500 inmates, according to DOC, only 80 are sentenced for misdemeanors and eligible for release. Most of those inmates have already been released early, or are in the process of being released. That leaves the majority behind bars.

RELATED: DOC: 4 more inmates test positive for COVID-19 at DC detention facility

The ACLU and public defenders said they are getting shut out from meetings with inmates during the COVID-19 lockdown.

"The DOC has limited [inmates] to 10-minute phone calls, and the judge said 10 minutes isn’t enough to meet with your lawyer," Michelman said. 

DOC agreed to raise the time limit to 30 minutes after a call with the federal judge Tuesday, according to the ACLU.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly suggested giving inmates stripped-down cell phones to call their attorneys. But after a call with attorneys Tuesday afternoon, the judge dropped the idea after hesitation by the DOC, according to an ACLU account of the call.

D.C.’s Department of Corrections did not comment on the lawsuit to WUSA9, but Mayor Bowser did ensure guards who agreed with the inmate's claims that she will fix any problems.

"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," Bowser said on April 1. 

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

"We have serious concerns about whether they are doing everything they can, or whether they have a bunch of paper policies that aren’t actually being implemented," Michelman said. 

A DOC attorney did announce that as of April 4, the facility was in a "medical shelter in place" order, with regards to inmate visitation and transfer restrictions.

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