D.C. Central Cell Block at Center of Protest

William Lamar IV, pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church n Northwest, uses a bullhorn to address supporters gathered at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department on Aug. 6 to protest conditions at D.C. Jail. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
William Lamar IV, pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church n Northwest, uses a bullhorn to address supporters gathered at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department on Aug. 6 to protest conditions at D.C. Jail. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

In June, Rev. Jimmie Hawkins and eight other clergymen spent more than a day in D.C. Central Cell Block after police arrested them on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, where they rallied after the courts upheld Ohio voter-roll purges.

During their 28-hour stay, the group mediated a disagreement between two detainees and led a prayer. As often becomes the case during a stint in lockup, Hawkins and his colleagues also became accustomed to what he described as inhumane treatment.

“It was horrible. We had shackles on our hands, feet and around our waists,” said Hawkins, an official in the National Presbyterian Church in Northwest leading responses to social justice issues.

On Monday afternoon, he and dozens of others again gathered in front of Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, which houses the D.C. Central Cell Block, in protest of the mouse and roach infestation, shackling, and verbal mistreatment Hawkins said he witnessed while in police custody.

A particular point of contention for Hawkins concerned what he called the need to arrest people for minor offenses. a situation not endemic to him as he came to find out in conversations with cellmates. He spoke about meeting a man caught driving with a learner’s permit, and another fellow who returned a rental car two weeks late.

“There were about 40 men — three White, three Hispanic, and the rest Black — in a cell that was 5 feet by 5 feet by 7 feet,” Hawkins said. “There’s no bedding or pillows. There was no food and you felt the inhumanity of how they treated people. I see how people come out worse. Police bark at you and have a desire to control people.”

Citizens protest unsafe living conditions at DC Central Cell Block. (Courtesy photo)
Citizens protest unsafe living conditions at DC Central Cell Block. (Courtesy photo)

Hawkins’ allegations echo a 2015 report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Public Affairs that described “poor housekeeping and sanitation practices” in D.C. Central Cell Block. A public affairs specialist in MPD’s office of communications declined The Informer’s request to comment on the aforementioned conditions. The D.C. Department of Corrections didn’t reply to a similar inquiry.

Monday’s protest followed another gathering that took place in front of MPD headquarters days following the clergymen’s June arrest. In response to the fervor surrounding the issue, members of the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee visited D.C. Central Cell Block this summer.

Councilman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the committee chair, wrote in a Monday evening email that he prioritized central lockup matters during a hearing with the D.C. Department of Corrections in which agency leaders committed to regularly cleaning the cell block.

Such action hasn’t sufficed for protesters. As the afternoon sun beamed down on them, Black, white, and Latino women and men chanted loudly and waved colorful signs that criticized conditions inside D.C. Central Cell Block and demanded its closure.

Police officers and passersby listened as Hawkins, Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest, and Rev. William H. Lamar IV of Metropolitan AME Church, also in Northwest, addressed fellow protesters on a bullhorn.

At one point, activist and singer Luci Murphy led nearly 30 people in song while members of the media and onlookers recorded the events on DSLRs and smartphones.

Supporters included representatives of SEIU Local 32BJ. Returning citizens advocate Elwood “Yango” Sawyer and Al-Malik Farrakhan, founder of Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers, also counted among those who weighed in on the state of central lockup.

“You have thousands of women and men who are waiting for arraignment and you put them in conditions that folks would be locked up for if they put animals in it,” said Hagler, a key organizer of the Aug. 6 protest.

Hagler outlined future plans, including a follow-up meeting with Allen and Mayor Muriel Bowser, even if it meant disrupting press conferences. He said prior actions taken against him and others for speaking up about injustice has warranted such a response.

“They’re transporting people in these facilities [like] they’re less than animals,” Hagler said as he recounted the events of June 14. “We were arrested for praying in front of the Supreme Court on the day the courts ruled that Ohio could purge its voter rolls. [For that], you should’ve just gotten a ticket. We got 28 hours in central lock up. It was to teach us a lesson to keep our mouths shut and be quiet about voter suppression.”

Three years prior to the religious group’s ordeal, a judge convicted a former jail employee after he assaulted a female detainee as an officer processed the woman in central booking. D.C. Jail, where people awaiting trial or serving months-long sentences stay, entered the spotlight in 2016 when the Washington Lawyers’ Committee reported rat infestations, sewage leaks, and unbearable heat within the facility.

In his comments to protestors, Sawyer, a returning citizen himself, spoke to the familiarity of what D.C. residents often experience upon entering D.C. Central Cell Block.

“The conditions have not changed in the last 40 years. It hasn’t changed because folks believe that the alleged criminals are not people,” Sawyer, sporting a dark blue bucket hat, told the group under the sweltering heat.

“We have some people out here who have experienced what I and Al-Malik [Farrakhan] have experienced for many years. The reason why they have so many rodents and roaches down there is because the building is old. If that’s the case, shut it down and give people [who get arrested for minor offenses] early release,” Sawyer added

Feelings about D.C. Central Cell Block hint at a greater conflict between some residents and elected officials. Despite her 70-point blowout of her lesser-known challengers in D.C.’s mayoral primary, Bowser’s popularity has waned amid tense community-police relations, controversy surrounding D.C. Public Schools, and the high cost of living that has marginalized longtime Washingtonians.

While Farrakhan, an avowed supporter of Bowser, didn’t express plans of letting up on the city executive, he suggested how she could improve her standing among who’s considered the least among D.C. residents.

“When [going] against injustice, I don’t care who’s the mayor,” Farrakhan said Monday. “I stand up against it. I had [Bowser’s] back for 10 years. I think she could be one of the best Black mayors if she had the right people around her.”

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