The Alexandria City Council and the city's new sheriff, Michael Norris, have locked horns over the question of improving the city jail.

The city has not yet begun renovations agreed to under a consent order handed down by U.S. District Court judge Albert V. Bryan last August, and Alexandria attorneys must appear July 31 before Bryan to show why the city should not be held in contempt for failure to proceed with the improvements.

Norris maintains that the council has dragged its feet on the renovations, and he has recently gone one step further by suggesting that the city build a new jail instead of renovating the old one.

In the consent order, which grew out of a class-action suit brought by inmates, the city agreed to carry out renovations to correct substandard features of the jail, originally built in 1825 and added to in 1954.

Plans were drawn for the following improvements:

Lighting. Presently there is no lighting in the cells. The only light comes from the 60-watt bulbs in the corridor outside.

A new visitation area and lawyer consultation area.

A combined classification room and library. Inmates who want to use law books now must do so in their cells.

A covered recreation area for year-round use.

Improved ventilation. Currently, two exhaust fans on each floor do what Norris says is an inadequate job of cooling. "This building bakes in the summer," he said, "and by early in the evening everyone in it is well-done."

The City Council allocated $175,000 for the job.

After delays caused by complaints on bidding procedures and a lack of construction company interest in the project, bidding was closed in June. The lowest construction bid was $431,000, about $250,000 higher than the amount allocated. The bid also would have closed the jail for 240 construction days, an unacceptable timetable for the city, which must pay $600 a day to house its prisoners in other jurisdictions during construction.

The council had been expected to give final authorization for renovation at a meeting June 27. Instead, the council rejected all bids, but authorized $350,000 for the renovations.

City Manager Douglas Harman said the council directed him "to work with the architect to change the specifications down to the minimum that would be required to satisfy the court order. By doing that, we hope to get the cost down below $350,000, and we could let the contract without further authorization from the City Council.

In June Norris said he began to feel that "the bids were too high to still have basically the same building, which would still be substandard by Department of Justice criteria when the renovations were through."

In a memo to City Council early this summer, Norris recommended that the council consider building a new facility.

According to Norris, even with the renovations, the city may still have to face high costs of improving an outdated electrical system to meet city code requirements, and stripping the pipe covering where roaches hide during routine exterminator visits, to meet health department standards. He also points out that state guidelines call for increasing cell size and providing "climate control," which would keep the jail's interior at 65-85 degrees year round.

Robert Calhoun, the only Republican on the council, said, "It's not a case of either renovations or a new jail. Norris is probably right, we do need (a new jail).I'm willing to sit down in the fall in a work session and study the whole question. Meanwhile we have to comply with the judge's orders."

Other council members disagree with Norris' assessment that a new jail is needed. "There has not been enough evidence presented that we need a new jail," said one council member Ellen Pickering. "A memo from the sheriff is nothing to come to a conclusion on. But regardless of the need for a new jail, renovations must go on because we're under a court order."

Harman says he believes a new jail is not feasible financially. "Right now," he said, "this city faces enormous capital costs. To increase the city debt in the magnitude of $5 million would be questionable. The city has to look at it from the point of view of its total fiscal responsibilities."

Inmates at the jail include persons awaiting trial, convicted criminals being held for transfer to the state penitentiary, persons serving overnight sentences, juveniles and, occasionally, federal prisoners such as David Truong and Ronal Humphrey, who recently were convicted of spying against the U.S. The average stay is 42 days, but many prisoners spend several months there.

Except for those in the minimum security dormitory or in isolation cells, inmates live in 18 cell blocks, each holding five people.

Norris believes the jail should be a correctional center "where the city has a unique chance to reach inmates through rehabilitative programs" and where the city can help reduce the 80 percent recidivism rate through job counseling and basic education courses. He stymied in his attempt, he said, by lack of funding, a lack of space and lack of support from city agencies.

"As it is now," Norris says, "the jail is nothing but a warehouse. I suggest to the community we should not be warehousing people."

Marvin Miller, attorney for the inmates, says he believes the city must complete the agreed-upon renovations. "The city has been in contempt of court since the final council meeting (June 27)," he said. "The requirements in the consent order aren't going to change. The city is not in a position of doing what it wants. It's in a position of doing what it agreed to do last year to show it is as good as its word."