DC Prison’s Complaints of Jan. 6 Defendants Are Hypocritical, But They’re Not Wrong

In February 1997, during the winter of my 16th year, I was about to plead guilty to carjacking, and Virginia officials said 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, nor to the public.

The officers there placed me in solitary confinement and left me in the ill-fitting khaki and sweater I had worn to court. I had no mattress, blanket, pillow, towel, washcloth or soap. I didn’t get a change of clothes or a chance to shower. For nine days, the officers walked past my cell at least six times a day and watched me shiver.

Sometimes I imagined that little more than my crime mattered—not to the judge and prosecutor, nor to the public, few of whom demanded that rehabilitation be made prison or marched in protest when our officials brought children like me called super predators. I believed most of the public believed that the gun I was holding during that carjacking meant that I deserved little more than a solitary cell and the worst sandwiches in this United States.

Some defendants held in the District of Columbia jail after being charged with crimes related to the January 6, 2021 Capitol storming have complained that the conditions they are being subjected to are inhumane. But in their case, they have conservative officials repeating 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 inhumane.”

“During a recent visit to DC prison, members of Congress were exposed to a bipartisan justice system in which the Jan. 6 defendants were treated categorically differently from the rest of the prison population,” the letter reads. “January 6, defendants reported being in solitary confinement, verbal abuse (e.g. referred to as ‘white supremacists’), harassment, beatings by guards, denial of basic medical care, religious services, communion, nutritious diet and access to lawyers. ”

In November, Proud Boys president Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, who had been sentenced to five months for burning a Black Lives Matter banner on a black church — a crime unrelated to the January 6 uprising — requested for early release from that prison. “I’ve been in prison before and what I’ve seen here I’ve never seen anywhere else,” Tarrio told a judge when he asked for his sentence to be reduced to 90 days. “This place should be closed immediately.”

The judge rejected his request.

When I heard of Tarrio’s motion for parole, wild, I imagined I could understand. It is true that I initially mocked his request for a reduced sentence, but again, what person who heard a cell door shut has not wanted early release? Whoever experiences the horrific conditions in prison would not believe that the fact of that horrificness might give them freedom?

Whoever experiences the horrific conditions in prison would not believe that the fact of that horrificness might give them freedom?

No doubt Tarrio, who is Afro Cuban, by bemoaning conditions that have been appalling since I was born, wants to evade the burden carried by so many other black men currently incarcerated in the same facility. I suspect the men and women imprisoned there on suspicion of crimes other than insurrection wonder why no politicians rushed to witness the terror of that place when they complained.

Years after my own incarceration, I entered DC prison to visit young men serving sentences longer than they were statistically expected to live. That was 2007, and although the prison was less run-down than it is now, it still wasn’t 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 prison and revealed “system flaws” including “grotesquely poor sanitation and punitive withholding of food and water from inmates.”

According to that report, Lamont J. Ruffin, the acting U.S. Marshal of the D.C. District Court, said inspectors observed staff “imposing inmates” and reported that some supervisors were “unaware or uninterested in any of these issues.” . The following month, the district and the Marshals Service reached a deal to improve prison conditions.

While that’s good, a serious problem here is the blame reassignment story. In a world where prosecutors often overcharge those suspected of crimes, where sentencing guidelines demand hugely long sentences for everything from jaywalking to resisting arrest to drug possession to murder, and in a world where lawmakers do little to practices, the DC employees have somehow turned prison into villainy. The US Marshals Service is coming to take down the prison and all its underpaid employees, not the members of Congress who have done nothing for decades to alleviate conditions there or in federally controlled prisons.

One has to wonder if the lawmakers who visited the prison are currently writing federal legislation to bring back federal parole. Or if they will turn their pulpit for harassment at lawmakers in states with far more gruesome incarceration sites.

The fight against mass incarceration has become popular in recent years. While the time served by those suspected of crimes on Jan. 6 is not a product of mass incarceration, the public request to make time in such a horrific place is fruit of the same poisonous tree.

Some begrudge my apparent sympathy for Tarrio and like-minded people who are being held on the January 6th charge. However, this is not about their crimes. Much like the details of the crimes committed by men I personally know (and believe should be free), nothing changes my belief about what mercy and justice look like. In light of the threat to our democracy, some may wonder why I should advocate better conditions for those detainees. I say that our democracy is always threatened by what we allow to happen in our extremely violent and dangerous prisons and prisons. And I remain troubled at how, still, those who have the power to do something else continue to use other people’s suffering to score political points.

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