District of Columbia corrections officials urged a federal judge yesterday to allow inmates to be doubled up in cells at the overcrowded D.C. Jail, where more than 700 prisoners are now being housed in dormitory and recreation areas, dayrooms and gymnasiums.
The officials ran into a harsh reception from U.S. District Court Senior Judge William B. Bryant, who sharply criticized the city's efforts to find other ways to reduce serious overcrowding at a jail that now has a population of 2,076 inmates -- 50 percent over its authorized capacity.
"You've got a powder keg over there, it's frightening," said Bryant, who toured the jail facility in Southeast Washington last week. "You're coasting pretty well, but you've got a frightening situation."
Under the terms of a 1971 lawsuit brought on behalf of inmates, Bryant's approval is required to make substantive changes in the way inmates are housed.
Bryant said at the conclusion of yesterday's hearing that he would decide later this week whether to grant the city's request to double up inmates. He had rejected the same request last March and ordered the city to explore other ways to deal with the overcrowding.
The new D.C. Jail, opened in 1976, has individual cells to accommodate 1,355 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial or serving terms for minor offenses, according to testimony at yesterday's hearing. Acting D.C. Corrections director George E. Holland told Bryant yesterday that the swelling jail population has forced officials there to set up beds in areas intended for other purposes, posing an increased security risk.
"I think we all know that the more you pack people in . . . the greater the assaults and all kinds of other things that occur in jails," Holland testified.
Assistant D.C. Corporation Counsel Edward Schwab, representing the corrections department, said a survey by his office showed that assaults at the jail, inmate fights and reports of "bad conduct" had doubled during a three-month period last summer compared with the same period in 1981.
J. Patrick Hickey, an attorney representing the inmates' interests, argued yesterday that the city government wanted to double up inmates at the jail so that it would not have to spend money for additional facilities and that the government had not fully considered housing jail inmates at other facilities that could be renovated for that use.
Hickey also suggested during yesterday's hearing that the jail could shift its most dangerous inmates into cells, while moving less dangerous inmates to dormitories, in order to decrease any security risk.
Holland testified that an inmate who has his own cell at the jail considers it "his turf, his territory," and that morale problems would arise if an inmate was suddenly shifted to a dormitory area.
Bryant then suggested to Holland that he would have the same morale problems when he began to decide which inmates would be doubled up and they began to ask, "Why me?"
Holland testified yesterday that corrections officials had examined a variety of alternatives to plans for double-bunking the inmates in the jail cells without success.
One key project to use an alcoholic recovery center on the Lorton Reformatory reservation to house jail inmates was rejected by the Department of Human Services, which currently runs that center, Holland testified.
Holland told Bryant that an independent task force set up last summer to help find alternate space for jail inmates could not find an acceptable alternate site for the persons now being treated at the alcohol recovery center.
Holland also said that federal officials--confronted with their own overpopulation problems -- had turned down the city's request to house about 400 of its inmates. Holland said other suggestions, such as using the old D.C. Superior Court cellblock or an underground facility between the new Superior Court building and police headquarters (which he described as a "dungeon") were inadequate.
Holland told Bryant that he hoped that the doubling up of inmates would be temporary until the corrections department shifts its inmate population at Lorton to new housing, which is expected to be completed in 18 months.