The director of the D.C. Department of Corrections yesterday labeled as "sensational" and "speculation" recent findings that the Lorton prison complex in Fairfax County is "vulnerable to attack and takeover" by inmates who often appear to be "running the place."
Responding publicly for the first time to a report released two weeks ago by Fairfax County, James F. Palmer, head of the department, said the study "highlighted" the negative characteristics of the prison and gave short shrift to the positive ones.
And, he said, the study offered no information about other institutions, making it impossible to evaluate Lorton's operation relative to other prisons.
"We are making a sincere effort to run a safe and secure facility," Palmer said during a 90-minute, sparsely attended news conference. "We are not ashamed of our institutions."
Palmer directed his remarks almost exclusively to the five-volume, 1,200-page report, which cited hundreds of incidents in which weapons, drugs and alcohol were discovered inside the prison.
The study, which covered the period from March 1983 to April 1984, also criticized what it said was low morale among guards, a high level of idleness among inmates and poor sanitary conditions. "I simply feel that a number of things were passed over," Palmer said. For instance, he said, "We have the best perimeter security that exists . . . . There were only two escapes" during the period covered by the report, "but that wasn't highlighted," he said.
"Stack us up with the Commonwealth of Virginia. Put our escape record against theirs," Palmer said. "We have all those institutions and only two escapes from the perimeter."
Recent Virginia prison escapes have become a controversial political issue for Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb.
Palmer played down what the report said were 450 incidents in which weapons were found inside the institution, saying many were made from such items as chair legs and pieces of pipe. "The more important thing is that we discovered the weapons," he said.
He conceded that drug use by inmates at Lorton continues to be a problem, and, as with the weapons, he suggested that he was fighting an uphill battle.
Palmer also took issue with what the report said was extremely low morale among Lorton guards. "Their morale is far better than what a few people report," he said. The high turnover rate -- which the report said was 39 percent in the maximum-security section -- is based not on low morale but on "the very low rate of pay," he said.
"Our corrections officers have to have more experience and higher qualifications than the metropolitan police or fire, but they're paid less," he said.
"There's a $4,000 difference in pay, so they go to work for the police or fire departments."
Despite the critical report, Palmer tried to minimize conflicts between his department and Northern Virginia politicians, many of whom have argued that the prison should be moved from Fairfax County.
"We will certainly listen to their views and take full advantage of their advice," he said. "If we are lax in something that they want improvement in, we'll improve it."