The Justice Department notified District government officials yesterday that federal prisons will accept no city prisoners after today, a move that is expected to create crowding at the D.C. Jail and Lorton Reformatory, which have court-ordered population limits.
In a letter to Mayor Marion Barry announcing the federal government's decision to end the 4 1/2-month-old agreement to take newly sentenced prisoners, Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen said that despite his department's efforts to ease the city's prison crowding crisis, "We have not seen a parallel effort by the District to deal with this situation."
Jensen also criticized City Administrator Thomas Downs for saying at a Friday news conference that the Justice Department has pressured the city to place modular housing for an additional 400 inmates at Lorton's Central facility.
"The federal government had nothing to do with this agreement," Jensen said, adding that federal officials have maintained since August that the construction of an additional prison in the District is the "only feasible solution to this problem."
In addition, Jensen's letter indicated that Attorney General Edwin Meese III does not intend to meet with Barry about the prison issue, although Jensen said he would be "happy to conduct further discussions" on the matter.
Barry, who had sought a meeting with Meese to try to delay the government's cutoff of prisoner transfers, did not comment personally on the letter, and Downs could not be reached for comment. Said Annette Samuels, Barry's press secretary, "The bottom line is that the attorney general is responsible for those D.C. prisoners sentenced . . . . I am certain that the mayor is going to work with the Justice Department to work out an amicable agreement."
Congress has appropriated $30 million for construction of a new prison in the city, but a special prison commission appointed by Barry and the D.C. City Council that was originally expected to recommend a site for a new prison is now expected to recommend that a prison not be built and that other methods, such as early release and use of halfway houses, be employed to reduce the number of persons held in the city's corrections facilities.
A Justice Department source said that the inmate transfer cutoff was aimed at forcing the District government to act on the politically sensitive prison issue.
Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) said yesterday, "The feds are saying, 'Either make up your mind [on where to build a prison] or we'll do it for you . . . . ' If that occurs, we only have ourselves to blame."
It is unclear when the District, which in recent months has received about 100 newly sentenced prisoners a week, might go over the court-ordered population ceilings at the D.C. Jail and Lorton's Maximum, Central and Youth Center I facilities.
Several other facilities at the Lorton Reformatory, in Fairfax County, do not have court-ordered limits on inmate population.
Officials said that as of the 4 a.m. count yesterday, the D.C. Jail's population was 1,555, compared with the cap of 1,694; Lorton's Maximum facility held 442 prisoners, compared with the ceiling of 536; Central had 1,225, under its cap of 1,229, and Youth Center I had 400 inmates, compared with a cap of 406. Yesterday's Central count includes some inmates who are not included under the cap. One cell block at Maximum is under renovation and is not being used to house inmates.
Court papers unsealed last week revealed that the city plans to place four modular buildings, each with a capacity of 100 inmates, at Lorton's Central facility, a decision that has been criticized by John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and by Virginia's two U.S. senators.