The president of the union representing the District's jail and prison guards blamed top city corrections officials yesterday for the severe overcrowding at the D.C. Jail and criticized a federal judge for failing to force them to correct the problem.
Kenneth Bynum, who heads the union that represents the city's 2,000 corrections workers, said overcrowding was a major reason for a disturbance at the jail Wednesday night in which six guards were injured and one inmate was was taken to the hospital with smoke inhalation.
"We were fortunate that no one was killed," said Bynum, who heads Local 1550 of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The jail was calm yesterday as inmates and guards resumed a normal routine, according to corrections spokesmen. However, officials warned that the tense atmosphere caused by overcrowding could ignite another disturbance at any time.
A spokesman for Mayor Marion Barry said that he was monitoring the situation and realized that overcrowding was a factor in the disturbance. "When you have people cooped up, it's a problem," said press secretary Annette Samuels.
Speaking at a press conference in front of Corrections Department offices at 1923 19th St. NW, Bynum said Barry shares in the blame for the jail's problems and has permitted corrections officials to consistently put off implementing proposals to alleviate the overcrowding, such as opening up more prison facilities and increasing the number of guards.
Instead, Bynum contended, officials gambled that the jail population would drop because of overall declines in the crime rate. The jail was built to house 1,355 inmates, but its total population has hovered around 2,400.
Corrections Director James F. Palmer, who spoke to reporters on the way to a meeting with Barry, said he is confident he will be able to sigificantly reduce overcrowding at the jail. He said he is also hiring additional jail guards in August, which will increase the total allotment of guards there from about 440 to 590.
In addition, Palmer said, he is transfering inmates at the jail to newly converted prison facilities at Lorton Reformatory and is looking for additional space.
Palmer said these and other changes are part of a comprehensive plan he is preparing in response to a ruling issued last month by U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant, who said conditions at the jail had "reached the point of crisis." Bryant has threatened to hold Barry and other officials in contempt of court if they fail to demonstrate that they are taking steps to relieve the overcrowding.
Bynum strongly criticized Bryant for letting the jail's conditions deteriorate in the 12 years he has presided over a suit brought by inmates to improve conditions at the jail. Bryant has repeatedly "issued empty threats of contempt-of-court citations, and then agreed to allow this sorry state of affairs to continue," Bynum said.
"We might have another Attica or New Mexico State," Bynum said, "simply because management refuses to recognize the emergency of the situation." State prisons in Attica, N.Y., and in New Mexico were the sites of major jail uprisings in recent years.
Among the changes the union has long advocated unsuccessfully to improve jail security, Bynum said, is to increase from three to five the number of guards in each of the jail's 18 cellblocks. He said guards have also been unsuccessful in persuading officials to fasten to the floor chairs in jail recreation areas. As a result, Bynum said, inmates were able to use the chairs as weapons in their attacks on guards during Wednesday night's disturbance.
The disturbance, which included a five-hour standoff when about 80 inmates refused to return to their cells, ended peacefully when jail officials agreed to act on inmate demands for more food, more medical attention and relief from the overcrowding.
In an unrelated development, jail officials said yesterday that they are investigating allegations made by an inmate who claims guards beat him on two occasions after he was charged with assaulting a jail guard.
The inmate, Carlos D. Coleman, 19, has told officials that he has lost his eyesight as a result of the alleged beatings. Dr. Francis Smith, the jail's chief medical officer, said preliminary examinations have not yet established whether Coleman has lost his sight and further tests are being conducted.
Keith W. Watters, Coleman's attorney, said that his client would plead not guilty to the assault charge.