Several members of the Republican congressional delegation were invited to Saturday’s “Justice for J6” rally in Washington, D.C., an event professing support for the more than 570 people arrested so far in relation to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The gathering, organized by a group called Look Ahead America, drew a few hundred people and was guarded by a similar number of police in riot gear. With dozens of reporters, at least two GOP congressional candidates, and zero sitting members of Congress in attendance, the event seemed to fall short of the manufactured outrage that preceded it.
Conservatives have expressed newfound concern for incarcerated people in the past nine months, as those jailed for involvement in the storming of the Capitol report inhumane conditions and treatment. On July 24, right-wing Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Paul Gosar of Arizona wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting a meeting to discuss the treatment of Capitol rioters at Washington, D.C.’s Central Detention Facility, expressing concerns about allegations of abuse and the validity of solitary confinement. Five days later, the members showed up at the jail with camera crews from the far-right outlets One America News Network and Right Side Broadcasting Network. When jail officers turned them away, the representatives claimed they were “locked out.” The officers said they were obstructing the facility’s entrance.
The episode brought a telling admission from Greene: On a live broadcast, she asked Gohmert what would have happened if they had been at the jail, where conditions have long been the subject of complaints, “just to check on the entire population?” — rather than exclusively on the Capitol rioters. (Gohmert quickly tried to correct her.) Long before Republicans took notice, Covid-19 had prompted 23-hour-a-day lockdowns and allegations of mass solitary confinement at the D.C. jail. And just 15 miles away, the situation was even worse: At the Department of Corrections in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, conditions have been deteriorating for over a year, with similar 23-hour lockdowns and solitary confinement.
Unlike the D.C. jail, which lifted its lockdown in late April, the one at Prince George’s is ongoing. (A spokesperson for the jail denied that its policies constitute a lockdown.) The incarcerated population in Prince George’s County is more than 20 times the size of the group being held in D.C. for the January 6 attacks — 853 people compared to 37 — but conservative outcry has been absent for the larger population.
Conditions at Prince George’s have been so undeniably bad that they prompted a class-action lawsuit last year, which the county settled on August 23 after paying more than $81,400 of taxpayer money for defense from the private corporate litigation firm Maynard Cooper & Gale. Instead of a monetary award, the class — which named eight men but included everyone detained at the jail during the coronavirus pandemic — requested that the county Department of Corrections be required to take necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of incarcerated people.
The county agreed in the August settlement to test vulnerable groups once a month for Covid-19, provide each person with a hygiene kit, follow guidance for correctional facilities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and allow an independent medical expert to conduct inspections of the jail. The settlement terms will apply for just four months, with the possibility to extend up to six if there is evidence of noncompliance. On September 9, plaintiffs in the case sent a notice to the Department of Corrections listing areas in which they identified noncompliance, including insufficient testing, people in medical isolation not given access to commissary, lack of access to weekly laundry, inconsistent receipt of out-of-cell time, and additional concerns related to the spread of Covid-19: staff not wearing masks, improper screening of new entries, and overpopulation. On September 10, Courtwatch PG, an advocacy group that monitors conditions in the jail, announced that it had been informed of another Covid-19 outbreak at the facility. Plaintiffs had requested a meeting with the county to discuss areas of noncompliance, but on September 16, lawyers from Maynard Cooper & Gale denied them in a written response.
Prince George’s County, one of Maryland’s majority-Black counties, saw some of the highest rates of cases and deaths from Covid-19 in the state last year. Under pandemic-related restrictions, the county jail has been under lockdown for 17 months; for at least nine of them, the incarcerated population has far exceeded the reduced capacity the county achieved last July. (The jail normally has a capacity of 1,524; under pandemic protocols its population was reduced to roughly one-third of that, according to plaintiffs, Courtwatch PG, and county press releases. The Department of Corrections denied that it had reduced capacity due to Covid-19.) Even as the number of people in the Prince George’s County jail has fluctuated, conditions in the facility have stayed largely the same. Almost a year and a half after the plaintiffs filed suit, the county has agreed to start making changes — but advocates say the settlement terms cover the bare minimum of what the jail should be doing.
