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Union gets fed help

Health department faulted for unsanitary conditions at city lockup

(Published September 11, 2000)


Staff Writer

A facility worker at the D.C. Jail demonstrates the new computerized cooling system Sept. 7 that was installed as part of a series of renovations at the detention facility.

An ambitious multimillion dollar renovation program has begun at the D.C. Jail to correct longstanding unsanitary conditions which the union representing workers says are being addressed only after an employee there contracted a near-fatal case of Legionnaireís disease this summer.

Charging that city health officials "chose to conceal this potentially widespread bacterial contamination without initiating any precautionary measures nor notifying" employees for nearly a month, the union says it no longer trusts city health authorities and has called in federal inspectors to investigate workplace safety at the jail.

The doubts raised about the competence of the D.C. Department of Health to adequately protect public health in this instance are not the only questions being asked in recent months about the departmentís management.

Councilmen Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, and Phil Mendelson, D-At large, recently wrote letters a week apart to city health director Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks asking why an epidemiologist whose work Chavous described as "indispensable" to a recent investigation of spoiled and infested food being served to schoolchildren has been let go by the health department.

Madeleine Fletcher, the epidemiologist who discovered about 200 tons of bad food in a school food warehouse last fall and who says she was pulled off that investigation by Walks after she sent a copy of her report to D.C. Inspector General Charles Maddox, also was part of the health department inspection team that toured the D.C. Jail in July to investigate the Legionnaireís case.

Fletcherís contract to work for the city was not renewed when it expired at the end of August, despite the objections of her immediate supervisor. Dr. Martin E. Levy, chief of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Disease Control, described Fletcher as an "essential" employee in an Aug. 24 memo to one of his supervisors and cautioned that the short-staffed health departmentís ability to investigate communicable diseases has been crippled by her loss.

"Most critical is that we have no other staff educated and experienced in communicable disease field epidemiology besides myself and Dr. Fletcher," Dr. Levy wrote. "We will now be at risk of things falling through the cracks."

Inspectors from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) visited the D.C. Jail Aug. 28-29 accompanied by both city officials and union representatives. Although their report has not been completed, union chairman William H. Dupree said inspectors expressed concern during their visit over the jailís air quality due to poor ventilation and the hot water temperature being "conducive to" the transmission of the bacteria that causes Legionnaireís.

City health officials who visited the jail at the end of July also found conditions in the jailís shower areas to be conducive to growth and multiplication of Legionella bacteria but said, barring the existence of additional cases of Legionnaireís among jail inmates or workers, they could not conclude that Correctional Officer Alan Lucas contracted the disease while at work.

Lucas was hospitalized with Legionnaireís on June 17 and spent a month in intensive care, much of that time in a coma, officials said. He recently was released from the hospital but has not yet returned to work.

"The managers scrambled to clean this place up," said Dupree, who leads the Fraternal Order of Police/Department of Corrections Labor Committee, which represents 1,500 Department of Corrections employees at the D.C. Jail and the Lorton correctional facility, which Congress is requiring the city to phase out.

Dupree, a 20-year corrections employee who started working for the department shortly after the current D.C. Jail was opened, described the working environment at the jail as becoming increasingly unsanitary due to neglected maintenance "for at least the last seven to eight years."

He acknowledged that city officialsí recent efforts, since the union became aware of the Legionnaireís case and amplified its demands for better working conditions, "have made things 100 percent better than they were, but theyíre still sub-level."

"The Department of Corrections has little to no concern for the welfare of its staff," Dupree charged. "They have known of these (unsanitary) conditions for years but took no steps to correct them until a federal agency comes down on them."

"We will do whateverís necessary to get the problem fixed," Dupree said.

Corrections department spokesman Darryl Madden and other department officials dispute Dupreeís claim that they donít care and arenít trying to fix the problems at the jail, which they note they also must endure.

"Does the jail have some sanitation issues? Well, yeah Ė no oneís going to deny that," Madden said, even providing a copy of an Aug. 9 environmental inspection report from the health department which noted several unsanitary conditions cited in previous inspections of the jail continue to exist. "This is a public health issue more than itís a corrections issue."

In a recent tour of the D.C. Jail, corrections officials made no attempt to hide sanitation problems at the jail and noted the various improvements underway. Officials permitted access, with a camera, to many of the areas Ė including the culinary, medical, bathroom, laundry, receiving and discharge areas Ė that have come under intense criticism from inspectors.

Corrections officials have requested more than $20 million for capital improvements at the jail over the next five years to correct many of the problems that have resulted from years of neglected maintenance.

"There has not been a lot of money allotted over the years to deal with the infrastructure," said D.C. Jail Warden Patricia Britton-Jackson. "We are aggressively implementing preventative maintenance now."

That aggressive program includes the recent installation of two new chillers and a new cooling tower that doubled the air-conditioning capacity at the jail, which was cited in a March 2000 inspection report for venting air as hot as 140 degrees into some cellblocks. The report noted that inmates were blocking air vents with whatever materials were available due to the high temperatures.

Officials also are preparing to seek bids for an estimated $5 million overhaul of the jailís air circulation system that they expect will take two years to complete. An estimated $2 million renovation of the jailís hot water system is expected to take place over the same period, since both projects will require taking the jailís 18 cellblocks out of service on a rotating basis.

"Itís not a small undertaking to fix the problems" while continuing to maintain proper security with the jail in use as the work is done, said facilities manager John Henley. But Henley notes a new computerized maintenance system at the jail now allows staff to track all the work and even correct some problems from remote locations through use of a laptop computer.

Currently, the jailís medical unit is under construction, and Henley said new elevators, an upgraded fire alarm system, new cell lighting and replacement of the electronic control system for the jailís almost 1,000 cell doors also are on the drawing board when capital improvement funding gets approved.

"We expect to add 25 years to the life of the jail Ė you just canít nickel and dime it like itís been done," he said. "Itís like buying a new car in 1976 and not changing the oil or doing any maintenance. Youíd be walking now."

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator