U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant said yesterday he would consider delaying his order to reduce the number of inmates in D.C. Jail, but only if the city government presents a "step-by-step" timetable of what it will do to reduce overcrowding there.
The order, issued in mid-July, forbids new prisoners being sent to the jail starting Saturday unless the number housed there is cut to 1,693.
Yesterday, D.C. officials said the jail had 2,493 prisoners -- just 82 fewer than when Bryant issued his order.
The officials said the number could be "squeezed" down only to about 2,000 by Saturday.
A letter submitted to Bryant by Acting D.C. Corporation Counsel John H. Suda said the District is "actively exploring" the construction of a prefabricated "modular jail" as an interim facility until a major new prison is built.
Sources said such a jail would be composed of specially constructed trailers set in brick and mortar and might be built near D.C.'s Lorton prison in Fairfax County.
An 80-man unit could be completed in six weeks, one official said.
At his monthly press conference yesterday, Mayor Marion Barry said that his administration was asking the judge for a stay of the order to "give us a chance to work with the federal government to take the sentenced prisoners, and also give us a chance to look at other reforms" to reduce the jail population.
Barry repeated earlier statements that the overcrowding dilemma is "not my problem alone. I am not going to take it alone. It is technically the federal government's problem."
Referring to a provision of the D.C. Code that places District prisoners in the custody of the attorney general, Barry said, "Every sentenced prisoner is the property of Edwin Meese. We are just being nice and generous by taking Edwin Meese's property."
In court yesterday, Bryant reacted sharply when Suda said the District cannot comply with his order by Saturday.
He said the city should have followed some of the suggestions made by attorneys for jail inmates, who have pressed the litigation on prison crowding.
These include releasing more persons awaiting trial, speeding up parole, sending more inmates to halfway houses and sentencing more persons to "community service" rather than prison.
"The fact that no one [of these measures] will be a complete solution is no excuse for not grabbing ahold of some of them," Bryant said.
But then the judge said he would consider the District's request for a 90-day stay if it puts its proposed steps to reduce overcrowding in writing and gains the agreement of the plaintiffs' attorneys.
Suda said he will present the District's proposals to Bryant today.
Suda told Bryant of an agreement by the federal government, announced Tuesday, to put all criminals convicted and sentenced by courts in the District into federal prisons, starting Saturday.
He promised that 293 prisoners would be removed from the jail by midnight Friday, with 75 being sent to Lorton and 218 placed in halfway houses.
He said the U.S. Department of Justice had agreed to remove 190 federal prisoners from the jail, but was uncertain when all of them could be transferred.
In a letter to Barry that Suda submitted to the court, Deputy U.S. Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen said that the federal government will stop using D.C. prison facilities to house even temporarily prisoners sentenced in U.S. District Court.
As a temporary measure, he said, all pretrial detainees in U.S. District Court also will be housed in federal facilities.
However, Jensen stressed that the commitment to put persons convicted in D.C. Superior Court in federal prisons "can only be for a short time" because the federal prison system itself is operating at 39 percent above capacity. He said the commitment would continue "until modular cell construction or other alternatives can be completed" by the District.
About 1,500 D.C. prisoners are already in federal prisons. Each week, about 60 persons are sent to prison by D.C. Superior Court judges.
Barry claimed credit yesterday for getting the federal prison system to accept some D.C. prisoners.
"[When] I threatened not to take any more prisoners, which I will do, and threatened to take those prisoners over to the Justice Department and leave them right there for the attorney general to have . . . , now they are coming to the table," Barry said at his press conference.
The cap Bryant established for the D.C. Jail, which is located near Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, is 25 percent above its rated capacity.
The jail was opened in 1976 to house inmates awaiting trial or sentenced for misdemeanors. However, more than 40 percent of its current inmates are serving time for felonies.
Many of these men were sent to the jail because of court-imposed limits at four of the District's other prison facilities at Lorton.
The District has moved to consolidate all five cases involving limits on its prison population before a single judge. It has also asked that the limit set for its medium-security prison at Lorton be raised by 117.
However, plaintiffs' attorneys have opposed both moves. They have not yet been acted on by the three judges involved.