Crowding at the D.C. Jail has reached record proportions -- with the inmate population reaching nearly 1,200 above capacity -- creating a "state of emergency" that the city government has not properly addressed, the prison employes union said yesterday.
"Every day, inmates are assaulting inmates. Every day, inmates are assaulting officers. How long will we continue under these intolerable conditions? How long do we wait until catastrophe strikes?" said Bernard Demczuk, political director of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1550.
"Our city has not seen the likes of Attica or New Mexico, but AFGE is here to say there is no guarantee what tomorrow will hold," Demczuk said at a news conference, referring to two of the nation's bloodiest prison riots.
AFGE, which has represented District prison employes for 30 years but faces a stiff challenge from two other unions in an election Tuesday, said yesterday it plans a lawsuit and lobbying campaign to remedy the problems.
The D.C. City Council's Judiciary Committee has agreed to hold oversight hearings next month on prison conditions, and the union said it intends to mobilize community participation, including inmate families, to pressure the council for increased spending and various safety improvements at both the Southeast jail and the city's Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County.
Corrections Department spokesman Leroy Anderson confirmed yesterday that the jail population -- which consists mostly of prisoners awaiting trial -- reached a record high of 2,544 last week, compared to its official capacity of 1,378.
A partial remedy will be available as early as next month, Anderson said, when a new minimum-security facility housing up to 400 inmates opens at Lorton.
AFGE said it supports "diversionary programs that would place nonviolent offenders into halfway houses, community service programs and victim restitution programs. But the safety in the community must be the number one priority in screening these offenders for participation." The union sidestepped taking a position on a controversial city report suggesting that burglers and weapons offenders be given penalties other than prison terms.
Mayor Marion Barry visited the jail last month and told officers he would pursue improvements. AFGE has complained of faulty radios, poor training, potentially dangerous failings in security systems, weapons in poor condition, inadequate toilet facilities and other problems.
"I am frightened because the facilities are so grossly overcrowded that people I work with may be injured or even killed," said Officer J.W. Lee. "I have seen officers start off on the job happy, proud and satisfied, and after a while, they are so frustrated they start having problems with their wives, their children . . . and they can no longer relate to society."