A sophisticated, $250,000 electronic surveillance system designed to monitor escape attempts and inmate disturbances at the D.C. jail, malfunctions repeatedly and, in some cases, does not work at all, D.C. Corrections Department officials acknowledge.
An exterior sensor alarm system for the 3-year-old, $30 million facility in Southeast Washington is set off by rainstorms, tall grass and birds. Interior television screens either don't work or are too fuzzy to watch, according to sources within the jail.
Efforts to repair the system have been hampered because the Florida firm that installed it has gone bankrupt. Estimates of what it would cost to make the system fully operational have been "astronomical," according to Corrections Director Delbert Jackson.
While Jackson and his chief assistant, Charles M. Rodgers, declined to discuss specifics of the system "for security reasons," sources within the jail said the electronic gear "is a joke" and "is virtually useless."
Rodgers, assistant director of the corrections department, said only that the system "is operational, but not completely. I won't go into details. I would not comment for security reasons."
"We've had some difficulties. I'm not satisfied with it," Jackson said.He said he has asked for a special report on the problem from his staff by next week.
The system includes exterior sensors placed around the beige brick and concrete walls and designed to replace old-fashioned guard towers. Additional television equipment monitors corridors and the inmates' living quarters.
Jackson said there have been no mass disturbances within the jail and only one successful escape of four inmates, which occurred a month after the jail opened in March 1976.
However, correctional officers assigned to the jail said the malfunctioning television monitors keep officers from observing instances of inmates attacking each other.
"You figure it out. You have 900 or more inmates, from rapists and murderers to traffic violators," one officer said."The duty of the jail is to protect society, to keep them (inmates) here so they don't go out and do what they did again. But we have to protect the inmates, too."
Bernard Demczuk, chief union shop steward for the jail's 400 correctional officers, said the faulty electronic system aggravates a staff shortage of more than 50 officers at the jail.
"I'm more concerned about working short [undermanned]. The security and welfare problems, the already dangerous working and living conditions as a result of working short just become more critical" because of the manfunctions, Demczuk said.