The D.C. Prison Study Commission was subjected to a daylong barrage of statistics, impassioned oratory and salesmanship yesterday at a hearing held to gauge public opinion on the divisive question of whether to build a new prison in the city.
City Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) told the 15-member commission that a new prison was "irrational" and should be not built under any circumstances. Her colleague, Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), said she hoped the body moves "expeditiously to find a location for a new jail."
Council Chairman David A. Clarke, meanwhile, commended the commissioners for examining the question "in something other than a political weather vane approach" but did not offer a strong statement pro or con.
The matter of prison construction, which the commission has studied since July, arises in a context of severe overcrowding at the D.C. Jail in the District and in the city's prison complex at Lorton. As arrests and convictions in the city are rising, both facilities are under court orders to limit their populations.
Under pressure from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate District appropriations subcommittee, Mayor Marion Barry reversed his longtime opposition to a new prison in the District earlier this year. The full Appropriations Committee has added $30 million to the city's budget to pay for a new prison, but the measure awaits a vote in the Senate.
The commission, charged with deciding whether to build a prison and where, recommended in August that alternatives to incarceration be employed instead of new construction. The August recommendation was a preliminary one, however, and the panel could alter its findings in a final report due in January.
Most of the witnesses at yesterday's hearing opposed a new prison in the District, offering arguments against the effectiveness of prisons and citing statistics that show high rates of incarceration do not produce low rates of crime. Several testified that if there were to be a new prison they didn't want it in their neighborhood.
Winter, asked by Commissioner Phinis Jones if her support for a new penal facility extended to Ward 6, said her backing was not a "blanket statement."
"Washington, D.C., is more than Ward 6," she said.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner James Bunn forwarded a similar sentiment from Ward 8. Asserting that he is opposed to building a prison, he said that if there is no alternative, "I am for building a prison, but not in Ward 8."
Clarke added a new twist to the prison debate here, asking rhetorically whether federal pressure to build a new prison in the District was aimed at pulling D.C. inmates out of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and returning them to the District system. Currently, the federal system houses about 2,200 inmates convicted under D.C. statutes, according to a bureau spokesman.
In a reference to a continuing dispute between the federal government and the city over a homeless shelter, Clarke asked, "Is the federal effort to build a new prison the twin of its effort to pass off to the city its responsibility for the homeless?"