- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

Legal settlements from accusations of civil rights violations, negligence, assaults and other complaints against the D.C. Department of Corrections are costing city taxpayers millions of dollars.

Payments include $18,500 to an inmate who said his finger was severed when a corrections officer shut a gate on his hand, $12 million on behalf of thousands of inmates subjected to illegal strip-searches and detained for too long, and $1 million to the family of Jonathan Magbie, a paralyzed inmate who died while in custody.

Records obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act show that since fiscal 2004, the District has authorized dozens of payments to settle lawsuits against the corrections department.

So far, there have been nine settlements in 2007, including $1 million to settle Mr. Magbie’s case. Sentenced to 10 days in jail for marijuana possession in 2004, the quadriplegic died in custody after having breathing problems.

There were $12.6 million in settlements paid out in fiscal 2006, the most costly a $12 million payment to settle a class-action suit filed on behalf of thousands of inmates over illegal strip-searches and overdetentions.

“One way of looking at it is the cost to taxpayers,” said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the council’s judiciary committee, which oversees the jail. “But the bigger cost is if people’s constitutional rights are being violated.”

Devon Brown, who became director of the department last year, said yesterday that he and senior staffers review each lawsuit that results in settlements or judgments “to improve our operations.”

Without commenting on specific suits, he said some cases have resulted in personnel changes.

The District is not alone in struggling with inmate lawsuits. Corrections Professional, a trade industry publication, last year reported that inmate lawsuits claiming excessive force were escalating across the country and draining budgets.

In fiscal 2005, the District settled 22 lawsuits filed against the department that resulted in more than $1.6 million in payments. Of 41 cases in 2004, the largest was a $500,000 payment to settle claims of negligent hiring and training.

George C. Valentine, deputy attorney general for the District, said he could not comment on individual settlements because of the confidential attorney-client privilege.

However, he said attorneys’ deciding whether to settle cases generally weigh such factors as the merits of the claim, input from city agencies and likely outcomes.

“We ask what’s the likelihood of us prevailing in front of a jury,” he said. “Sometimes we feel it’s in the best interest of the public to resolve a case.”

He also said the D.C. Attorney General’s Office tries to help agencies limit their chances of being sued by alerting them about trends in the type of cases being filed against the District.

“There’s constant discussion,” he said. “Part of what we do is risk management in the context of defending cases.”

Several of the larger settlements in the corrections department in recent years stem from claims of illegal strip-searches and overdetentions.

In 2005, the District paid $1.1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Joseph Heard, a deaf and mute inmate who was mistakenly kept nearly two years past his release date.

In 2004, the District paid $105,000 to settle a lawsuit filed after officers performed a strip-search of students during a tour of the jail for a class trip.

In addition, more than a dozen inmates were paid settlements in recent years over lawsuits that stated negligent supervision played a role in inmate-on-inmate attacks.

Moreover, the District paid $11,500 last year to settle a lawsuit claiming that the department was negligent in disposing of a cremated body.

The department also faces the possibility of another costly lawsuit after a federal judge in March granted class-action status to a suit filed by more inmates saying they were detained after their release dates.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said the District had adopted a policy of keeping inmates set for release in a holding area inside the old D.C. General Hospital compound, separate from the jail, while their paperwork is processed.

“But sometime around December 2005, cracks in the 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.

Mr. Brown said overdetentions involve a larger issue of communication between the corrections department and other agencies, such as the courts and U.S. Marshals Service.

“It’s not only the Department of Corrections that causes or participates in these situations,” he said.

Some of the settlements stemmed from accusations of poor medical care, an issue that prompted a court-ordered receivership from 1995 to 2000. The District-based nonprofit Unity Health Care recently took over health care services for inmates under a city contract.

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