A telephone call from a Lorton reformatory inmate to a federal judge halted the shuffling of more than 900 prisoners between the facility and the overcrowded D.C. Jail.
The call to U.S. District Court Judge June Green Tuesday was made as buses were preparing to load misdemeanor offenders at Lorton's Occoquan II facility for the trip to the city, and prompted an official in the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office to call off the transfers abruptly, officials said.
Judge Green said she had reached an agreement last week with Michael E. Zielinski of the Corporation Counsel's Office that no inmate transfers would take place pending resolution of a complaint filed by Occoquan II residents, who said they would lose their opportunity to obtain high school equivalency diplomas if transferred to the D.C. Jail.
Green said she had not yet arrived in her chambers early Tuesday morning when the call from a spokesman for the inmate group came in, but that he was told to call Zielinski, who ordered an immediate halt to the transfers already in progress.
"Mr. Zielinski's word is his bond," Green said.
Zielinski could not be reached for comment yesterday.
A corrections department spokesman said he did not know why the transfers were begun despite the agreement Judge Green said she had with Zielinski. The city yesterday was trying to resolve out of court the dispute over the transfers, the spokesman said, adding that a Corporation Counsel attorney responsible for corrections matters refused to talk to him about it.
Corrections officials had planned to transfer 514 prisoners this week -- most of them sentenced felons -- from D.C. Jail to Lorton and bus 388 sentenced misdemeanor offenders from Occoquan II to the jail, resulting in a net reduction of 126 jail inmates.
About 90 D.C. Jail inmates were transferred to Lorton Tuesday.
Green said the city will have until next week to respond to the complaint from Occoquan inmates, and that a hearing on their request for a court injunction against the transfers will be scheduled at that time.
The complaint by Occoquan residents brings to five the number of lawsuits against the city's embattled corrections department now pending before federal judges. Four suits, all filed on behalf of inmates in different Lorton facilities, are before Judge Green. Another suit, brought by inmates at the D.C. Jail, is before U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant.
The two judges have ordered various restrictions and guidelines on the manner in which jail and prison inmates are housed. Attempting to live up to the court decrees has given city officials years' worth of headaches.
In September 1983, for instance, Judge Bryant held Mayor Marion Barry and other officials in contempt for failing to obey his orders for reducing overcrowding at the jail.
Despite transferring more than 450 prisoners out of the jail in July 1983, the jail population has risen to nearly double the capacity, and earlier this month the inmates asked Bryant to hold the mayor in contempt again. Bryant has yet to rule.
Last March, city officials entered a consent decree to improve conditions at Lorton's maximum-security unit. Attorneys for the inmates there recently told Judge Green that they may ask to dissolve their settlement with the city because some improvements still have not been made.
There has been a "drastic and serious increase" of assaults on inmates in recent months along with "continued malfunctioning" of security equipment and not enough guards on duty, according to the attorneys.
In August 1983, the city agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by inmates at Lorton's medium-security unit by making numerous improvements there.
Attorneys for the inmates recently asked Green to hold the city in contempt, saying corrections officials have not lived up to their end of the bargain.
Construction of new cells has been continually delayed, the city has failed to hire enough guards and has not provided a testing center to diagnose prisoner needs as promised in the settlement, the attorneys contend.
Inmates at Occoquan filed a petition with the court Nov. 9 signed by 269 residents, saying their pending transfer to D.C. Jail would constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" because of overcrowded conditions there.
Educational and other rehabilitative programs would be less available to them at the D.C. Jail, they contended, and thus they would have fewer opportunities to earn time off their sentences for good behavior.
Under the city's plan, the approximately 400 misdemeanor offenders in Occoquan II would be transferred to make room for minimum-security inmates involved in work-release programs, said corrections spokesman Leroy Anderson.
The city hopes to open an additional minimum-security facility for 300 sentenced felons late next month or early next year, Anderson said.