- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

A federal judge has granted class-action status to a lawsuit that says the D.C. Jail is failing to release inmates on time, keeping some locked away weeks after they were supposed to be let out.

Documents in the lawsuit, filed on behalf of D.C. Jail inmate Carl A. Barnes and others, say there are “hundreds if not thousands” of inmates who were detained too long or illegally strip searched.

U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth in a 22-page opinion released Monday ruled against a motion by the D.C. government to dismiss the case.

“In a case such as this one, the only societal interests that justify delay are ensuring that prisoners are not released if they have other detainers or warrants,” the judge wrote. “In a case such as this one, the issue is the prisoner’s absolute right to freedom.”

The D.C. Department of Corrections would not comment on whether the jail has fixed the problems or if they are widespread.

“Since this is a lawsuit, the Department of Corrections will not comment on the issue,” said spokeswoman Beverly Young.

The judge’s opinion notes that in August, 2005, the District adopted a policy to keep inmates set for release in a holding area on the campus of the old D.C. General Hospital separate from the jail while officials processed their paperwork.

The move came as the city prepared to settle for $12 million a similar lawsuit.

“But sometime around December 2005, the cracks in system began to widen, with more and more inmates who were entitled to release slipping through and being returned to the D.C. Jail,” the judge wrote.

In a separate pending lawsuit, another former inmate, Daniel Simmons, sued the District for releasing him from the jail on Dec. 3, 2005, even though charges were dropped on Nov. 10, 2005.

According to the suit, the jail housed Mr. Simmons, a pretrial detainee on a drug charge eventually dropped, in a cell with a convicted killer.

In court records, the District has denied having any systematic policy of keeping inmates too long.

“The District has neither a policy or practice of holding inmates past their proper release dates in deliberate indifference to the orders or other authority affecting their release,” the D.C. Office of the Attorney General argued in court papers.

The District also argues that courts have recognized that complications affect when inmates are released, including processing, arranging transportation and reviewing local and federal databases for outstanding warrants.

“Here any delay in release was not the result of municipal policy and practice of deliberate indifference,” the city’s attorney general’s office argued in court papers.

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