In February 1997, during the winter of my 16th year, I was on the verge of pleading guilty to carjacking, and officials representing the state of Virginia believed I should be incarcerated not in the local juvenile detention center, but in the Fairfax County Jail.
Sometimes I imagined that little more than my crime mattered — not to the judge and prosecutor, neither to the public.
Deputies there placed me in solitary confinement, leaving me in the ill-fitting khakis and sweater I’d worn to court. I didn’t have a mattress, a blanket, a pillow, a towel, a wash cloth or soap. I wasn’t given a change of clothes or a chance to shower. At least six times a day for nine days, deputies walked past my cell and watched me shiver.
Sometimes I imagined that little more than my crime mattered — not to the judge and prosecutor, neither to the public, few of whom demanded that rehabilitation be made the point of prison or marched in protest when our public officials called children like me super-predators. I believed most of the public believed that the pistol I held during that carjacking meant I deserved little more than a solitary cell and the worst grilled cheese sandwiches in these United States.
Some defendants who have been held in the District of Columbia jail after being suspected of crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol have complained that the conditions they’re being subjected to are inhumane. But in their case, they have conservative public officials who are echoing their complaints. In December, 14 Republican members of the U.S. House sent a letter to Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, complaining that the Jan. 6 defendants are being “treated as subhuman.”
“During a recent visit to the DC jail, Members of Congress were exposed to a two-tier justice system in which the January 6 defendants were treated categorically different from the remainder of the prison population,” the letter reads. “January 6 defendants reported being subjected to months of solitary confinement, verbal abuse (e.g., called 'white supremacists'), harassment, beatings from guards, denial of basic medical care, religious services, communion, nutritious diet, and access to attorneys.”
In November, Proud Boys’ Chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, who was sentenced to five months for burning a Black Lives Matter banner displayed on a Black church — a crime unrelated to the Jan. 6 insurrection — requested an early release from that jail. “I’ve been to jail before and what I’ve seen here, I’ve never seen anywhere else,” Tarrio told a judge as he requested that his sentence be reduced to 90 days. “This place needs to be shut down immediately.”
The judge denied his request.
When I heard of Tarrio’s motion for an early release, wildly, I imagined I could relate. True, I initially mocked his request to have his sentence reduced, but, then again, what person who has heard a cell door closing has not wanted an early release? Who experiencing the horrific conditions in prison wouldn’t believe that maybe the fact of that horribleness might grant them freedom?
Who experiencing the horrific conditions in prison wouldn’t believe that maybe the fact of that horribleness might grant them freedom?
No doubt , in complaining about conditions that have been dreadful since before I was born, Tarrio, who is Afro Cuban, wants to duck the burden borne by so many other Black men currently locked up in the same facility. I suspect the men and women incarcerated there on suspicion of crimes other than insurrection are wondering why no politicians rushed to witness the terror of that place when they complained.
Years after my own incarceration, I entered the D.C. Jail to visit young men who were serving sentences longer than they were statistically expected to live. That was 2007, and while the jail was less dilapidated than it is now, it was still not a place anyone would ever want to be. However, it was in October, according to The Washington Post, that U.S. marshals conducted a “surprise inspection” of the jail and uncovered “systemic failures,” including “grotesquely poor sanitation and the punitive withholding of food and water from detainees.”
According to that report, Lamont J. Ruffin, the acting U.S. marshal of the D.C. District Court, said inspectors observed staff “antagonizing detainees” and reported that some supervisors “appeared unaware or uninterested in any of these issues.” The following month, the district and the Marshals Service reached a deal to improve jail conditions.
While that’s good, one serious problem here has been the narrative reassigning blame. In a world where prosecutors frequently overcharge those suspected of crimes, where sentencing guidelines demand egregiously long sentences for everything from jaywalking to resisting arrest to drug possession to murder and in a world where legislators do little to challenge these practices, somehow the staff at the D.C. jail has been made the villain. The U.S. Marshals Service come and do a shakedown on the jail and all its underpaid staff and not the members of Congress who have spent decades doing nothing to alleviate the conditions there or at federally controlled prisons.
One has to wonder if the legislators who visited the jail are currently writing federal legislation to bring back federal parole. Or if they will turn their bully pulpits toward legislators in states with far more horrific places of confinement.
Fighting against mass incarceration has become popular in recent years. While the time being served by those suspected of Jan 6. crimes is not a product of mass incarceration, the public clamoring for them to do time in such a horrific place is fruit from the same poisonous tree.
Some may begrudge my seeming sympathy toward Tarrio and likeminded people being held on charges related to Jan. 6. This isn’t about their crimes, though. Just like the specifics of the crimes of men I personally know (and whom I believe should be free) don’t alter my belief of what mercy and justice look like. In light of the threat to our democracy, some may wonder why I’d argue for better conditions for those detainees. I say our democracy has always been under threat by what we allow to happen in our wildly violent and dangerous jails and prisons. And I remain unsettled at how, still, those who have the power to do something different continue to use other people’s suffering to score political points.