January 6, 2010 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
D.C. Jail guards accused of beating gay inmate

A 39-year-old gay man being held in the D.C. Jail has accused jail guards of severely beating him last month, saying they carried him, handcuffed, down three flights of stairs while deliberately knocking his head against the walls and handrails.

The gay inmate, John Burrows, a D.C. resident, gave a detailed account of the incident to his mother and sister, who released the information this week to the DC Agenda.

“They handcuffed his hands behind his back and handcuffed his feet, picked him up and carried him down three flights of steps and in the process they were banging his head against the railings and into the wall,” said Margaret Groat, Burrows’ sister, in an e-mail.

“[T]hey beat him in the stairwell and choked him,” she said. “I think they were trying to kill him. He has two black eyes, a concussion; he still can’t feel three of his fingers from the handcuffs being so tight.”

A spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Corrections, which oversees the jail, said the Dec. 17 incident was under investigation and the department had no immediate comment.

“Please be advised that this matter is currently under investigation by the Department of Corrections,” said department spokesperson Sylvia Lane in an e-mail to the Agenda. “There is no further information available at this time.”

Groat said Burrows gave a detailed description of the incident in two letters he mailed to their mother, Judy Burrows. She said her brother noted in one of his letters that the beating may have been triggered when he threw a bar of soap at one of the guards after the guard “harassed” him.

According to Groat, jail officials have refused to allow her and her mother to contact John Burrows by phone and informed them that they could not visit him at the jail.

“They said they put him in protective custody and that he can’t have any visitors until Jan. 27 at the earliest,” Groat said.

Lane did not respond by press time to questions by the Agenda about why D.C. Jail officials placed Burrows in protective custody and have refused to allow his sister and mother to visit him.

Mafara Hobson, a spokesperson for Mayor Adrian Fenty, said she would look into the matter. But she added, “Ms. Lane is correct in that the matter is under investigation, so we can’t comment further on the incident.”

When informed about Burrows’ alleged jail beating, D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chairs the Council committee that oversees the jail and Department of Corrections, said he, too, would make inquires to learn more about what happened.

Court records show that Burrows is being held in jail without bond on felony charges of first-degree sexual abuse and robbery of a senior citizen in connection with an October 2008 encounter with a D.C. man over age 60. The records show that Burrows was arrested for the two offenses in September while he was incarcerated in an out-of-state prison for an unrelated theft charge, to which he pleaded guilty.

A D.C. Superior Court charging document says the two charges for which Burrows is currently being held were filed against him by a man who told police he engaged in consensual oral sex acts with Burrows on Oct. 5, 2008, in the man’s Northwest Washington apartment. The man, who is listed as the complainant in the case, told police he paid Burrows $100 in cash after the sexual encounter for the purpose of having Burrows use the money to purchase marijuana for the man, according to the charging document.

The next day Burrows returned. But the man said that instead of handing over the marijuana, Burrows grabbed him in a “choke hold,” bound him “by ligatures,” and forced him into his bedroom, according to the charging document. It says the man told police that Burrows then sexually abused the man before stealing $100 in cash and his ATM card. The man told police that Burrows pressured him into revealing the PIN number for the card.

The charging document says police obtained surveillance video from the complainant’s bank showing Burrows making an illegal withdrawal of $500 with the use of the complainant’s ATM card.

Margaret Groat, Burrows’ sister, acknowledged that her brother has a substance abuse problem and a record of arrests on drug and theft-related charges, all of which, she said, were non-violent offenses. Groat said her brother denies assaulting or sexually abusing the complainant in the case pending against him.

Premal Dharia, an attorney with the D.C. Public Defender Service who is representing Burrows, did not return calls seeking comment on the alleged jail beating or the criminal charges pending against her client.

According to Groat, her brother said the sexual encounters between Burrows and the complainant were entirely consensual. She said her brother told her a dispute arose over a prior agreement that the complainant would pay Burrows for the sex and that Burrows may have taken some money for the payment he believed he was owed. She said the complainant had requested to be bound as part of a pre-arranged “bondage” encounter, according to her brother’s account of what happened.

“Whatever he did or didn’t do in terms of his arrest, he didn’t deserve to be beaten in jail,” Groat told the Agenda in a telephone interview. “He’s had problems and issues with the law, but I can tell you that he’s not a violent person.”

Groat said she contacted the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance and the D.C. LGBT community center about her brother’s allegation that he was the victim of a prison beating by guards.

“We have been in touch with the family and we’re following this closely,” said David Mariner, executive director of the LGBT Center. “This raises concerns.”

Court records show that Burrows was scheduled to appear in D.C. Superior Court on Thursday, after the Agenda press deadine, for a status hearing and possible discussion of a plea bargain offer by the government.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

10 Comments
  • From the description of this person’s past, I wouldn’t trust this report of violence by the cops.

  • well maybe you should open your eyes and realize the law is not always on our side and people are beaten everyday like this and its people like you who turn your back and allow these guards to get away with this. so maybe you should re think your reply and get your head out of your ass.

  • First of all no one said the cops did this, these were prison guards and they beat prisoners all the time, this is not an isolated incident and it is against the law. They broke the law just like John did and should be punished by being put in jail themselves. No matter what someone’s past is or what they are in jail for this does not give them the right to beat someone near death. No matter what he did in the jail or to the guards once he was restrained that should of have been the end of it. You do not get to break the law just because you are a prison guard. They did this because John is white and gay, this was a hate crime.

  • All sounds so fishy…first, the alleged assault and robbery happened in 10/08 around 3:00 a.m. … and both the victim and defendant engaged in consensual oral sex, then 79 year old victim gives defendant $100 to buy illegal drugs…then now in 2009, charges are being filed?…the victim knew the defendant for more than 10 years so he clearly knew what kind of person he was fraternizing with…smells like a rat…is the victim scorned?…and as far as the police brutality (however wrong it may be), it sounds like the defendant provoked it…

  • Let me see if I understand this. An inmate of the D.C. Jail, injured in an altercation with guards on December 17, is being held in “protective custody” and is not able to have visitors (or one presumes be seen or have his injuries seen or photographed) “until Jan. 27 at the earliest”? Excuse me? I don’t care if this guy is a hustler, a drug addict, a thief or whatever. We fought to put and end to this sort of thing decades ago. It seems to me tha tin a lot of ways, things are going backwards rather than forwards in the District.

  • He looks like a guy whom was once very handsome, or cute in the “gay” sense, if i wanted to be unkind, I’d say he looks like a used hustler.

    I know, I am one, I stole and cheated my way through life. I was in and out of jail…everybody whose ever had any experience with the prison system, knows how to act, and you don’t throw soap at the guard because he or she said something you don’t like.

    The best way to obtain justice, is to stay out of it’s way ? I’ve been married for 10 years to a guy whom was prosecuted for stealing an ice cream cup, he was transported 75 KM to face trail, and was placed on probation for 2 years ( we’re in Canada, although I’m American )

    My partner has a mental disability, schizophrenia, my point is this. Life is very complicated, you have to choose your battles, and some battles are lost before the first shot is fired.

    Use your eyes, the man in the photograph, has frittered his life away, by the looks of his mouth he has no teeth….choose your battles, let this guy learn the hard way, or die.

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