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A panel of judges from the District of Columbia’s local and federal courts is looking into a large number of complaints from lawyers who say officials at the city’s two correctional facilities prevent them from seeing their clients in a timely fashion.Criminal defense lawyers say they have been forced to wait up to three hours when they go to visit a client, which ultimately hurts their ability to move cases forward quickly. The delays are of particular concern at the D.C. Jail and the city’s Correctional Treatment Facility, because most prisoners in those jails are pretrial defendants and are usually in the middle of legal proceedings. “It’s an important issue because attorneys need to see their clients,” says D.C. Superior Court Judge Harold Cushenberry, one of three judges looking into the complaints. Last week Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia convened a meeting between jail officials and representatives from the defense bar to hash out differences between the two sides. Officials from each of the facilities pledged to look into the complaints, and the group plans to meet again next month, according to lawyers familiar with the discussions. Meanwhile, the three judges�Sullivan, Cushenberry, and District Judge Gladys Kessler�recently toured the D.C. Jail and the CTF, and they are gathering data on lawyers’ access and the physical layout and staffing of the sites. The wait time is getting increased attention in part because of the added cost to the court system. The waits are a direct drain on the courts’ budgets, which cover the expenses for private-practice attorneys representing indigent defendants. The courts do not keep a breakdown of how much time lawyers bill for their visits, but last year the Superior Court spent $25.7 million and the District Court $4.6 million on these attorneys’ total fees. (Court-appointed attorneys working on federal cases are paid $92 an hour, while their Superior Court counterparts receive $65 an hour.) The issue has also put a strain on the D.C. Office of the Federal Public Defender and the D.C. Public Defender Service because their lawyers are salaried and get no additional compensation for working overtime. In an e-mail response to questions, D.C. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Beverly Young wrote that the office “recognizes that there are areas that should be strengthened” with lawyers. She noted that attorneys have “quite liberal” 24-hour access to their clients, which is particularly “arduous” for staff because “the overwhelming majority of these individuals are in pretrial status.” More than a dozen defense attorneys said in interviews with Legal Times that visiting a client behind bars in the District is much more cumbersome than in any of the jails in surrounding jurisdictions. Waits are exponentially longer, and unlike jails in Arlington, Alexandria, and Montgomery County, lawyers are not allowed to call their clients, even for a two-minute phone conversation. (The prisoners, however, have a short window each day when they can call their lawyers.) The result: Attorneys may bill three hours for a two-minute discussion that should cost a few dollars. “When I go out to Fairfax [Va.] or Virginia or Maryland, when they are patting you down, they are getting your client,” says Ferris Bond, a solo practitioner who goes on at least half a dozen jail visits a month. “And that never, ever happens at the D.C. Jail.” Both lawyers and correctional officers say much of the problem stems from understaffing and a large jail population. Limited staff means that jail officers don’t have enough manpower to efficiently retrieve prisoners from their cells or to open up all of the legal meeting rooms, even when lawyers are waiting. Nila Ritenour, chairwoman of the union for D.C. Jail employees, says the facility is perennially understaffed because of low retention rates among employees. And in recent months their ranks have thinned, as 10 officers were promoted to administrative positions and 11 others were fired in connection with a jailbreak in June. During the day shift, approximately 170 of the 530 total correctional officers are on duty. A total of 234 officers are employed at the CTF. Complicating the matter is the large jail population. Since the District closed the Lorton Correctional Complex five years ago and transferred all convicted felons there to sites across the country, the inmate population at the remaining facilities has gone up. According to Ritenour, the D.C. Jail’s prison population hovers at about 2,198, up from 1,900 earlier this summer. The CTF, managed by the Corrections Corporation of America, holds 1,242 prisoners. In the past few months, Ritenour says, the D.C. Jail’s population has shot up by several hundred due to increased arrests during the summer crime emergency and a snag in the budget which is delaying a transfer of prisoners to the CTF. In the past two months, the number of parole violators has increased by 170, according to Young. Because of the staffing levels, Ritenour says, officers have been forced to work 16-hour overtime shifts, and often there are problems with simple technology such as radios or telephones. The jail says it recently purchased new radios. “I think the attorneys don’t understand the pressure we’re under trying to get done everything that we need to get done,” says Ritenour. But lawyers say staffing isn’t the only concern. Sometimes they are told to wait because the prisoners are being counted, and other times they are told they cannot see their clients because of a shift change. On still other occasions, client meetings are stalled because the jail is in lockdown. On a recent day, defense attorney Jane Norman says, she had to wait more than an hour because the jail phones were broken. “It’s always something,” she says. Part of the frustration among attorneys is what they call inconsistent enforcement of the guidelines for what can be brought into the facilities. “It seems like the rules change on a regular basis,” says Bernard Crane, a solo defense attorney. “One day they’ll let computers in, and one day they won’t. One day you can take a book, the next day you can’t.” Some attorneys say relations between lawyers and jail staff have thawed slightly over the past year, but they say the CTF remains particularly burdensome and the waits much longer than at the D.C. Jail. Although both sides say they hope to continue to improve relations, some longtime defense lawyers doubt any of the changes will make much of a difference. “They’ve tried in the past, and I think there are people who are involved who are actually well intended,” says defense attorney Bernard Grimm. “But they are surrounded and overwhelmed by the sea of incompetence around them.”
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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