District of Columbia officials yesterday strongly suggested that they would be unable to comply with a federal judge's order for reducing the number of inmates at the city's jail and asked the judge to either rescind the order or delay its implementation six months.
Saying the city has already taken "extraordinary measures" to relieve overcrowding, D.C. officials also asked Judge William B. Bryant to cut back sharply on his restrictions on the number of inmates that can be housed at the facility.
Attorneys for the city said a delay is necessary "to allow the development and implementation of a comprehensive plan" to address prison overcrowding. Bryant's order -- scheduled to take effect Aug. 22 -- would force the city to reduce the jail population by about 36 percent.
Bryant, citing "massive overcrowding" at the jail, earlier this month ordered the city government to send no new prisoners there after Aug. 22 unless the number of inmates is cut to 1,693 -- almost 900 fewer than are currently being held there.
Bryant said the cap, which would allow a prisoner population 25 percent above the jail's designed capacity, is necessary to remedy conditions of violence and filth that have "steadily worsened" despite repeated court orders -- without a prisoner limit -- during the past decade.
The judge's order shocked and alarmed Mayor Marion Barry, who called it "unreasonable." Barry yesterday issued a statement saying that the city "has taken extraordinary measures to keep pace" with the city's prison population "often at the expense of other important programs and services."
Barry said the city is trying to work out a solution with federal officials.
Hallem Williams, a top aide to City Administrator Thomas Downs, said yesterday that conditions at the jail have remained virtually unchanged since Bryant issued his order July 15, but said the city is looking at a few unnamed alternate sites to house some of the prisoners.
Williams said the city also is trying to make arrangements with the Justice Department to transfer some of the inmates to federal facilities, although federal officials also are grappling with an overcrowding problem.
"There are not a whole lot of options we have with the people we have in there," Williams said. "We are going to continue to have people arrested. The courts are going to continue to want to hold people before trial."
Williams said a delay in implementing Bryant's order "buys time for a more orderly decision-making process."
Barry has established a special commission to study the city's corrections problems. The city, in its court papers yesterday, also noted that a Senate subcommittee recently approved appropriations of $30 million for the next two fiscal years to build a new prison.
Attorneys for the city yesterday told Bryant that if a cap is enforced, it should be revised to allow at least 2,000 inmates at the jail. But they claimed that no cap is necessary. Reports of poor conditions at the jail have been exaggerated or unsubstantiated, they told Bryant, adding that the city was never allowed to respond to some allegations before Bryant issued his order.
Inmates, in their suit to reduce the jail population, claimed that conditions at the jail were growing steadily worse and that they were being subjected to increasing amounts of violence, mounting filth and declining medical services.
In issuing his order, Bryant found that conditions at the jail amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment." The judge said he had personally toured the facility in June and found inmates sleeping in halls, day rooms and gymnasiums.
Many prisoners were "forced to eat their meals standing up," Bryant said. Many showers, sinks and toilets were "overused, poorly maintained, filthy and unsanitary." Some bedding was "fouled with urine, fecal material, food and vomit." Violence, he said, had become "a daily habit" in many areas.