A U.S. District Court judge yesterday refused to allow the financially strapped District government to reduce the maximum security staff at Lorton Reformatory until a full trial is held on inmate allegations that the proposed reductions would threaten their safety.
Judge June L. Green issued the order after a two-hour court hearing during which a corrections expert testified that a cut in the number of guards or other staff at the facility "could quite easily lead to a potential outbreak of violence" within the maximum security cell block area.
Green's order yesterday for now effectively wipes out any effort by Mayor Marion Barry to help head off the city budget crisis through reductions in the work force at the maximum facility. It is not expected that Green would hear the full trial on the inmate's claim until at least June.
Lawyers for the city government, who tried unsuccessfully yesterday to convince Green that the court has no authority to intrude on the operations of the Department of Corrections, have the option to take her decision immediately to the U.S. Court of Appeals for review.
Mayor Barry, faced with a potential $170 million budget deficit, pledged to do just that yesterday, saying that an appeal of Green's ruling would be filed "as soon as [Corporation Counsel Judith Rodgers] can get to court." f
Green's decision stiffened a temporary order she issued 10 days earlier that blocks the city government from firing guards or staff in maximum security until yesterday's hearing.
Specifically, the court action yesterday stops the city from terminating 14 guards at the maximum facility who have already received "pink slips" and were scheduled to leave their jobs May 17. The city also is barred from issuing termination notices to six additional guards there.
The inmate's arguments against the guard cutbacks most likely will not be considered by Green until June 11 when a much larger class action lawsuit brought by the same group of prisoners is scheduled to be heard in her courtroom.
In that case, the inmates argue that poor conditions at the maximum cellblocks, a guard shortage and alleged widespread drug and alcohol use have resulted in a level of violence there that infringes on their constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
Their recent action to stop Barry's proposed layoffs was brought in connection with that broader lawsuit. The inmates are represented by the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling which was appointed to the case by a local judge last year.
In papers submitted to the court, the D.C. Corporation Counsel's office argued that, if Green refused to allow the immediate guard cutbacks, she would in effect be ordering Barry and other officials to "obligate and spend money which they do not have." The city argued that such a court order would have a "devastating impact upon the fiscal condition of the city. . . ."
Green, however, was not persuaded by the city's argument. In a three-page order, she said yesterday that "allegations of inadequate resources do not justify the deprivation of a prisoner's constitutional rights." She added that in the face of such constitutional infringements, courts have rejected arguments that they are "powerless to afford relief" because of a need for legislative appropriations of more funds.
There are currently 410 inmates and 119 officers in the maximum security facility, according to city attorney's.
Barry said the city will find a way to save the money that would have been saved by laying off the guards. "You lose one, you keep moving in another direction," they mayor said. "We are going to solve the problem."
Meanwhile, the tax-raising part of Barry's budget-balancing program encountered tough opposition from business and public witnesses at a hearing by the City Council's Finance and Revenue Committee.
Barry has proposed six new or increased taxes along with higher business license fees that would produce an estimated $24.3 million before the end of the fiscal year on Sep. 30.
In prepared testimony read by an assocate, John E. Akridge, an investor and builder who is vice president of the Apartment Office Building Association, urged that the mayor's proposal to raise real estate taxes on commercial buildings but not on residential properties be scaled down.
Leonard E. Hickman, executive vice president of the Hotel Association of Washington, said Barry's proposal to raise the sales tax on the cost of hotel room rentals from 8 to 10 percent would be devastating. He said local hotel occupancy the first three months of this year was down 10 percent from 1979, and the tax rise could drive customers to the suburbs.