D.C. Corrections chief James Palmer faced a storm of angry questions and an occasional chorus of hisses and groans yesterday when he traveled to Fairfax County to meet with a group of citizens who live near Lorton Reformatory and are bitterly upset with the District's plan to expand the controversial prison complex.
Many of the residents, who sometimes engaged in shouting matches for a chance to confront Palmer, said they won't be satisfied until the District closes Lorton entirely. But the issue that sparked the rawest emotions was the city's proposal to send 400 more inmates to the facility, plans that the District had kept secret until last week.
"You're trying to fool us now, and we're not going to take it," Robert McClafferty, who lives near the prison, told Palmer.
Palmer, who retained his characteristic calm and polished manner during the attacks, told the audience that the decision to expand "has not yet been finalized."
Pressed by one resident, Mitchell Wall, for his position on the expansion, Palmer said, "I have no position at this time." That response prompted a volley of groans from the crowd.
Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity, a longstanding Lorton critic, extended Palmer a backhanded defense, saying that the person that citizens should be confronting about Lorton is D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.
"Mr. Palmer is merely the messenger," Herrity said. "You can kill the messenger and the message . . . but Mr. Palmer is not a policy maker."
Herrity said he will request a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III to argue against the expansion.
Herrity also said that in his conversation yesterday with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) -- who sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the District -- Wolf accused the Barry administration of misleading the subcommittee about its intention to expand at Lorton.
Wolf could not be reached for comment yesterday. Palmer declined to comment on the charge.
Yesterday's meeting had been scheduled before the Lorton expansion plans were disclosed and was initiated by Fairfax Supervisor T. Farrell Egge in response to a recent melee at Lorton's Youth Center 2, as well as other incidents.
Herrity was unimpressed with the results. "This meeting was a waste of time," he said. "If our citizens got some information out of it, okay. But on a scale of one to 10, this was maybe a one."
Egge, slightly more upbeat, noted that a community task force is being formed to give the citizens more leverage in relations with the District. Also, Palmer endorsed the idea of a community hot line that residents could call for information about incidents at Lorton.
Palmer said he deserves credit just for facing the crowd. "I was here, you have to say that," he said. "These people want us out, and you can't win in that situation, no matter how good a job you do . . . . It's hell coming out here."