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Inmate: 9 years in D.C. Jail like 20 in prison

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Few inmates are held at the city jail in Washington, D.C., for even a year before they're sent off to a federal prison or released, but Larry Wilkerson has been locked up there just short of a decade, making him among the longest-serving D.C. Jail inmates.

Convicted of murder, conspiracy and drug offenses, Wilkerson finally had his sentencing on Tuesday in federal court in Washington after years of post-trial litigation. His attorney, Sebastian Graber, made a novel — but not unprecedented — plea: Conditions are so bad at the D.C. Jail, he argued, that nine years served there ought to equal 20 or more years in a federal prison.

Wilkerson, 36, the final defendant sentenced in what U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan called the most violent gang in D.C. history, was convicted of participating in three murders, though he denied any involvement.

At the hearing, Wilkerson told of moldy jail cells, questionable strip searches, broken locks on cell doors, staph infections, rodents and violent assaults at the city jail.

In the end, Wilkerson received life in prison anyway. While Judge Hogan appeared concerned by the testimony by Wilkerson and others about problems in the jail, he said there wasn't enough evidence for him to stray from federal sentencing guidelines that recommended life in prison.

"It's a shame it's in the shape it is," Judge Hogan said of the jail. "I don't know why the D.C. government can't provide better conditions."

D.C. corrections officials defended the jail Tuesday, saying they're committed to maintaining a "safe and healthy environment for staff as well as inmates and conduct ongoing assessments and corrections to the varying infrastructure issues as they surface," said spokeswoman Sylvia Lane.

"Contrary to assertions made, the Department of Corrections has and continues to be proactive in addressing all such issues," she said, citing health audits of the jail, capital-improvement projects to repair cell doors and a new project using radio frequency to better track movement through the jail.

William Streit, a peace activist who testified Tuesday for Wilkerson, said he's served time at jails and prisons across the country after being arrested in various protests, including twice in Washington. He said the D.C. Jail is the only place where he's feared for his life. He said it has a reputation "hands down" as the worst jail east of the Mississippi River among the activist community.

Philip Fornaci, director of the D.C. Prisoners Project, a program of the Washington Lawyers' Committee, said his organization has been receiving reports, often from inmates, about stabbings in the jail and broken locks on cell doors.

"There's not enough staffing," he added.

Much of the testimony Tuesday concerned the jail, but Wilkerson's case was significant for other reasons. He was the last among more than a dozen people sentenced for their roles in a violent drug gang during the 1990s. The man charged as the ringleader, Kevin Gray, alone was convicted of 19 murders.

A jury deadlocked on giving Gray and another co-defendant, Rodney Moore, who was convicted of 10 murders, the death penalty, and both men in 2005 received multiple sentences of life imprisonment. Wilkerson was charged in the case, but tried separately. All but one other co-defendant, Franklin Seegers, who received 40 years in prison, are serving life sentences.

Judge Hogan said the Gray organization was probably the most violent drug gang in the history of the nation's capital.

Mr. Graber argued that Gray was the leader, and his client was only a follower. He also told of Wilkerson's difficult upbringing, saying that Wilkerson's father had been in prison all his life, and that his mother struggled with drugs growing up.

"He's a different person now," Mr. Graber contended.

But prosecutors argued that Wilkerson himself was involved in a jail assault, with the other inmate requiring hospitalization. They also said while Wilkerson had a difficult childhood, thousands of others in the same circumstances have made a different choice.

"When you pull the trigger of a gun, no matter how charismatic the leader, that's your choice," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Carlson Lieber.

Wilkerson admitted involvement in drugs but said he didn't commit any murders.

"I am not the person these people are making me out to be," he said, largely blaming the charges against him on the testimony of a cooperating witness in the case.

Tuesday wasn't the first time conditions at the jail have surfaced on the question of how long an inmate ought to be punished.

Walter Anderson, charged in a $200 million tax-evasion case, said he pleaded guilty in 2006 because he couldn't prepare for trial at the D.C. Jail, which he has described as a "hellhole."

In response to questions from The Washington Times for a previous article on his case, he said that spending 10 years in federal prison would be easier than the 2½ years he spent at the D.C. Jail, adding, "Federal prison's no picnic either."

The jail was built in 1975 and is the 30th-largest correctional system in the country.

Ms. Lane, the D.C. corrections spokeswoman, said the jail received full accreditation last year by the American Correctional Association, joining only about 5 percent of jails nationwide to do so. She also said the jail's medical services program has been accredited by outside groups and it has won awards for medical discharge planning, HIV testing and counseling.

She also said a number of major capital improvement projects are under way that address "a range of infrastructure issues" and that the department had recently completed the first phase of a project involving the repair and replacement of all cell doors. The second phase of the program is set to begin in the summer, she said.

Ms. Lane also said the department is moving forward with exterior structural renovations at the jail, adding that because of the age of the structure, the panels that form the exterior walls now require sealing. That project, she said, should be completed by the winter of this year.