DC Prisoners' Project

Philip Fornaci Project Director
Stacey Litner Prisoners' Rights Advocate
Elliot M. Mincberg Senior Counsel

The Committee’s DC Prisoners’ Project advocates for the humane treatment and dignity of all persons convicted or charged with a criminal offense under DC law housed in prisons, jails, or community corrections programs, or living in the community on parole. The Project also works to assist formerly incarcerated people with issues related to their incarceration and strives to promote progressive criminal justice reform.

In mid-2008, the Project took on the responsibility of defending the rights of DC prisoners to parole, an effort that has nearly doubled its client intakes.

The Project is the only legal organization representing the interests of the nearly 8,000 DC prisoners currently held in dozens of federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities across the country, more than 3,000 prisoners held in local DC jail facilities, and as many as 10,000 on parole and supervised release. In addition, there are an estimated 60,000 formerly incarcerated DC residents.

The Project addresses the problems of our clients with both litigation and non-litigation advocacy approaches, and has focused on both individual matters and broader, systemic strategies. The Project is engaged in litigation, including class action litigation, in federal and state courts in multiple jurisdictions, as well as in the District.

In collaboration with private law firms and individual pro bono attorneys, the Project has achieved significant changes in access to health care for DC prisoners in jails and prisons across the country; secured imposition of a court-mandated population cap at the DC Jail; and obtained monetary awards for violations of our clients’ constitutional rights to safe living conditions, access to educational programs, and appropriate medical care.

Project Activities

  • Insuring access to constitutionally-adequate levels of medical and mental health care in both local jails and distant BOP facilities.
  • Responding to, and working to prevent, acts of violence, including securing money damages for our clients where appropriate and to discourage conditions that lead to violence.
  • Engaging in litigation around access to parole, and training and placing pro bono attorneys to handle parole grant hearings.
  • Improving the way individuals are released from jail and prison, and their treatment after release, with particular attention to the conditions of parole and supervised release, as well as their medical and mental health needs.
  • Engaging in public policy advocacy to improve our clients' conditions of confinement, to support alternatives to incarceration, and improve parole and supervised release practices.

Beale et. al. v. District of Columbia, et. al.

On November 18, 2008, the DC Prisoners’ Project, along with Covington & Burling LLP, and Sparks & Silber LLP, settled the case of Beale et al v. District of Columbia, securing the largest settlement ever in an inmate wrongful death suit against the District of Columbia. The case involved the stabbing death of Pearl Beale’s son, Givon Pendleton, and the near-fatal stabbing of another inmate in December 2002 at the DC Jail, during the bloodiest four-day period in the history of that facility. Mr. Pendleton, 24 years old, was being held at the Jail pending non-violent charges and was attacked by a man awaiting sentencing on first-degree murder charges in that overcrowded facility. No officers saw the incident happen, and no weapon was recovered.

The case resulted in tremendous reform in the D.C. Jail, including the passage of the D.C. Jail Improvement Act of 2004 and policy changes on appropriate staffing levels for the Jail, in addition to an important settlement for the plaintiffs.

Anderson, et. al v. Fenty, et. al.

In 2005, with the help of Wiley Rein LLP, the DC Prisoners’ Project brought suit on behalf of prisoners at the over-crowded D.C. Jail against the Mayor of the District of Columbia for refusing to comply with DC law and impose a legal limit on the population at the DC Jail.

In 2004, the DC Council passed the Jail Improvement Act (supported by then-
Councilmember Fenty) which required, among other things, that there be a cap on the population at the Jail, which had been the scene of terrible violence in overcrowded conditions in 2002. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams refused to comply with the law, and the Project filed this case on behalf of DC Jail inmates in June 2005. The election of a new Mayor did not change the District’s position as Mayor Fenty also refused to comply with the law. Finally, after more than two years of litigation, D.C. Superior Court Judge Melvin Wright ordered the District to comply with the Act and impose a population cap on the D.C. Jail. In response, the District proposed an absurdly high number, which was rejected by an angry Judge Wright, who threatened defendant’s counsel with contempt and gave them one week to comply with his original order. Washington Post and Washington City Paper reporters (alerted by WLC staff) gave the story prominence in the following days, leading the District to settle the case rather than seek an appeal of Judge Wright’s ruling.

Under the terms of the settlement, the District has agreed to comply with the population cap except in “exigent circumstances,” in which case the District will notify WLC, describe the circumstances requiring a higher population, and how long the population increase will continue.

Jane Doe and Jane Roe v. Corrections Corporation of America, et. al.

In October 2008, the DC Prisoners’ Project of the Washington Lawyer’s Committee and the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP settled a case on behalf of two women who had been sexually assaulted while incarcerated at the Correctional Treatment Facility in the District of Columbia. The CTF is a local jail facility run on behalf of the District by the Corrections Corporation of America, a for- profit private prison company. The complaint alleged assault by the individual defendants as well as failure to protect from cruel and unusual punishment against CCA.

The DC Prisoners’ Project has prepared public reports, policy statements, scholarly articles and public testimony before various government agencies on issues related to prisoners’ rights and the rights of formerly incarcerated people. Samples of these documents appear below:

From the Inside Out:  Talking to Incarcerated women About Health Care (A Survey of Incarcerated Women in D.C. Jail Facilities), November 2005

It’s Not All in My Head:  The Harm of Rape and the Prison Litigation Reform Act by Deborah M. Golden Cardozo Women’s Law Journal, Fall 2004 Volume 11, Number 1

Studies on Halfway Houses (Policy Brief:  Do Halfway Houses and Community Corrections Facilities Cause Property Values to Decrease?), 2005

DC Prisoners:  Issues for the Obama Administration (policy paper), 2009

Testimony - “Housing of DC Felons Far Away From Home: Effects on Crime, Recidivism and Reentry”.US House of Representatives; Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia; May 5, 2010

Testimony - Federal Bureau of Prisons Oversight Hearing.  US House of Representatives; Committee on the Judiciary; Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security; July 21, 2009

Testimony – DC Council Performance Hearing; Department of Corrections and Correction Information Council; March 12, 2010

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