An attorney for inmates at Lorton Reformatory's Central Facility said in federal court yesterday that he will ask Judge June L. Green to appoint a "special master" to run the prison because of the District of Columbia's "continuing pattern of obstructionism and violating court-mandated decrees."
Lawyer Peter J. Nickles told Green that "we are both growing old with this case" while for five years the District has shown an "inability, unwillingness, or the lack of capacity or lack of training" necessary to improve inmate living conditions at Lorton.
Nickles said in an interview after the hearing that he will also ask that Mayor Marion Barry and Corrections Director James Palmer be held in contempt of court for the alleged violations and that fines be imposed on the city.
Meanwhile, at a D.C. City Council budget hearing later in the day, Palmer and council Chairman David A. Clarke squared off over building a new prison in the District in an exchange that left them both visibly enraged.
Clarke hurled a series of rapid-fire questions at Palmer about the type of facility that would be built, where it would be constructed and the number and type of inmates who would be housed there.
Palmer failed to provide specific answers to the questions, prompting Clarke to charge that the city has abdicated any authority over the issue to the federal government, which until recently has been in intense negotiations with the District in an attempt to choose a new site for a prison in the city.
"I am very concerned that we have given up. We're not even in charge," Clarke said, adding that he was worried that any new prison will be used to house D.C. inmates now in federal institutions instead of alleviating overcrowding at Lorton and the D.C. Jail.
"I get the impression our Department of Corrections is totally out of this issue," Clarke concluded.
"You can rest assured that I am not muzzled," Palmer shot back, his voice rising. "I am accountable to the City Council, the city administrator and the mayor, and God Almighty knows that's who I take my orders from!"
Yesterday's developments came four weeks after attorneys for inmates at the D.C. Jail asked U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant to find Barry in civil contempt and fine him $50,000 for violating the court-ordered population ceiling at the D.C. Jail and subsequent attempts to cover it up.
The current crowding crisis stems from that population limit, which was imposed Aug 22. At that time, in an effort to help the city abide by the limit, the U.S. Justice Department agreed to house all newly sentenced city prisoners in federal institutions. Justice Department officials ended the agreement Jan. 15, citing the city's lack of progress in selecting a site for and beginning construction of a new prison in the District.
Last week, city officials asked Bryant to order the federal government to house the city's newly sentenced prisoners and to make the federal government a codefendant in the jail suit.
Bryant has not ruled on the city's request or the motion that Barry be held in contempt and fined.
Meanwhile, Assistant Corporation Counsel Metcalfe King told Green yesterday that he was not prepared to address the issue of a special master who would have authority that would effectively remove the Lorton prison from city control. King said "the state of compliance with the Central Facility has never been better."
Nickles countered that "the fact of the matter is the District is not, has not been, will not be in significant compliance" with court-ordered staffing levels in the Central Facility infirmary, quarterly inspections to ensure compliance with food, plumbing, heating, electrical and other environmental standards set by the court, and scheduled renovations to inmate dormitories.
He added that the corrections department has no policy for dealing with inmates suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS Related Complex, and that about 25 inmates with AIDS Related Complex are being housed in Central's infirmary, esentially forcing inmates with other illnesses to be housed in the general population.
King, who ackowledged that there had been "problems" with the city's compliance in the past, nonetheless defended the District's record under tough questioning by Green.
He disputed Nickles' contention that for years nothing was accomplished under the court orders, saying that progress has been made, but that it was "just slow" in coming about.
"Nothing has been done in all these years," Green fired back from the bench.
King acknowledged that the city was a month late in finishing renovations of an inmate dormitory but said the delay was prompted by a contractor's inability to secure materials. He said that "no one has been denied medical treatment" because of ARC victims housed in Central's infirmary and that the city hoped to bring the medical staffing up to the court-ordered level, "but it takes time."
Green scheduled a hearing on Nickles' motion for March 19.