A U.S. District Court judge, saying conditions at the badly overcrowded D.C. Jail have "reached the point of crisis," yesterday scheduled a hearing to determine whether Mayor Marion Barry and city corrections officials should be held in contempt over conditions at the jail.
U.S. District Court Senior Judge William B. Bryant ordered the hearing for Aug. 9 to determine whether city officials violated strict conditions that he set last year when, in response to severe overcrowding, he allowed them to begin housing two inmates in each cell.
In addition, Bryant said yesterday that he would consider setting a limit on the number of prisoners who could be housed at the jail. He ordered corrections officials to submit suggestions within 10 days on whether there should be such a cap and what the ceiling should be.
In an order issued yesterday, Bryant called on Barry to reduce overcrowding at the facility, calling the mayor the "best person situated to . . . coordinate emergency remedial efforts."
Bryant added: "He has the stature and the access to key individuals, and that is necessary to get the job done. It is, moreover, his constitutional duty."
City officials yesterday declined to comment on the ruling. A spokesman for Barry said that the matter is in litigation and "we don't consider it appropriate to comment."
Bryant's order is the latest move in a 12-year-old suit brought by jail inmates who are protesting conditions at the facility. The D.C. Jail was built to house 1,355 inmates awaiting trial or sentenced for misdemeanors. Corrections officials said yesterday that the population over the weekend reached 2,475 inmates.
Bryant said he "reluctantly" allowed double-celling at the jail last October in response to pleas from city officials, but he ordered that no one be double-celled for more than 12 hours in any day and for no more than 30 days. Bryant said that based on a hearing last month, "obviously neither thing has happened."
Another city official said Bryant, who has been overseeing the lawsuit for more than a decade, was "venting his frustrations" over the continuing population crisis at the jail and was trying to "hold our feet to the fire."
If Bryant finds Barry and corrections officials in contempt, lawyers familiar with the case said, he could order fines, issue specific orders and even jail city officials.
In the order, Bryant called overcrowding at the D.C. Jail "an insidious thing" that could "lead to catastrophe" if it continues.
"There can be no doubt that conditions at the jail have reached the point of crisis," Bryant said.
Patrick Hickey, an attorney for the inmates, said Bryant's opinion was "sadly needed." Hickey said corrections officials have told him of a "powderkeg situation" at the jail in the past, but one official recently said there was "no fuse left."
The city last year opened a 450-bed facility on the grounds of the Lorton Reformatory to relieve jail overcrowding.
City officials have submitted to Bryant a proposal to refurbish facilities at Lorton to handle another 900 inmates, but Bryant noted that funds have not been budgeted for that plan and that those facilities would not be completed until 1986.
Bryant said those facilities "would not even provide spaces for the present excess population at the jail, much less the excess population which can be reasonably anticipated 2 1/2 years from now."