WASHINGTON, D.C. — A raucous crowd of 60 people bore down on Washington, D.C.’s city jail Thursday night, drumming on buckets and chanting messages of love and support to the people inside, who had just gotten some fresh air for the first day in the past eight months.
The “noise action” protest put a joyous exclamation point on a week in which activists inside and outside the local criminal justice system saw their own power create concrete change.
Jail officials in the capital city had quietly, unofficially cut inmates off from outdoor recreation time sometime in early 2018. Word of this inhumane shift away from the standard practice of letting inmates decide if they wanted to brave rough weather at rec time reached people outside the city lockup this week. The local Department of Corrections (DOC) was flooded with phone calls demanding outdoor time be restored, including some from the City Council.
On Wednesday, the pressure got results. Those housed at D.C.’s adjoining Central Treatment Facility and Central Detention Facility got to breathe fresh air for the first time since June.
If DOC officials had hoped to forestall the protest planned for Valentine’s Day outside the facility by acquiescing, they did not succeed. DOC’s concession in the face of public shaming and countless phone calls “had the opposite effect,” local Black Lives Matter leader April Goggans told ThinkProgress. “People are realizing that we can mobilize really fast — and that means we can do more.”
After the backlash, DOC staff fired off a statement blaming the lack of access to the outdoors on “an unseasonably wet fall and winter.” They declined to answer more detailed questions by email or phone. But Councilmember Charles Allen (D) told ThinkProgress he expects a better explanation when department officials go before his oversight committee in March.
“Meteorologists will confirm that last year was the rainiest we’ve ever had, there’s no doubt. But I don’t think it was every day,” Allen said. He suspects the actual explanation has more to do with DOC’s staffing levels, noting that the department was given funding to hire 65 new correctional officers in 2018 but has been unable to fill all the positions.
The Valentine’s Day noisemakers hoped their presence would show inmates that they have power too, Goggans said, even within a system designed to strip them of that belief. “I think it’s especially important after getting rec time [Wednesday], for them to know that hey, you all getting the word out to your communities allowed there to be change,” she said, “that we are behind you, and we out here can do what you can’t.”
For more than an hour Thursday night, the crowd did everything they could to make that sentiment tangible for the people caged behind the thick jailhouse walls. Marching behind a purple banner proclaiming “No Pride In Police Violence,” their numbers swelled gradually from two dozen at 8:00 p.m. to more than 60 people three hours later. The group shouted for black liberation and investments in community services other than policing — but leaned heaviest on a call-and-response “we love you” chant to the inmates.
The positivity and warmth on display Thursday might seem mismatched to the wave of anger sparked by the news that people here had been kept indoors constantly for months, especially for people whose only exposure to street protests comes from television news. But among local activists who work with formerly incarcerated people, the news prompted worry as much as anger for Lashonia Thompson-El.
“We need them to be in optimal health in mind, body, and spirit [when they come home],” said Thompson-El, who spent 18 years in prison herself before founding Women Involved in Re-entry Efforts (The WIRE). “Access to programming, outside rec, visitation, hygiene, basic needs. If they deny that, then basically they’re making the trauma worse. Bad enough you locked up, then you come home with all sorts of mental illness and physical illnesses because of the way you was treated when you was locked up.”
Thompson-El and other formerly incarcerated community activists who helped organize the march recalled outdoor rec time — and being allowed to choose for themselves if they wanted to go out when the weather wasn’t perfect — as an important piece of their own ability to chart a different life path after returning to their communities.
“This right here is nothing compared to [Fort Dix],” local activist Yango Sawyer said, gesturing at the unseasonably warm February night air. “Every day, the CO came through and said, ‘Man, outside rec, who wanna go?’” Sawyer said, recalling his own time at the New Jersey federal prison. “If one person said, I wanna go, they go. Wasn’t no, ‘Man we ain’t gonna have rec today, it’s too cold.’”
The women flanking Sawyer nodded along enthusiastically, saying the opportunity to choose for themselves whether or not to brave the cold and wet on any given day gave them a rare piece of self-determination in a system where all corners of life are strictly regimented from on high.
“Thank God I was in prison with some strong women because we went outside every day!” said Thompson-El.
Now that she has been clear of the system for years, and chosen to dedicate her time to helping people in similar circumstances make successful transitions back into civilian life, Thompson-El wishes more people understood that a punitive and dehumanizing approach to life behind bars only generates worse outcomes.
“They don’t do that in other countries — you get your time, you go to prison, and they still treat you like a human being because your punishment is the time,” she said. “It’s a public safety risk if you’re mistreating people and not giving them the treatment they need when they’re in prison.”
About 45 minutes into the march around the jail, the demonstrators got their first confirmation that folks inside could hear and see them. While passing the women’s cell block on the south-east corner of the property, silhouettes appeared in a window. The shadows waved and danced as the protesters redoubled their volume and beamed at one another.
The moment was undercut for Goggans and Thompson-El, though, as they heard four corrections officers who’d been monitoring the protest radio in to their bosses to relay which window the women inside had waved from. The two murmured darkly about potential recriminations against the trio before leading the march back up to the corner where they’d gathered an hour earlier.
Law enforcement presence Thursday night was light and calm, with DOC Director Quincy Booth’s staff lingering in small numbers at the margins of the crowd to watch and occasionally make requests about where people could and couldn’t stand along the edge of their security infrastructure. Booth has mostly been a good partner for organizers focused on making D.C.’s jail a venue for rehabilitation instead of brutality, Thompson-El said.
“I think that he probably didn’t realize the harm he was causing” by keeping people indoors 24 hours a day for most of a year, Thompson-El said, adding that Booth has helped ensure inmates can access college courses, community mentors, and other invaluable programming. “He’s not a bad guy, African-American man, we all love him. But…when we’re trying to fight for liberation, it’s not about friendships. It’s not personal, we not saying nothing about you, we talking about the treatment.”