U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant told D.C. officials yesterday that the city, and not the federal government, is responsible for providing prison space for city inmates, and that the city should be making a "reasonable effort" to add that space.
"You haven't done much about it, have you?" the judge asked the city's top lawyer, inquiring about new inmate beds added since Bryant's Aug. 22 order limiting the number of inmates at the D.C. Jail.
"There's been a great deal of rhetoric," Bryant said, "and I would need a Geiger counter to find the action that you have taken."
Bryant's comments came during an hourlong hearing on a suit filed Thursday by the city seeking to force the federal government to house newly sentenced city inmates at federal prisons as a way to ensure that the city would not violate the population ceiling at the jail.
The city also has asked that the federal government be made a defendant, along with the city, in the inmates' 15-year-old suit that resulted in the imposition of the population ceiling at the jail. Bryant did not rule on either request.
Bryant at times seemed exasperated that the city was blaming the federal government for the District's longstanding prison overcrowding problems.
"I think I've had about as much patience as anyone could have had letting you people do what you are supposed to do," Bryant said to Acting Corporation Counsel John Suda. Bryant said he would issue an order, but did not set a time.
Suda had argued that it was appropriate to involve the federal government in the long suit because of the Jan. 13 decision by Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen that newly sentenced city prisoners no longer would be sent to federal prisons.
Bryant told Suda that the arrangement under which the federal government was accepting city inmates was a temporary measure, "to get you off the griddle for a brief period."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Royce C. Lamberth told Bryant that during the 4 1/2 months the government accepted city prisoners, nearly 1,700 were transferred to federal facilities but that the District itself added "fewer than 100 beds."
Lamberth said that the federal government expected a "parallel" effort on the part of the city in providing new prison space, especially temporary space for inmates, but that it had been the "practice and pattern" of the D.C. government to do nothing.
Describing the federal government's efforts to negotiate with the city over additional prison space, Lamberth said that first the city said it didn't have the money to build a new prison and that when the federal government got Congress to approve the money, the city said it didn't have a site.
When the federal government came up with its list of three sites for a prison, including one that the city had asked for, Lamberth said, "they said they didn't like the sites."
"It's time they city officials faced up to their obligations instead of trying to evade their responsibility and shift that responsibility to the federal government," said Lamberth.
Suda told Bryant that the city is "on line" toward the construction of a 400-bed modular facility at Lorton's Central facility and "on line" toward building a 1,000-bed prison in the District. He argued that there was no "constitutionally suitable" space for temporary inmate housing, but Bryant replied that he had seen many buildings in the city that he believed could be used as temporary facilities.
Asked after the hearing about the status of the city's plan to build a permanent facility in light of Mayor Marion Barry's letter to Jensen on Thursday saying that the sites listed by the federal government had been "no help at all" to the city, Suda referred questions to City Administrator Thomas Downs.
Downs said that the District was "not rejecting as totally ridiculous" the three sites listed by the federal government, which he said were on a list of 20 possible sites the city had asked the Justice Department to consider, but that the city has reservations about each of the three.
He said city officials would consult the Army Corps of Engineers early next week about the availability of a tract of land in Northwest near the McMillan Reservoir. Downs said, however, that the city was concerned about possible restrictions that might be placed on the land's use because of its proximity to a water filtration facility owned and operated by the engineers.
Downs acknowledged that the federal government had title to the land on which the old D.C. Jail was situated, but he said there were "legal precedents" that gave control of the land to the city, which intends to build a new wing for D.C. General Hospital there. He said Justice's suggestion that the city place trailers for temporary housing of inmates on the site was "unacceptable." Downs added that the federal government's inclusion of the St. Elizabeths Hospital grounds as a possible prison site was "not a meaningful alternative" because of congressional limitations on how the land is to be used.
Attorneys for inmates involved in the original suit over the D.C. Jail told Bryant in the court hearing that they opposed the city's requests, and argued that the city had the authority to comply with the judge's order.
Describing the city's requests as part of a series of "political cat and mouse games," the inmates' attorney, J. Patrick Hickey, told Bryant that if the city "succeeds in getting the court into refereeing political squabbles between the attorney general and the mayor of the District of Columbia, we will never get anything done."