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Arlington County Board and Human Rights Commission clash over DOJ investigation letter

Inside the Arlington County Detention Facility (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The Arlington County Board and the Human Rights Commission are at odds over whether commissioners had the right to request an investigation into possible human and civil rights violations at the county jail.

Earlier this month, the commission sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, voicing concerns over reports that inmates at the jail lack adequate healthcare, a situation they argue could put them “at risk of death and severe harm.” This follows up on letters to the County Sheriff’s Office and the DOJ from the Arlington branch of the NAACP and its national organization, asking for an investigation after hearing from former and current inmates.

In response, County Board Chair Libby Garvey told the DOJ in a letter last week that the commission’s request “does not represent the position or opinion” of the Board, though she did not elaborate on the Board’s position on either the commission sending the letter or the conditions within the jail.

For County Board member Matt De Ferranti, there are at least grounds for procedural concerns. Before the commission approved the letter, he told them via email that state law requires County Board approval before “seeking assistance with the prevention or relief from discriminatory practices from external enforcement authorities.”

The commission argues it was not requesting the enforcement of a specific violation; rather, it wants the agency to look at the general policies and practices of the jail, Arlington Human Rights Commission Chair Bill Rice told ARLnow.

“We’ve been hearing reports of widespread discrimination in this area and asking for like an investigation into that, but that second part doesn’t necessarily result in like some type of enforcement action — it usually results in some type of report,” Rice said.

The Board’s response, meanwhile, has left Rice and other commissioners confused about where the Board officially stands, as no members have openly objected to the substance of the letter.

“The County Board knows about it already, or it should know about it already,” Rice said. “It’s been in the news, people have raised it with the County Board members before, and the NAACP has raised the issue with numerous people before. Sending the letter to the County Board would just be telling them something they already were aware of.”

Last month, ARLnow reported the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office is under pressure from personnel, inmates and the NAACP to improve conditions at the county jail amid claims of inadequate healthcare and chronic staffing shortages leading to excessive confinement and mismanagement.

Deputies have highlighted the safety risks associated with staffing shortages, and several former inmates, including John Parker and Moika Nduku, have since come forward to support these claims.

“I was there for 20 months… We came out a handful of times, literally seven or eight times, that we came out for food, to perhaps talk to our lawyers, over months and months at a time,” Nduku said during a special Human Rights Commission meeting held last month. “We’ve experienced something that’s way past inhumane, denying our basic rights.”

Parker, released last year, alleges deputies and medical staff ignored him despite reporting severe pain in his left leg, which was later diagnosed as a blood clot.

“My left leg swells up twice its size, and I’m hit with severe pain,” he told ARLnow. “So, I go up to the guard station and show my leg; I could barely walk… He calls the nurse up. So, the nurse comes up to look at it. And she says, ‘Well, the doctors are already gone today’ — this is on a Friday — so she goes, ‘You’re just gonna have to lay down until Monday when the doctor returns.'”

Parker claims his situation worsened over the weekend to the point where he was gasping for air.

“I didn’t know it at that time, but there were blood clots that were in my left leg that had since moved into my lungs, which is why I couldn’t breathe. So, I feel like I’m dying,” he said.

The jail’s doctor did see him that Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, where he was told his blood pressure was elevated and was prescribed medication for arthritis. After Parker detailed his condition to a nurse, however, she ordered several tests and he was admitted to the hospital admission within a week. He was discharged on Nov. 22 and released from custody two days later.

In the letter, commissioners expressed concerns that testimonies like Parker’s, alongside the fact that nine inmates have died within the last eight years, indicate a larger, systemic issue within the jail that requires immediate attention.

In a letter to the Human Rights Commission, Sheriff Jose Quiroz said the jail’s policies and procedures did not change after the deaths of inmates Abonesh Woldegeorges and David Gerhard, both of whom were discovered unresponsive in their cells last year. Quiroz said both investigations were still ongoing as of earlier this month.

Should the DOJ investigate, Quiroz said he would “fully cooperate” and noted he has asked the National Institute of Corrections to “come back for a progress update and further assessment.”

De Ferranti told ARLnow via email that he has been engaged in discussions with Sheriff Quiroz about the staffing and resource challenges at the jail. Moreover, De Ferranti is assuming the role of Chair of the Community Criminal Justice Board.

He did not comment on allegations of human or civil rights violations.

“We understand that the underlying issue is the concern for the life and well-being of those in the County’s detention facility,” he said.

De Ferranti plans to present a report on his discussions with the Sheriff to the rest of the Board during their meeting next week on Tuesday, Feb. 27.

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