Lawyers for prisoners at the D.C. Jail, citing a sharp increase in the jail's population in recent months, yesterday asked a federal judge to force city officials to end overcrowding at the facility.
Jail administrator William Long acknowledged in court testimony that yesterday's head count at the jail stood at 2,332.
The eight-year-old facility was designed to hold 1,378 prisoners.
Steven Ney, an attorney representing convicted inmates held at the jail, said the numbers prove that "the District of Columbia cannot manage its own affairs."
Ney, a lawyer for the National Prison Project, a prison reform organization with ties to the ACLU, asked U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant to order the number of prisoners cut to 1,694 by mid-February, with a further reduction to the jail's intended capacity of 1,378 by next July.
Bryant made no immediate decision on the request, but appeared angered by testimony about conditions at the jail.
"I'm about to do something about it ," Bryant said at one point in the 90-minute proceedings. "This is ridiculous."
Yesterday's hearing was the latest development in a decade-old lawsuit by prisoners confined at the facility.
In July 1983, when the jail population had reached about 2,400, there were two days of disturbances in which mattresses were set afire and a guard station was stormed by prisoners.
Partly as a result of prisoner transfers after those disturbances, which Bryant yesterday called a "riot," the jail population fell to about 1,850 in May.
Since then, the judge noted, the number of prisoners has shot "straight up to well over 2,000.
"I'm afraid we're reaching that point again," Bryant said. "It would be nonsense for me to sit by and let it blow again . . . . I'm supposed to be tolerant and just listen to the kettle boiling?"
Assistant Corporation Counsel Michael E. Zielinski said the magnitude of overcrowding is "a negative development, we all agree on that."
But Zielinski said the city has imposed a number of improvements, including beefing up the number of guards by more than 100, to a total of 570.
"I would hope so," Bryant interrupted. "You probably need 200 to 300 more."
The effect of court action on city efforts to manage the jail was unclear yesterday.
J. Patrick Hickey, a lawyer representing pretrial prisoners held at the jail, said in an interview that many jurisdictions around the country have freed some prisoners in order to meet judicial guidelines on the number of prisoners that can be held in jails.
D.C. Corrections Director James F. Palmer sat through yesterday's hearing, but did not testify.
Palmer said afterward that he is formulating plans to ease the jail overcrowding, but refused to elaborate.
Palmer said he expected to make his plans public in about 30 days.
"We've got some things in the pot, boiling," he added.
One city official, who asked not to be identified, noted that the city plans to open a new prerelease center in January or February at the District's Lorton Reformatory in suburban Fairfax County.
That would open up about 400 beds in Lorton's minimum-security facility, the official said.
Jail administrator Long also testified that corrections officials had considered transfering some prisoners convicted of misdemeanors from D.C. Jail to the Lorton complex.
"I don't believe misdemeanants pose the same threat to the community near Lorton as if felons -- murderers and rapists -- escaped," Long said.
"But some of those misdemeanants aren't really misdemeanants, are they?" Bryant interjected.
"Some . . . are former felons, aren't they?"
Long agreed that some are felons who were rearrested on lesser charges.
District officials have encountered stiff resistance in the past from Virginia officials who oppose any move to expand the Lorton facilities and have urged that the prison complex be dismantled and returned to the District.
Prisoner lawyers Ney and Hickey charged that dozens of prisoners are now housed at D.C. Jail in day rooms intended for recreational use.
Up to 40 sometimes sleep on bedrolls for a single night in a holding cell, referred to as "the cage," which Long testified is about the size of a courtroom jury box.
Others are housed on bunks in a small gymnasium.