Standing in the windows of two separate cell blocks inside the D.C. Jail, two inmates held a conversation that echoed into the neighborhood.
"You got some Salvo?" one of them yelled.
"All I got is a pack of cigarettes and a package of cookies," the other inmate replied. "I'm giving you all of it because these niggers over here are taking care of me."
This kind of happy talk and worst kinds of catcalls and coded messages emanate from the jail 24 hours a day, creating an environment of threats and obscenities in the surrounding once tranquil Potomac Avenue SE neighborhood.
Instead of inmate cells facing the Anacostia River on the opposite side of the jail, the building, constructed in 1976, was built so that inmates faced the largely middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes, with modern walls projecting inmate voices like a megaphone.
"We can't even enjoy the average pleasures of life," complained William McFarland, chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Potomac Avenue East. "A grandmother and child will walk past and get harassed like you couldn't imagine. I was in the Navy, and I've never heard language like that."
A decision on Monday by U.S. District Court Judge William Bryant ordering the city government to send no new prisoners to the city jail unless the number of inmates is reduced by 900 to relieve overcrowding, brought some hope to Potomac Avenue residents that relief was at hand.
But the judge's decision raises questions about where new prisoners will go -- and a commission to select a new jail site was named this week to make that determination.
Listening to residents who live in the shadow of the city's only jail justifies fears of many other residents who have protested about prison construction in their neighborhoods.
"When you hear the helicopters you know something has happened," said Mary Dyer, who has lived in the 1800 block of Potomac Avenue for 10 years. "They fly right down the street shining spotlights on everybody. Then you hear on the radio that such and such is out."
When four inmates escaped from the jail last July, Dyer was sitting on her front porch when three of them came running down the street followed by armed guards who were shooting at them.
"I ran into my house and locked the doors and windows," Dyer recalled. They arrested them about three blocks up at a telephone booth. I know they're trying to get out of the neighborhood but you figure they will be looking for a place to hide until they do." During that jailbreak, as with the mattress fire riots that occurred the year before, the neighborhood was cordoned off and no one was allowed to enter or leave.
"You get penned in with them," Dyer said. "It makes me feel like I'm in prison too."
"We used to get a nice breeze and have a nice view of the hills on the other side of the river," said McFarland, whose parents bought the house he lives in in 1927. "Now it's hot and stuffy and we have to put up with no view and a lot of noise."
Until two years ago, inmates had a clear view into the neighborhood from the end windows of the cell blocks. Not only did they yell out at residents passing by but people would come and congregate on what neighbors call "The Stampede Grounds," a vacant patch of land near the windows and engage inmates in obscenities, inciting them with provocative gestures.
"Girls would go over and start teasing them, taking off their clothes and making the inmates scream and beg," recalled Dyer. "It was disgusting, and it only made the inmates act wilder."
Although metal girders were placed over the windows, inmates devised a system of voice identification and make arrangements to converse not only with each other but with friends on the streets.
From her porch seat Mary Dyer shakes her head at the inmate's talk.
"The best place for a jail would be on a rock in the Potomac River," she said. "Nobody ever got out of Alcatraz."