The District government, rushing to comply with a 90-day deadline, began moving inmates out of the overcrowded D.C. Jail yesterday and transferring them to federal prisons, city halfway houses and D.C. corrections facilities at Lorton in Fairfax County.
Operating under a timetable approved Thursday by U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant, city corrections officials said 259 of the jail's 2,356 inmates were transferred during the day. This left the jail population at 2,097, well below the 2,200 ceiling the city promised to meet yesterday as part of a plan to reduce the number of inmates by nearly 800 before Nov. 22.
James F. Palmer, director of the city's Department of Corrections, said officials deliberately transferred enough inmates out of the jail so that newly arriving inmates could be housed without jeopardizing the reduction schedule.
"We have to play it by the numbers . . . . We will keep our word," said Palmer, who met with reporters outside the jail yesterday as busloads of inmates left the facility in Southeast near Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
Of those transferred, 105 inmates were sent to the city's seven halfway houses; 78 were transported to facilities at Lorton, and 76 were placed in the custody of federal marshals for transfer to federal prisons in Petersburg, Va., and elsewhere.
District officials have promised to reduce the jail population to 1,694 during the next 90 days in exchange for Judge Bryant's reprieve of a court order that would have prohibited sending any new inmates to the jail. They said the reduction could be carried out by speeding up paroles, sending more prisoners to halfway houses, releasing more people awaiting trial and urging judges to reduce prison sentences.
In addition, as a temporary measure, the federal government has agreed to place all criminals newly sentenced by courts in the District into federal prisons.
Palmer and other District officials said the transfers and other measures they are taking to reduce the jail's population will not endanger the public's safety by prematurely releasing dangerous or violent criminals.
They acknowledged that inmates at Lorton and halfway houses had been released, freeing up space for the jail transfers, but said the prisoners had been scheduled for release anyway.
"People walk out of halfway houses every day," said Metcalfe C. King, assistant corporation counsel in charge of correctional litigation for the city. "We have moved a bunch of people out today who had reached the expiration of their sentences."
Palmer said corrections officials went through the list of D.C. Jail inmates and took persons "who were nearest their release date and put them in halfway houses."
In addition to raising concerns about public safety, the inmate-reduction plan also will have an impact on federal prisons, which have their own problems with overcrowding. And yesterday, defense lawyers and the U.S. Marshals Service said the expanded use of federal prisons would work a hardship on them since the nearest federal prisons are 130 miles or more from the District.
"We'll have people up and doing some very long hours," said Herbert M. Rutherford, who heads the marshal service for the District of Columbia.
Transporting prisoners between the District and Petersburg, for example, takes two hours or longer, and Rutherford said marshals will have to get an early start to get inmates to their morning court dates. He said he hoped judges will begin scheduling court appearances for later in the day.