The D.C. prison study commission's decision yesterday to oppose building a new prison in the District and instead recommend expansion of community-based programs and other alternatives to incarceration came as no surprise. Its preliminary vote five months ago made clear its opposition to the view of federal officials and Mayor Marion Barry that the city needs a new prison to handle severe overcrowding. "I am not concerned with what is politically viable," commission member Cedric Hendricks said at the time. "I am concerned with the proper solution."
Severe overcrowding in the District's prisons is certainly not new. In 1972, Congress ordered the District to act on the problem. The city wanted to build a 1,500-inmate prison, but Sen. Birch Bayh, then head of the Senate District Appropriations subcommittee, asked the city to reduce the size by one-third because statistics "indicate that both the crime rate and the population . . . have stabilized." By the time the jail was built -- the first to be constructed in the city in five decades -- it was overcrowded.
Even at that time, officials such as former corrections chief Kenneth Hardy considered themselves champions of alternatives to incarceration, but had to face the reality that institutions were needed as well.
Just last summer, U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant ordered the city to reduce overcrowding. The problem is growing because the number of convicted criminals is skyrocketing, prisoners are crowding into the system faster than they are leaving it and there has been an explosion of drug use and trafficking.
In an attempt to minimize political problems, the mayor and the City Council named a prison study commission on July 16. But this strategy backfired when the panel not only failed to recommend a site for a prison, which the Congress, the mayor and some council members wanted, but even rejected a resolution to build a prison at all.
"I was hoping the commission would tell us exactly where to place the prison," City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) said. "I don't believe we have an alternative to building a prison and I don't want Congress deciding where to put it."
So the political hot potato of picking a site has been dumped into the mayor's lap after all.
Meanwhile, many officials pay lip service to the notion that alternatives are a pressing need, but so far the programs either don't exist or fail to satisfy community concerns for public safety.
So ultimately nothing has worked. And what is clear in all these efforts and maneuverings is that they have only applied a Band-Aid to the wound without treating it.
If the city is really ever going to solve this problem of building more jails, it needs to find a balance between the two hard lines of "Build a prison, lock 'em up and throw away the key" and the "Just provide alternatives to incarceration." While it is clear that lack of education, unemployment and other problems of the alienated underclass contribute to the growing numbers of mostly black and brown men behind prison walls, it is equally clear that we must make use of a two-pronged approach if we're ever going to solve the problem.
Because the problem of overcrowding has been allowed to grow so severe and the problem is at our doorstep, a new prison must be built as soon as possible. We are obligated to provide humane treatment for prisoners.
But at the same time, we need to stop simply paying lip service to alternative programs and move forthrightly with broader alternatives to imprisonment. This will require community education and participation. Among other things, we must begin to deal rationally with many residents' understandable fear of prisons and even such alternatives as halfway houses in their neighborhood. With education, some of the community hysteria can be defused.
But the people need rational leadership, political courage and a willingness to compromise on the part of our Congress, neighboring jurisdictions, the council and the mayor.
While overcrowding and its consequences is not new, what is new is that the problem has expanded to the point where time is running out and its potential for explosion grows greater every day.