As the District considers selecting a site to build a new prison, numerous government agencies in the area, invited or otherwise, have voiced an opinion.
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova has long recommended that a new jail be built. Congress agreed to provide money to build it. Virginia politicians have told the city where not to put it. And U.S. Justice Department officials, after concluding that the District was too slow in addressing prison overcrowding, moved to stop housing city prisoners in federal prisons.
Besides the state of Maryland, the only other local governing body that has taken no formal position on the new District jail is the D.C. City Council.
It is Mayor Marion Barry who has promised that the city will begin to design and construct a new prison as soon as a site has been selected. Meanwhile, the 13-member City Council has remained largely aloof from the prison controversy.
Council members have been divided over the prison issue. Some favor alternative sentencing methods and halfway houses. Others say that the city must build a prison to cope with a growing prison population. And a few do not care to make their position public.
Thus far, the council's biggest role in the to-build-or-not-to-build a prison drama has been to appoint members to a 13-member prison study commission assigned to determine whether a prison should be built and where. The commission's final report, reached after six months, was identical to the preliminary conclusion it reached five months earlier: Don't build a prison.
Although the council has taken no action on the commission's report, some members have very strong opinions about how the city government has fared on the issue.
"The council could have set up a commission to report back to us in 60 days," said City Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large). "We really fumbled it. We blew it. The ball was thrown in our court and we dropped it."
Other council members agreed, saying that one of the oldest methods to delay or kill an issue is to appoint a commission to study it.
"I think deep down in their hearts the majority of the council knows we need a prison," said City Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2). "They just don't want it in their wards."
Barry says that the city will select a site from a list of federally owned properties located in the District. Meanwhile, the city is under pressure from Congress, which approved $30 million for construction of the prison to get started, and Virginia officials, who are against any expansion of the Lorton Reformatory facilities in Fairfax County.
While some City Council members acknowledged that they should have anticipated some of that pressure, the council was content to wait for the study commission's report and is not rushing to take a stand now that the commission has completed its work.
City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, contends that Barry "had an ace" in hand but didn't play his cards right. The "ace" was Barry's argument that the attorney general and not the city is responsible for housing city prisoners.
"This is not a humane effort to relieve overcrowding in the District of Columbia or to reduce crime," said Clarke. "The whole effort has been to relieve the federal budget by transferring people from federal prisons to the new District prison. The effort has been bungled so badly that even if the mayor wanted to, he couldn't do anything differently."
Under a recently canceled agreement between the Justice Department and the city, 1,600 newly sentenced city prisoners had been placed in federal prisons instead of the D.C. Jail and Lorton Reformatory since August. DiGenova has insisted that the District cannot continue to lean on the federal government to house its prisoners.
Clarke does not believe that the city has much of a chance of getting out of building a prison and said that the two best prison sites are Theodore Roosevelt Island, in the middle of the Potomac River, and Hains Point.
Meanwhile, at least one council member maintains that the council should not be written off in selecting a prison site.
Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said the moment a site is recommended, the council member representing that area will object and recommend another area, prompting objections from the council representative for that area.
"We're not to the point where you will see the intense involvement of the council," said Jarvis. "It's not over yet."