DC may have the funding to demolish part of its troubled prison complex and replace it with a new facility over the next six years, one said overview by Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed budget published on Wednesday. The proposed funding in the city’s capital budget is the most significant step Bowser has taken to modernize the city jail, though officials have debated the need for a new facility for years.
Advocates of a modern, smaller facility in the district welcomed the news with moderate optimism – but noted that it would take more than new buildings to improve the city’s criminal justice system and ensure people incarcerated in the city’s jail are not mistreated will .
“It’s something that … we’ve been working on for so long and really weren’t sure it was going to make it into the budget,” said Emily Tatro, deputy director of the Council for Court Excellence, who led a city-funded task force following the Seeked community input on the future of DC Prison and recommended a newer and more treatment and programming focused facility. “It is so important to ensure that people we decide need to be incarcerated are not living in the conditions and culture that are in place at the moment [Department of Corrections] Investments. So we were very excited when we saw this initial investment being made.”
Bowser hasn’t released the full details of her budget proposal, but she has Summary The capital budget proposal released Wednesday includes $250 million spread over the next six years to design and build an annex adjacent to the prison complex called the Correctional Treatment Facility. The extension will provide enough space for up to 600 people, according to the schedule, and will be a “big step” toward closing down the Central Detention Facility (CDF), the older side of the DC prison complex, from where incarcerated residents have claimed some of the most serious ailments .
Construction of the annex would likely not begin until at least 2026 as the majority of the $250 million in the proposed 6-year capital plan is earmarked for fiscal years 2027 and 2028.
The proposed budget will also include $25 million, according to the overview, to maintain “safe, secure and humane conditions” at the central detention facility until it can be permanently closed.
The announcement of a new prison facility as a near-term priority comes after months of intense scrutiny of conditions at DC’s prison. The US Marshals Service conducted a surprise inspection of the facilities in October and found that conditions on the Central Detention Facility side of the complex were so unacceptable that they transfer about 200 people in her care from prison and sent them to federal prisons instead. A Marshals Service memo issued after the inspection described cell toilets clogged with human excrement, guards being punished for withholding food and water from inmates, and other abuses.
DC officials have denied the claims in the Marshals Service memo, although defense attorneys, incarcerated DC residents, and other advocates have done so she confirmed and said prison conditions have been unacceptable for years. In 2015, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee released a report stating that prison conditions were so bad that they were “could not realistically be fixed” without tearing it down and starting over. A year later, in the summer of 2016, a 70-year-old man died during a heat wave in prison. Correctional facility officials said the heat was not the cause of the man’s death, but prison residents at the time reported that their cells were extremely hot, reaching a temperature of 87 degrees in one case.
In recent months, under pressure from reporters and lawmakers, officials said they believed the city needed a new facility but declined to give a timeline for one.
Tatro noted that while the newly announced commitment to build a modernized facility was a “really good first step and a good commitment,” a new building would not solve all the problems at the prison, the Marshals Service of People reports show as Punishment of deprivation of food and water.
“That will not change with the new building either,” said Tatro. “That’s something that needs to change in the culture.”
“The whole system is broken,” said Julie Johnson, a core team member of Neighbors for Justice, a group of residents who live near the prison and advocate for changes in the local criminal justice system. “So a new plant or one new director from [the Department of Corrections] – every new individual thing is not sufficient because the whole system is broken and does not respect the humanity of individuals.”
And while city officials have so far lobbied for a facility that looks and feels different than the existing one — City Manager Kevin Donahue went so far as to call it a “treatment and rehabilitation facility” on Wednesday — some proponents have their skepticism expressed what the end product will actually be. Johnson said she wants officials to take the time and gather information on best practices before simply building a new facility that will function like other prisons.
“We know we need a facility, but we don’t want it to just be built the traditional way,” Johnson said. “And the problem is that every new facility, it seems, for the past several decades shouldn’t feel like a prison. And although [the Correctional Treatment Facility] is better than [the Central Detention Facility]it is still a prison.”
The next step in the budget process brings Bowser’s proposal to the Council, which has until May 24 to propose changes to it. On Wednesday, during a meeting where Bowser announced the budget overview, several DC council members praised their decision to commit to a new facility.
Charles Allen, a Ward 6 councilman who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, called the funding for the new facility “an incredibly significant event.”
“It’s not just the physical space that we all know is unacceptable anyway,” Allen said. “It truly presents an opportunity for investment in a rehabilitation-focused criminal justice system that will make our city safer and address the ongoing liability that exists every day that the current facility exists.”
“We’ve put a lot of money into patch maintenance and now it’s time for a facility that meets our goals,” said Christina Henderson, member of the at-Large Council.
The concept of the appendix seems to draw directly from a series of recommendations funded by the city Task Force Prisons and Justice last year. The group, which included lawmakers, attorneys and law enforcement, was formed in 2019 and tasked with coming up with a plan to replace the city’s aging prisons and rethink its criminal system. During the trial, they interviewed nearly 2,000 DC residents and conducted a survey of DC individuals currently incarcerated in federal prisons.
The group eventually came up with a list of 80 recommendations – including the construction of the annex next to the correctional facility to allow the city to close the central correctional facility by 2027. The task force proposed that the city build an additional correctional facility by 2031 and eventually demolish the correctional facility as well. It also suggested that the new facilities should be “non-traditional” to facilitate programming rather than punishment – and only be used as a “last resort” when community-based alternatives to incarceration are “inadequate, inappropriate or unworkable.” are.
And in particular, it suggested that the district bring back all of its Bureau of Prisons prisoners to be housed in the new facility in the district. Currently, DC residents who have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms are being sent to possibly serve their time in federal facilities far away away from home due to an agreement the DC government made with the federal government in the 1990s.
On Wednesday, Bowser officials did not commit to returning those currently being held at federal facilities, but city manager Kevin Donahue told DC Council that construction of the new annex would allow the city to bring some of them back to DC early “to be in DC before they are released from custody.”
Anthony Petty, another core Neighbors for Justice team member, told DCist/WAMU that he believes making room for all of DC’s incarcerated population should be a priority.
“If we’re just going to build one prison, why not build a prison for the entire DC population?” said Petty, who has served time in federal prisons and says Black DC residents routinely face discrimination in the federal system. “Bring all the boys who are in Florida, California, West Virginia, Kentucky. Let’s bring all our individuals home. I think that’s one of the things we need to talk about.”
The task force also said the city would need to reduce the number of incarcerated residents by half in order to build a new, decently sized correctional facility. To that end, it recommended more mental and behavioral health staff in public schools, a community center to support people with behavioral health needs, more affordable housing for returning citizens, and a community center for restorative justice where conflicts could be resolved without resorting to incarceration. It also outlined wide-ranging changes to indictment, sentencing and parole that the city has yet to implement — how extensive revisions to the city’s Penal Code, still under review by the DC Council, and significant changes in the way juveniles and young adults are sentenced.
“It’s not just inside the walls” of a prison, Tatro said. “It makes sure that we’re really making these big upfront investments to make sure that people don’t get into crises as often and that violence doesn’t happen as much and that we have more reparative, healing ways to deal with it when it does happen.” So we’re really sticking to the big picture here. This is a really exciting win but it’s the whole package and we won’t be able to achieve the goals we want for everyone’s safety without moving the whole package.”
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