This week, the U.S. marshals arrived at the D.C. Jail to investigate the facilities and interview prisoners held on charges related to the Capitol attack. Their investigatigation is in response to an Oct. 13 ruling by Federal District Court Judge Royce Lamberth that the D.C. Department of Correction had violated the civil rights of Christopher Worrell, a member of the Proud Boys who has been held in D.C. jail since March in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection, by refusing to provide him medical treatment. Worrell, who is suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, also broke his wrist in May and has not received treatment for it since. Judge Lamberth found the director of the D.C.DOC and the warden of the D.C. jail in contempt, and he even went so far as to refer the case to the Justice Department, suggesting it conduct an investigation for systemic civil rights violations among Jan. 6 defendants in custody.
The response on social media from many who seem to consider themselves somewhere left of center has largely alternated between glee at the Capitol rioters’ getting a taste of mass incarceration, an experience all too common to the working-class Black and brown people the insurrectionists most revile, and outrage at the ruling as a display of white privilege in action. Both reactions are understandable. It is undeniably rich to hear the same people who seemed to think they were above the law as they posed for pictures inside the Capitol complain that they don’t like it in jail. But gloating over their misfortune or bemoaning their preferential treatment, misses the point.
Much of the online frustration stems from the fact that the insurrectionists’ complaints about jail conditions and medical neglect, which are commonplace in jails and prisons across the country, were taken seriously and addressed quickly. Meanwhile prisoners of color, who make up a majority of those behind bars, routinely struggle to find legal remedies for their grievances. Much of the predominantly Black and brown population on Rikers Island in New York, for example, is currently being denied medical care and forced to defecate into plastic bags and subsist on one meal a day. And so far this year, 14 people incarcerated there have died. While the double standard is infuriating, it’s the preferential treatment that’s the problem, not improving conditions in jail in and of itself.
The reality is, Judge Lambert’s ruling is exactly the kind of swift action needed to improve conditions in correctional facilities across the country. Forcing jails or prisons to comply with the minimum legal standards of healthcare and sanitary conditions should be the rule and not the exception. As frustrating as it is to see the needs of a group of people who attempted to undermine our democracy attended to so swiftly, because this ruling can now be pointed to as legal precedent it’s actually a win for all incarcerated people.
I spent twelve months on Rikers Island for my participation in a brawl with a few Proud Boy types during a protest in 2018. Despite understanding his plight, I don’t find Worrell to be a very sympathetic character. Though I do recognize that the ruling in his case presents a rare opportunity to improve conditions for incarcerated people of all stripes throughout the country. That’s because of the legal precedent set in his case. In the absence of a previous ruling on a similar case in their own courts, lawyers in any jurisdiction in the country can now point to this ruling and try to persuade the court that its example should be followed, no matter who their client may be.
“There’s a long history in this country of the complaints of incarcerated individuals being ignored or minimized until they reach a certain level of egregiousness,” says Scott Michelman, Legal Director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia. “What makes this unusual is that the judge found corrections officials in contempt, and high, high level officials at that.” Michelman says the ruling “expands the window of possibility somewhat, in that it may make litigators and judges more likely to reach for [contempt],” and that this applies “not only to acute medical needs, but also the more general conditions in which incarcerated people are housed.
The possibility of a legal precedent that may actually afford incarcerated people better access to medical treatment and more humane conditions is not to be underestimated. Though prisoners have a constitutional right to healthcare and a sanitary environment, conditions in jails and prisons around the country are chronically, notoriously dangerous and unsanitary. Between COVID and private medical outsourcing conditions are getting worse. Prisoners in every jurisdiction are subjected to pests, mold, leaks, sewage, urine, feces, and starvation. They’re confined to their cells or dorms for long stretches of time and refused the healthcare they need, whether it be medication they’ve been prescribed or treatment for an injury or condition. The D.C. jail is no exception, and it’s been that way for a long time.
Michelman is also co-counsel in Banks v. Booth, an ongoing lawsuit launched by the ACLU last year over the conditions suffered by those in the D.C. jail during the pandemic. He says on three separate occasions, the federal court issued “orders holding that the D.C. jail was violating the constitutional rights of everyone incarcerated, and yet no one even contemplated contempt.” Had Judge Lamberth’s ruling occurred at an earlier point in their litigation, he says, “I think we as plaintiffs’ attorneys would have thought much more seriously about seeking to hold the director [of corrections] in contempt.”
On the other side of the political spectrum from the Capitol insurrectionists, there are prisoners who are currently being singled out for harsher treatment behind bars, like Daniel Baker, the Florida anarchist recently sentenced to 44 months in prison for his Facebook posts. Baker spent his first months in custody trapped in cells covered in feces. Or Ashley Diamond, a Black trans woman forced to endure horrific conditions in Georgia state men’s prisons, including the denial of her hormone treatment even after she managed to file and win a lawsuit demanding it as necessary medical care.
Legal complaints launched by prisoners are complicated affairs that tend to take a long time to resolve. Most end in failure. Getting a complaint before the court can also be prohibitively expensive, and may elicit retribution from corrections officers. Those of us who care about ending mass incarceration—and making life more bearable for those inside while we do—can’t afford the luxury of deciding which pro-prisoner rulings we’ll get behind. After all, any ruling, law, or policy change that improves the lives of one prisoner, and which might therefore be hailed as a victory, necessarily improves the lives of those prisoners we find least sympathetic, too.