A Virginia judge directed the state Department of Corrections yesterday to transfer 60 inmates out of the Fairfax County jail, ruling in the first of several lawsuits challenging the state's practice of keeping convicted felons in crowded local jails.
State officials said they fear the decision may prompt many more jailers to file similar suits, forcing the prison system to accept many of the 1,300 state inmates currently housed in the jails. Citing the "far-reaching" implications of the ruling, corrections officials announced plans to appeal the decision.
"This case transcends Fairfax," said Alan Katz, an assistant state attorney general, who argued yesterday that the Virginia prisons themselves are too crowded to accept the inmates.
If the state inmates are to be transferred from the Fairfax jail, "I don't know where we are going to put them," said George Minter, a spokesman for the prison system.
Virginia Corrections Director Terrel Don Hutto was more pessimistic. "These people will probably end up [sleeping] on the floor of the state system," he said in an interview.
For the moment, Hutto said the system will abide by Circuit Court Judge William G. Plummer's ruling and take 60 inmates from the Fairfax jail at a rate of 20 per week for three weeks.
Fairfax Sheriff M. Wayne Huggins had filed the suit last month, claiming that his three-year-old jail in Fairfax City was seriously overcrowded, posing a threat of riots, fighting and homosexual activity among his prisoners. Huggins blamed those conditions on Hutto's refusal to accept convicted inmates, an action the sheriff said was contrary to state law.
Hutto argued before Plummer yesterday that the 42 prisons he runs have 7,990 general purpose beds and about 8,340 inmates. The prisons could not accommodate the inmates from the county jails, he said.
Plummer was unswayed. He repeatedly noted the prisons contain 280 special purpose beds -- in hospitals or solitary confinement cells -- that generally are unoccupied.
Katz, the state's lawyer, contended that it "is not good penalogical practice to have every bed filled. And it's poor penalogical practice to use these beds for a purpose other than what was intended."
Plummer cut him off. "Then what the Fairfax jail is doing is not good penalogical practice."
The state argued that it is not merely the 60 prisoners from Fairfax, where some inmates sleep on the floor, but others like them from crowded jails around the state, that threatens to throw the Virginia correctional system into disarray. "The precedential value of this case is very great," Katz declared.
["Overcrowding] is beyond a Fairfax problem; this is a statewide problem. If all those [eligible] prisoners have to come into the state system because of a court order, the 280 [special purpose] beds are going to evaporate very quickly . . . the court has to weigh this effect."
Plummer's ruling gave the state some discretion in deciding what to do with the Fairfax prisioners. The judge did not specify, for instance, whether the state had to take the inmates into its own prisons or simply transfer them to other local, less crowded jails.
The Fairfax jail, the sheriff, who runs it, and the conditions inside it long have been volatile issues in the county's politics. Two years ago the deaths of three people who had been held there fueled a major controversy and only this week the county board agreed to ask voters this fall to approve an expansion of the facility.
It opened in 1978 with a capacity population of 254 prisoners, but it now holds about 335.
Hutto pointed out yesterday that a number of other Virginia jails have crowding problems as bad as, or worse than, those in Fairfax. He cited jails in Richmond, Norfolk, Augusta, Lynchburg, and Chesapeake as being particularly crowded.
"We cannot suddenly move Fairfax to the head of our list and target them for release ahead of other jails with similar problems when in some cases theirs may be as great or greater," Hutto said.
In an interview after the hearing, he also said that he suspected that in two or three months, the Fairfax jail would be just as crowded as it is now.
Asked about Hutto's predition, Sheriff Huggins said: "I'm not sure it will bloom back up again. If it does, we'll sue again if we have to."