Starting early last April, people incarcerated in Prince George’s County were effectively held in unconstitutional solitary confinement, allowed to leave their cells for one to two hours a day. Plaintiffs in the class-action suit claimed that the Department of Corrections violated incarcerated people’s constitutional rights by keeping them in unsanitary conditions, denying them medical attention, and failing to provide access to basic hygienic supplies like soap. A subset of the class also asked the department to consider release for older people or people with underlying conditions that increased their risk of catching or dying from Covid-19. In the suit, they wrote that the jail had refused to release people who tested positive for Covid-19, keeping them instead in “filthy isolation cells, where the walls are covered in feces, mucus, and blood,” and “they are barely monitored and receive no real treatment.”
The county has agreed to start making changes — but advocates say the settlement terms cover the bare minimum of what the jail should be doing.
In court, Maynard Cooper & Gale lawyers representing the county and attorneys from the Prince George’s County Office of Law presented a rosy picture of conditions at the jail. “There is no evidence that any of named Plaintiffs suffered any actual harm,” county attorneys wrote in filing last April. “Currently, the virus appears to have been contained and plaintiffs have access to a medical staff 24/7 ready and able to diagnose and treat them in the event that they contract the virus. If need be they can be sent to the hospital at no expense to them. They are provided with cleaners, the common areas are wiped down constantly, and the charges against them are serious crimes against persons. They will not suffer irreparable harm. The hold on their liberties, albeit in a jail setting and necessarily more severe, mirror many of the ones the outside world is currently experiencing.”
But that portrait wasn’t reflective of reality, said Carmen Johnson, director of Courtwatch PG. “That’s why the lawsuit was filed,” Johnson said, “because they acted like it was a joke.”
Department of Corrections spokesperson Andrew Cephas told The Intercept that the jail was not put on lockdown, that it ensured availability of hygienic items, and that housing units rotated recreational schedules at the beginning of the pandemic and were given increased recreation time. While the Department of Corrections charges people $4 for nonemergency medical visits, Cephas said that even if someone has no money in their account, they are still seen by medical staff.
“There would be minimal costs associated with complying with the requests for release,” Cephas said. “No one will be released without an order of the court, which costs the Department of Corrections nothing.” There may be added expenses related to ensuring the safety of people held at the facility as far as Covid-19 testing, extra soap, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and educational posters, he added, “but these additional Covid-19 related costs have not been quantified.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., some of the 37 people being held in relation to the January 6 attacks were placed in “restrictive housing” separate from the general jail population. Asked if that was still the case, D.C. Department of Corrections Director of Strategic Communications Keena Blackmon said the residents “are housed according to DOC policies and procedures and the housing units may vary.” A July analysis by the Washington Post found that 13 percent of January 6 defendants were held in pretrial detention, compared with 75 percent of federal defendants held pretrial across the country. In the Prince George’s County jail, the proportion of people detained pretrial is closer to 96 percent.
Blackmon added that the jail is no longer operating with a 23-hour-a-day “medical stay in place” in effect, but did not say how many hours each day people were allowed out of their cells.
The burst of public attention to jail conditions that emerged early in the pandemic has for the most part leveled off.
“It is the commitment of DC Department of Corrections that residents held in our custody are treated with dignity and respect,” Quincy Booth, director of the department, said in a statement. Booth added that all incoming detainees are required to complete a 14-day quarantine and said people are provided with out-of-cell time, recreation, and visitation as permissible by Covid-19 restrictions or the terms of their confinement.
Legislators who took up the cause of the jailed Capitol rioters have otherwise gone quiet. And it appears that they never followed the cases they once opined about with much regularity — one defendant the lawmakers referenced in their July letter had been released in April.
Even as conservative groups and politicians draw attention to the treatment of detained January 6 rioters, the burst of public attention to jail conditions that emerged early in the pandemic has for the most part leveled off. Absent public scrutiny, incarcerated people still languish under inhumane conditions across the country, and Covid-19 cases continue to spike. While the majority of incarcerated people have been fully vaccinated — average rates are higher than among the general population — vaccination rates among corrections staff are much lower. At New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, where Covid-19 cases are once again on the rise, 11 people have died this year, including five people who died by suicide. The latest person to die was 41-year-old Isa Abdul Karim, who lost his life Sunday after spending only 32 days behind bars, 10 of them in a crowded intake pen where he contracted Covid-19. (The official cause of death has not been announced.) The death toll is the facility’s largest in years.
Freedom of movement can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. A push to release people being held for nonviolent offenses and lessen the use of cash bail led numerous cities to release thousands of people from prisons and jails early in the pandemic, but the number of people in prisons and jails started climbing again shortly after those initial releases, and many facilities have since surpassed the number of people they held at the height of the pandemic. Prince George’s Department of Corrections is one of them.