A federal judge yesterday cleared the way for the D.C. Corrections Department to resume its transfer of about 900 prisoners between the overcrowded D.C. Jail and the city's Lorton prison complex in suburban Fairfax County.
U.S. District Judge June L. Green sided with the District and against a group of 269 misdemeanor offenders at Lorton who tried to block city officials' plans to move them to D.C. Jail as part of a reshuffling of the crowded jail population.
"I am confident that you will be in a less attractive facility at D.C. Jail ," Green told two prisoners representing the group in court yesterday. But, she said, "I don't believe we are in a position to substitute our judgment for that of those running the jail."
The transfer began on Tuesday, but was stopped abruptly after a Lorton prisoner called Judge Green's chambers to complain. Corrections officials and lawyers for the District had indicated earlier that any move would be postponed until after Green had held a hearing on the prisoners' request for a temporary restraining order.
A District official said yesterday the confusion resulted from "a failure of communication internally" in the Department of Corrections.
District officials have said they intend to move 514 inmates -- mostly convicted felons -- from the jail to an underused section of the Lorton complex called Occoquan II. In turn, the misdemeanor population at Lorton, 388 prisoners, would be bused to D.C. Jail.
The exchange would net the District an extra 126 beds at the jail, which is the subject of numerous pending lawsuits attacking overcrowding at the facility.
Corrections Director James F. Palmer testified that yesterday's head count at the jail was 2,384 prisoners. That number is 1,006 more than the jail's designed capacity.
Palmer also testified that he had met last week with Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert to inform him of the city's prisoner transfer plans. John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax board of supervisors, said Lambert briefed board members on Monday during an executive session.
Lorton is a sensitive political issue in the sprawling, affluent county. County officials have said that they favor scaling down the prison and, in the long run, seeking its relocation back to the District.
Both Herrity and Lambert said yesterday that the county is powerless to stop the transfers unless the prison population exceeds a court-imposed ceiling.
"If they exceed the cap," Herrity said, "we'll be all over them like a wet blanket."
"I think it's incredible to have all these judges involved in this thing," added Herrity. "Judges have enough trouble running a courtroom, let alone a prison."
In their complaint filed Nov. 9, the Lorton misdemeanor inmates alleged that a transfer to D.C. Jail would subject them to "cruel and unusual punishment" because of overcrowding.
They also said they feared the move would interfere with educational and training programs.
Because misdemeanor offenders serve sentences of one year or less -- and some as little as three months -- the prisoners said they were concerned that some might be freed from prison without completing their studies if the transfer causes delays.
Corrections Director Palmer testified that educational programs will continue at D.C. Jail without interruption.
Assistant Corrections Director Marion D. Strickland testified the misdemeanor inmates will be housed in two cell blocks, Southwest 2 and 3, two prisoners per cell.
Six classrooms will be established, he said, that will "easily accommodate" 300 prisoners and could handle up to 700 for courses.